Curtis Armstrong: Actor, Harry Nilsson Expert

CURTIS ARMSTRONG is known for his many roles in motion pictures.  In additon to being an actor, Armstrong has a strong affinity for the musical stylings of the late great Harry Nilsson.  In this interview, Curtis Armstrong talks in great detail about why he likes Harry Nilsson’s music so much as well as his fondness for books.  The listener will gain a great appreciation for Armstrong’s candor and passion.

It’s our great pleasure to welcome our special guest. His name is Curtis Armstrong and he’s an actor who has appeared in many movies. He’s also the foremost expert on the late, great Harry Nilsson. It’s with great pleasure that we introduce Curtis Armstrong. Thanks so much for joining us.
Oh, well thank you. My pleasure.

My first question. Who is Curtis Armstrong?

Oh, boy. Um, well, that’s um, that’s, uh, not very hard. Um, he’s, uh, an actor of some 36 years standing and, um, a father and a husband and, um, boy – that’s about it.

Well tell us a little bit about where you were born. What was life like growing up?

I was born in Detroit, Michigan in the, uh, in 1953 and, um, at the time it was, um – I mean, you know, you look back on these things with, you know, I do anyway I suppose, with a bit of, uh, of affection and nostalgia. It was, I had a very good, very good childhood growing up and was, uh – my family was based in Detroit but then my father, who worked for Chrysler Corporation, was transferred to Europe in ’63, uh, and, and so we all went. And I wound up living, until 1967, I lived in Geneva Switzerland. And, uh, then came back in ’67 to Detroit and was there until, really until, uh, I left the academy where I studied acting in the early ‘70s. And, uh, and I had co-founded a theater company there, in Ann Arbor actually, um, towards the end of that time and then moved in ’76 to New York.

And one of your earliest loves was, uh, your, you had a very strong interest in books – Washington Irving and, uh …

Uh, the Sherlock Holmes books.

Tell us a little bit about how you, uh, discovered the books and how you took it to the level of wanting to collect them.

Well, it was a – there were always books in the house, um, in my parents’ house and in, uh, my father’s parents’, my paternal grandparents’ house. There were always books and I think when you’re drawn to them, um – you are drawn to them when you’re surrounded by them all the time. And when we went to Switzerland – I mean, I always loved books and, um, my parents always bought me books. In fact, uh, I was reminded about the fact that when I was about five, uh, still living in suburban Detroit, I, uh – something happened and I decided I was running away from home. And, um, I packed a suitcase and there was nothing in the suitcase but books. No clothes. Nothing. Just books. And uh, because it was – you know, running away from home was fine but I couldn’t imagine myself without my books. And, you know, hauled this enormous suitcase filled with books, you know, all the way down the street, trying to run away from home. So that was sort of rooted in me at a very early age, a love of books. I didn’t, ultimately, run away from home obviously, but (laughs) – somebody driving by recognized me and picked me up and brought me home again. Um, but then being in Switzerland in the ‘60s, in the early ‘60s, there was very little, uh, as far as culture to do – pop culture certainly. Um, there was a lot of music and I got a very early dose of, uh, loving – particularly English – uh,rock and roll from that period because it was everywhere. Um, but again, you know, you couldn’t go to see movies. We were too young to see most movies except for Disney movies and things. They were very strict about that there. And so books became, along with music, became a refuge. And, um, as far as the collecting of them, I guess that was something that just is, was a part of my DNA. I, I don’t know where it came from exactly. Um, maybe it, maybe it had to do with moving around a lot, uh, which seems like counterintuitive because if you’re moving around you don’t acquire things. But I guess it was maybe a, uh, a desire – I see it in my own daughter, actually. She has a similar thing of when you become involved and interested in something, you tend to dive into it deeply. The, uh, collecting then, you know, once I became able to actually buy books and collect them, that became, uh, an interest.

You said a second ago about you had a DNA kind of to dive into something and you’re known as a, uh, somewhat of an expert on Harry Nilsson.

