If you know who Curtis Armstrong is, chances are you know him as “Booger” from the Revenge of the Nerds franchise. If you don’t, that’s understandable. (By his own admission, he’s a “cult celebrity, not A-list or even B-list, maybe a C-plus list.”) He also happens to be the top Harry Nilsson historian on planet Earth, with a basement full of carefully cultivated Nilsson ephemera and nothing to do with it. He wanted to write the first Nilsson biography; some English author who “has mainly written books on jazz musicians” beat him to the punch. He spent years working on what was to be the first documentary about Harry, only to have his project turned into someone else’s film, Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)
His love for Nilsson is as relentless as it is infectious. When he speaks about Harry, he pounds the table in delight, eyes widened holyfuckingshit-style, mouth contorted into a Cheshire Cat grin. It is an undiluted and unwavering love that, in spite of the personal and professional unpleasantries his passion has put him through, shows no sign of stopping. His interest in, and championship of, Nilsson’s music over the decades reflects this. Grinning, he told me, “Derek Taylor said, ‘From the moment I met Harry Nilsson, my ultimate goal was to spread the word about him and his music to the widest possible audience.’ And I got some of that. I wasn’t a PR guy. It was purer than that.”
At the end of our discussion, he thanked me profusely for the interview. “It’s so nice,” he said, eyes filled with gratitude, “talking to someone who knows what I’m talking about.” And with that, he got into his sensible car and drove off into the relentless Californian sun.
How’d you get involved with the first Nilsson reissues?
I contacted RCA in New York because I was trying to put together a documentary about Harry’s life, which was eventually made without me. I was doing a lot of collecting. I was trying to find interviews with Harry, primarily interview and film material, anything I could find relating to the subject so that I could have a basis for the documentary.
Is this when you were interviewing people as well?
Yeah. That was the period when I was doing interviews with all of the session people and producers and quoting engineers and so on. I think the idea was that all of this stuff would be maybe for a book, and also with the idea of who these people are if we get to the point of doing a documentary, it would be cool to have some of these people who were so connected with him talk about what it was like in the studio. So I was doing that, and I knew that Son of Schmilsson had been filmed, that there was some footage that existed. I had never seen it, of course, and I was trying to find it. I thought there was an off chance that they might have it at RCA in the vault, so I called about it and talked to a guy there.
It turned out it was very fortunate — he was a fan of Harry’s, one of the few in the company at the time who really appreciated him. Glenn Korman, he’s gone from there now.
Around what year was this?
I remember exactly — it was 1998. I talked to him about it, and he said, “Well, you know, I don’t know if we have anything in there, but if you want to come out, come in and we’ll talk.” It turned out that he didn’t recognize my name. He knew it was Curtis Armstrong, but he didn’t connect Curtis Armstrong with my profession. So I was really literally to him just a Nilsson fan who wanted to do a documentary; he wasn’t too worried about delivering anything. So some time goes by and I went to New York on some other project. I called him ahead and said, “I’d love to come in and talk to you about the Nilsson thing.” We arranged a time, I go to RCA there off Times Square.
I stepped off the elevator; he was waiting for me. He just went, “Oh my god, you’re Booger.” That changed everything, because at that point I’m not a fan, I’m a celebrity. A celebrity is somebody who’s going to be more protective of the stuff — whatever he was thinking. Maybe he just thought it was funny that I was doing this.
When I left that day after talking to him for a couple of hours, I had with me the recording logs of everything Harry did at RCA from 1967 to 1978. Everything. Every song, every person who recorded on the album, who everybody was, including all this amazing unreleased material. It was like a gold mine. I went back home, and he said basically what we’re going to do is you go through the recordings for the reissue campaign.
What’s the deal with the documentary Who Is Harry Nilsson (And Why Is Everybody Talkin’ About Him?)? Or do you want to even talk about that?
I’ve never seen it.
How much work had you done on your own documentary at the point when the other one was released?
A lot. This was not a single project. I had two other partners, Alan Boyd and Chuck Harter. Alan Boyd is very closely associated with the Beach Boys, and is basically in charge of their archive. Chuck Harter almost had the same sort of position with the Monkees. But they also had connections with other musicians, particularly from that period. They had both written books. They had both done documentaries, and they had contacts with people I didn’t have, like the Monkees. They had strong connections going over many years, so the three of us were working on this together. We were reaching out to people. The list goes on and on of people I interviewed.
Richard Perry, Van Dyke Parks, all these people, including all the session people. It was amazing. Rick Jarrad. Some really interesting experiences. And then they were helping me by saying, “Well, you need Davy Jones’s number, I’m getting in touch with Micky Dolenz, I’m getting in touch with Brian [Wilson], I’m getting in touch with all these different people.” So we were all going off on our own little circles finding people to talk to.
