Celebrity Collector: Actor Curtis Armstrong

Veteran character actor Curtis Armstrong has been interested in books and reading all his life. He recalls the time at age 5 when he got into an argument with his mother and announced he was running away from home. He went to his room and packed a suitcase – with nothing but books! “I dragged this heavy thing down the street before my father came and got me,” he said with a laugh.

His father was an avid reader as was his grandfather. “I was always given books and books have always been a part of me,” Armstrong said. A child of the ’50s and ’60s (he was born in 1953), Armstrong devoured the books on horror and the supernatural that were given to him. One was a later edition of Frankenstein, brilliantly illustrated; another was a copy of Dracula.
Another book his father gave was The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, by the American writer Washington Irving (1783-1859). “I liked it because it had these wonderful illustrations, some of which were later used for his signature work, The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, Armstrong said. His fascination with Irving eventually led to a collection of the author’s works.

In the early ’60s, Armstrong’s parents began giving him hardbound copies of classical works by writers like Poe, Doyle, Twain, Verne, Kipling and Stevenson. They were published with kids in mind, by Platt & Monk, and they left an imprint on young Curtis. “They had these eye-catching dust jackets and were just intelligently put together,” he said. “And they got me started on a collection.”

Armstrong might have spent more time in front of a TV set, like the rest of his baby boomer brethren, were it not for the fact that his father was transferred to Switzerland when Curtis was a boy. “There was practically no TV there, and kids were restricted as to what they could even see in movie theatres,” he recalled. “So I did a lot of reading.”

It was during this time that Armstrong developed a fondness for Arthur Conan Doyle and the many Sherlock Holmes books. Today, the Holmes component of his collection is the largest. It includes the sleuth’s earlier appearances in the magazine Strand (he was serialized before being issued in book form); rare and first-edition copies; letters written by Doyle and even two of his pipes.

“I bought the pipes at a Sotheby’s auction around 1988,” Armstrong said. “I was a phone bidder, actually, and I really wanted those pipes. At the time, I was pretty much single and unattached and spending a good portion of my income on my collections.”

Today, a basement room is dedicated almost entirely to Sherlock Holmes and the British author P.G. Wodehouse, another favorite of Armstrong’s. The Holmes section is divided into displays: one for movies, plays and pastiches; one for early editions of The Baker Street Journal (the official publication of the Baker Street Irregulars, a club for Holmes aficionados); and one for books.

The books include English first-editions of classics like The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes, Hound of the Baskervilles, The Return of Sherlock Holmes and The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. “I collect the authors,” Armstrong said of his collections. “My interest is not so much condition, state or dust jacket. First and foremost, I have to like the author.”

One of the seminal moments in Armstrong’s life as a Sherlock Holmes collector came a couple of years ago when he was invited to a dinner hosted by the Baker Street Irregulars. “They are a very exclusive club, so when I was invited that night I was honored. Then, this year, they asked me to join. It was a complete surprise.”

The Baker Street Irregulars began in the 1930s, only a few years after Doyle’s death. The memory of the author was still fresh in the minds of members, most of whom were professionals and intellectuals. The founder, Christopher Morley, ran a kind of social club, but the Irregulars all had in common a deep love of Sherlock Holmes.

Armstrong began collecting the works of P.G. Wodehouse around the same time he started collecting Sherlock Holmes books – in the early ’70s. Initially it was his dream to acquire first-edition copies of all 90 or so of Wodehouse’s titles, in both the English and American versions (there are textual differences). “It was a cost-prohibitive dream,” he sighed, “but I still have all of his books.”

Armstrong also owns letters penned by the author. “Wodehouse was a tireless letter writer,” he said. “It makes for a nice addition to the collection, but when you talk about serious P.G. Wodehouse collections, mine is nothing compared to that of a friend, Elliott Milstein. He even has articles of Wodehouse’s clothing, and other belongings. His place is like a Wodehouse museum.”

Armstrong said his Washington Irving collection is “the most important, in many respects.” It began, of course, with his father giving him The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. Then, in the fall of 1983, Armstrong was living in New York City when the desire to re-read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow came over him, quite strongly. He went to a bookstore on Fifth Avenue and bought a copy.

“From the very first sentence of the book, I had the feeling I had discovered something very important to me,” Armstrong said, adding, “I think I read that book from start to finish without stopping to eat.” From that point forward, collecting Washington Irving became paramount. Armstrong has all of the author’s first-edition works, English and American (textual differences there as well).

He also has manuscript pages; letters written by Irving; books about the author; an original newspaper front page with Irving’s obituary from the day after he died in 1859; and a library slip issued to Irving when he was researching a book. Armstrong called Irving one of the world’s most underappreciated writers. “Dickens’ Christmas stories were strongly influenced by Irving’s essays,” he said.

Curtis Armstrong was born November 27, 1953, in Detroit. He studied at the Academy of Dramatic Art at Oakland University in Michigan and was a co-founder of the Attic Theater Company in Detroit. The first ten years of his professional career were spent on the New York stage, on tour and with regional theater productions. In 1983, he accepted a role in the hit film Risky Business. The movie, starring Tom Cruise, became a teenage classic, and his very next film role – as “Booger” in Revenge of the Nerds – propelled Armstrong to stardom.

More movie roles followed. In 1985 he played the character Charles De Mar in Better Off Dead. The following year he had a starring role in One Crazy Summer and the year after that he reprised his “Booger” role in Revenge of the Nerds II: Nerds in Paradise. Next up was TV.

From 1986-89 Armstrong played Herbert Quentin Viola on the ABC series, Moonlighting. He had recurring roles on Felicity and Ed, and he’s also been on Grey’s Anatomy, That ’70s Show, Las Vegas, Third Rock From the Sun, Murphy Brown, Ally McBeal, and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.

In 2004, Armstrong played Atlantic Records owner Ahmet Ertegun in the hit movie Ray, the story of music legend Ray Charles. This year he appeared in another film, Akeelah and the Bee, about spelling bee competitions starring Lawrence Fishburn and Angela Bassett.

Current projects include Smokin’ Aces (a funny but violent gangster comedy, starring Jeremy Piven, Alicia Keys, Andy Garcia and Ben Affleck); Southland Tales (a sci-fi horror thriller, with Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson and Sarah Michelle Gellar); and Searching For Mickey Fish (a comedy starring Daniel Baldwin).

Armstrong lives in Los Angeles with his wife, Elaine Aronson, and their 10-year-old daughter, Lily. Lily, like her dad, is a voracious reader. Fans of Curtis Armstrong may visit the star online at www.charlesdemar.tripod.com, a website begun by a fan of the actor.