And I wanted to ask you, how did you first come to listen to, uh, Harry
Oh, gosh, uh, I knew, I knew his music from the early – I mean late ‘60s, actually – but, like a lot of people, had no idea he was the same person doing all of these different types of music. Uh, he was very much a chameleon. Uh, with Nilsson, you know, he was coming out with songs then, hit records then and I, I liked all of them but they all – it didn’t sound like it was the same person. It was amazing to me. And then, you know, gradually I figured out by about 1972 or so, um, who he was and it just started – you know, it’s just one of those connections that you have that are, that are really kind of impossible to explain logically. It’s just a connection. You feel like – not that you know the person but that you have sort of an intuitive grasp of who that is. And, uh, I became really interested in him and listened to all of his music. And he played on a lot of other albums. And a lot of other people like the Beatles, for example, who adored him, um, were fans of his and, you know, that was interesting to me. And you know, I just, uh, I became interested in him. And so, by the ‘70s I was sort of casually collecting a lot of material about his life and – you know, articles when I could find them, and that kind of thing – and, uh, and then by the time he died in the, uh, early ‘90s, uh, he was, uh, you know, I had this massive archive of information on Harry Nilsson. And then when – I was trying to get a documentary together and I was in touch with RCA in New York – and when they found out who I was, they asked me to co-produce the re-releases of Harry’s albums, which I did eventually, um, doing liner notes and picking out bonus tracks and that kind of thing. I never met him. Uh, apart from a letter that I – I wrote him a fan letter in ‘76 which he, which he, uh, answered – very generously. Uh, aside from that, there was no actual personal connection between me and Harry Nilsson. It was just a, it was just, uh, a real affinity for his music.

So tell us, how did Harry Nilsson begin in music?

Well, he started, uh, he started as a songwriter, you know, sort of a hack songwriter, in Hollywood. He was, he was doing demos for people. He worked with Phil Spector for a while. Um, he worked, you know, basically doing any sort of job but he was writing – he was actually working in a bank at the time – and, uh, he was writing songs which were getting put out there, and doing some recording, um, and, but totally under the radar. No one was really aware of him at the time. And then, um, he went to, uh, he was ultimately brought into RCA and given a recording deal. This is the very short version of it. Um, his album, Pandemonium Shadow Show, which was released in 1967, uh, post-Pepper, and, uh, and it – the Beatles were, um, instantly attracted to it and talked about it a lot in interviews. And then by 1968 the Beatles did their big, uh, press conference in New York about the formation of Apple, and they were asked about who their favorite American artist was and they said Nilsson. And then, what their favorite American group was and they said Nilsson because he was sort of famous for doing multiple – he had a fantastic multi-octave voice – and doing a lot of, um, of, uh, overdubbing so he sounded like a group. To a lot of people, he sounded like the Beatles. And, um, that was the beginning of it and he had, he had an active recording career up until 1978. And after that, he did some movie and TV work. And, and then, um, you know, was in retirement – a kind of retirement, until his death.

Do you have a favorite record of Harry’s or an album that you think is more important than the others?

I don’t think I have one that’s more important than the others. I’ve got, I’ve got several that I like a lot that are favorites of mine. Uh, Aerial Ballet for the early albums is marvelous. Um, I have a real affinity for Son of Schmilsson which was his second sort of rock and roll album. Uh, and uh, I also like Sandman which is one of the later ones. And I like, uh, Knnillssonn – it’s actually pronounced ‘Nilsson’ – but, uh, it was the last American album that he did in 1977. I love all of those.

And do you have a favorite song, or could you pick a favorite one out of all of the ones he’s recorded?

Oh, I, I can’t do a favorite song. I mean, there, there are so many that I really like. I, I couldn’t even – I can’t even pick a favorite album, you know. I had to pick four albums.

(Laughs) I tell you, the cover that he did of Over the Rainbow – that, I think that …
Oh, yeah.
… and that song’s been covered so many times but I believe that his was the finest.
Well, it’s a great one. It really is. And that whole session was a kind of amazing one-off, which he did periodically. You know, he did an album only of Randy Newman songs, which is also brilliant. And, of course, The Point! which a lot of people know, uh, was a one-off. And then Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night, which is the one you’re thinking of, uh, which he did with, um, with, uh, Gordon Jenkins, the great arranger-conductor. And yeah, I love, I love those recordings. I really do. But I mean I’m, I’m, I’m an unabashed, um, un-apologetic, uh, fan of his music and, and always have been.