We started talking, the three of us, with Lee Blackman, who’s the head of the Nilsson estate, and we wound up making a deal with them for an option for the making of this documentary. We made an option for a year or nine months. And during the course of it, Chuck, I think, had brought in these two other guys, John Scheinfeld and David Leaf. He’d said these guys have done a lot of documentaries, and it might be really helpful to have them aboard, and so I met with them. They seemed nice. David was really in the Beach Boys’ pocket. They gave me copies of their documentaries. They had done one on Dean Martin and one on someone, I can’t remember. Jesus, they were incredibly dull documentaries, just dull. Then I talked to Chuck and Alan about it and they said, “Well, ya know, as long as we are in control, they can do the nuts-and-bolts stuff and we’ll be in charge of interviews. We’ll do all of that stuff. We’ll cut it and that kind of thing.” So we wound up taking them onboard as well. The long and short of it is they went to Lee Blackman and said …
We could do it better or something?
Yeah, and we allowed the option with all of our names on it to pass, and then next thing I knew, I found out they’re doing the documentary.
And by that time, I had only done one interview that actually appeared in the documentary, which was with Robin Williams. But weird things had started to happen. David and I went up to San Francisco to interview him. Then we got the word from Lee Blackman that George Harrison would talk to us because Una [Nilsson] had gone to George, Ringo [Starr], and Yoko [Ono], I think. She said, “George says he will talk to you in London, or if you’re not going to be in London, the next time he’s in L.A., you can talk to him here.” Of course we immediately said, “Let’s go to London.” Let’s get some money, take a camera, and go interview George Harrison. But that’s when everything started slowing down. Suddenly, we weren’t getting our calls answered.
What’s the chronology of this? Is this when there’s essentially a coup with Scheinfeld and Leaf?
We didn’t know that.
You didn’t know there was a coup?
So it ends up where there’s George in town and we’re like Christ, he’s here. We can just drive over and interview him, but we can’t get money for the cameras.
To interview George Harrison.
To interview George Harrison.
Kiss my grits, c’mon. All right.
Who doesn’t talk to people! It’s not like this is someone who gives interviews to everybody. This is somebody who never does anything. But no, we can’t do George Harrison, so he winds up going back. He goes back to England and over a short period of time, we find out that he’s ill and that was the end of it.
The option expired, so I told people the documentary wasn’t happening. But the next thing I knew, I got an email from somebody saying, “I just got a call from somebody wondering if I had any interview material about Harry for the documentary.” And the call was from John Scheinfeld’s office. They told the guy I was still working on the documentary. So I then had to call John Scheinfeld, saying I don’t want you telling anyone I’m involved in this because, as you know, I am no longer involved. So don’t use my name.
You know what? My own feeling about it was how did I manage, after all this time, the first time I get screwed in Hollywood is for this. You know?
After years of obscurity, interest in Nilsson has increased heavily in the past few years. To what would you attribute this resurgence in interest?
Some of it is just due to the quality, the beauty, the humor, all of the things that people like you and I love about him. You know I would like to say that talent will win out, except it often doesn’t. I mean, there are a lot of people who are really talented and really gifted and they know whenever you respect them. Harry seemed to do everything in his power to short-circuit his career. From about 1971 on, everything he did almost seemed like he was saying, “How else can I fuck myself up?”
Deliberately and commercially.
Exactly. I mean, not just lifestyle choices but also, you know …
Who does this? Who does this? Who does Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night and doesn’t do it with hacks, does it with Gordon Jenkins, the guy who created the actual standards. And he did the whole thing live, with an orchestra. Nobody, nobody in rock and roll sang with an orchestra. It’s an art form. And his voice was already on the way out at that point. If he had done this in 1969 when he wanted to, that would have been …
It would have been a totally different record.
You would have had the full flower of that instrument were that the case. But, you know, nobody had done that. Ringo Starr was the only person who’d done one of those albums and Ringo Starr only did it because he was a Beatle. So, he does something on that level of quality but obviously also way out there. The whole new fan base that he got as a result of Nilsson Schmilsson and Son of Schmilsson, they then get his new record and it’s Little Touch of Schmilsson in the Night.
Right. What the fuck is this? [Laughs.]
He wasn’t commercial. He was never commercial. And it was at a time when, you know, it was a different world and you had records and record deals and you put out records and if the company didn’t get behind your record, it never went anywhere. So you have all those different people who have used it, and in a lot of ways it’s the same thing I went through when I discovered it. Because how I discovered it was probably the way a lot of people do. I was growing up in Detroit and I would listen to the radio — all of the Motown and all of the British Invasion stuff aside — through everything comes something like “Me and My Arrow.” Or “Everybody’s Talkin’,” or “[I] Guess the Lord Must Be in New York City” or “Without You” or “Jump Into the Fire.” And they’re all songs that I like but I can’t find a thread. Until I find out that it’s the same person.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.