According to a past interview you did, you said that you’ve approached your love of Harry Nilsson from a faux scholarly perspective. What did you mean by that?

I think it’s because I, I – my interests are primarily literary so I tend to look at things from that kind of perspective and Harry’s lyrics sort of – not lyrics so much, exclusively, but Harry’s body of work plus his life really lends themselves to that kind of a study. Um, it’s almost as if – well, when I wrote in that letter in ’76 it was because I wanted to propose writing a biography of him. Um, the idea at that point of a documentary had never crossed my mind but I was interested in writing a biography because that’s how I tended to see things that interested me. You know, I might love the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Woodhouse books or, uh, Irving but, in addition to loving those books, I’m interested in what – how people analyze those people and their work. And that was sort of the way that I wanted to approach Harry because that was the way I felt and it’s the way I have always approached subjects that interest me. Um, so that was, that was why I was probably saying that. I don’t remember saying that but that’s probably what I meant – was, uh, a subject that interests me I wind up delving into very deeply. And that’s why I said earlier that I see the same thing in my daughter now because – and of course she has the internet which I did not have (laughs). Um, so now, there’s a ton of stuff about Nilsson on the internet which was, you know, wasn’t there ten years ago. Um, and so my daughter, when she gets interested in a band, you know she’s got hours worth of, you know, stuff that she can find and that’s what she ends up doing. She’s exactly the same as me in that regard. You know, she goes from one band to another because of connections. And I guess that’s the thing with Nilsson for me is I always found interesting connections between Nilsson, other types of music, other musicians, session players – that whole thing – and that interested me.

Yeah, that’s, that’s very similar to the way I approach subjects and it is very fascinating to see all the connections in music.

Oh, yeah. It goes on and on.

Absolutely. So, so tell me, how many concerts of Harry Nilsson did you attend?

None, because there were none.
He never performed live.
Really? I did not know that.
That was, you know, another thing about him that was sort of interesting for some people was the idea that he was somebody who produced all theses albums. But that’s why I say post- Pepper, when it comes to the first album, the idea that the Beatles had which was, you know, we don’t have to necessarily perform live anymore. We’ll use the studio as a instrument and explore the studio indefinitely, that kind of thing which is – it’s ideal and not really practical at all in the long run. That was sort of the way Harry was. His was more out of a, of a, I think, a pretty deep, unexpressed stage fright, um, that kept him from performing live, except for one time. The only time that I’m aware of that he performed live in front of an audience was in Las Vegas. In 1992 he made a guest appearance with Ringo Starr and the All-Starr Band at Caesar’s Palace. They were on tour – the All-Starrs were – and he came on unannounced and, uh, sang, uh, Without You, the big Badfinger hit that he had, his biggest selling, I guess, hit. They had worked it up as a surprise. And, to my knowledge, except for, you know, just, you know, parties and things like that. Those – that is the only time he performed live in front of an audience. He did a lot of TV performances but only in situations where he could control what was going on, which meant that it had to be taped ahead of time.

Very interesting. So tell us, is there anything on the horizons with, uh, with you, Curtis?

Well, yeah, I mean I’m, I’m working on various things all the time, yeah. I just finished a movie in, uh, Louisiana, uh, called Fly Paper, uh, with Patrick Dempsey and Tim Blake Nelson, Ashley Judd and Jeffrey Tambor. That’s, um, only just finished. Um, there are a couple of movies, uh, that are coming out. One is, uh, called High School which comes out next month, I think, and, um, that’s, uh, Michael Chiklis and Adrien Brody are in that. And, um, I’m, of course, I’m doing a regular gig on American Dad as a voice, as well as two other animated series which are not on yet. They won’t be on until next year but we’ve been recording them all summer. Uh, so you know, there are odds and ends, different things. Um, just, uh, the usual stuff.

This may be hard question to answer but of all the movies and all of the television shows that you’ve appeared in, is there one that is more meaningful to you?
No (pause), I can say, honestly, no. I mean, I – there is, I, uh, you know, ‘meaningful’? It’s a job, you know? I mean, I, there are jobs, there are movies that I like more than others. There are terrible movies that I don’t even want to think about (laughs). Um, you know, but it’s – as someone who has been doing it for decades it’s impossible to say there is one thing stands out more than any other. Uh, I did a movie that came out this year, actually. It went straight to DVD. Everyone missed it, um, but it was a movie that I really loved, called Route 30.

Route 30.

Yeah. And it’s written and directed by John Putch, and it’s got Dana Delany in it and Robert Romanus and, uh, David DeLuise and, uh, Kevin Rahm. It’s a wonderful, wonderful movie. I absolutely love the movie. And, um, uh, it’s a very small sort of rural, uh, comedy in three parts. And we’re actually starting in December, um – I mean the movie itself is done in three parts but, in addition to that, John Putch is doing three movies over a period, over the period of, of the next few years. So, this was actually made two years ago, came out in January, I think, of this year. Now, in December we go back to Pennsylvania – that’s where it takes place, in south-central Pennsylvania – we’ll go back in December and shoot the second movie. And then after that movie comes out, then we’ll do the third. And they’re probably all going to wind up just going to, to uh, straight to DVD. But, um, but Route 30 for me was the most pure enjoyment I’ve had in a long time. And it’s, it isn’t even that I’m that crazy about my performance in it but I love the movie deeply.

Wow. Well, I look forward to seeing that.

So, you know a second ago you were, when you were talking about Harry Nilsson, you were mentioning that you had written that letter to him about a biography. Would you ever still consider that?
No, no. I, I mean, I had a –I don’t even know what I was thinking, really. I mean, I had no business even suggesting such a thing. I, I mean I write but I’m not a, I’m not a, a biographer. And, you know, a biographer is – I mean, for, for someone to do it properly, um, it’s, you know, it’s something that really needs to be approached by people who know what they’re doing. I had this, this, um, this definite desire – really a passion – over the years, to expose as much of Harry’s music as possible, uh, to people. And, at the time, I guess it seemed like that would be a way of doing it. And even by that time, in ’76, he was beginning to – his star, such as it was, was beginning to fade. And so I thought that, you know, this would be a way of, you know, giving back and at the same time, uh, you know, exposing his music and, and who he is to people. So that was the way I approached it but, in retrospect, I think about it and I, you know, I’ve got this, I still have this massive – and I did all of these interviews with session people that he worked with for, you know, for years. You know, I’ve got all of these taped interviews that I did with Klaus Voormann and Van Dyke Parks and, uh, Gary Wright and Chris Spedding and Jane Goetz and all these people that – producers that did his albums and all this stuff. I’ve got this massive archive here and I don’t really have anything to do with it, you know, so I’m – I, I don’t know. Eventually I’m going to unload onto somebody but I don’t know who.

Well, that, that actually sounds amazing. Uh, yeah, that sounds, that sounds incredible. I don’t know what to say about that but I – yeah, that’s probably quite a gold mine there with Klaus – wow.

Well, you know it’s there for somebody who wants to use it but at this – and in fact I heard, somebody told me the other day that there’s somebody in, in England who’s been blogging about the fact that he’s writing a book about Harry Nilsson but I don’t know any of the details about that and I’ve never, I’ve never – no one that I know around here has ever heard from him. So I don’t know what his thing is, uh, there, but (sighs), you know, eventually I’ll have to get rid of this stuff.

Well, it’s been a great pleasure speaking with you but I have one final question before we go. Mr. Armstrong, what would you like to say to all the people listening in?

Well, uh, thank you for listening. Um, uh, I hope it wasn’t boring as hell (laughs). Uh, um, I, uh, you know it’s been a pleasure, as always, talking about things that interest me that, that, you know, don’t have that much to do with ‘me’. I, I love talking about books. I love talking about music and, uh, and so it was nice to be able to talk about something that interests me.


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