Fans of holiday movies and television specials speak of A Christmas Story in the same sentence as It’s a Wonderful Life, Frosty the Snowman, Scrooged, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, A Muppet Christmas Carol, Eight Crazy Nights, A Charlie Brown Christmas, The Polar Express, How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Black Christmas, The Polar Express, Miracle on 34th Street, etc.
Yet, its status as a perennial favorite is as unlikely a success story as one can imagine. Bob Clark teamed with Jean Shepherd and Leigh Brown to adapt Shepherd’s book, In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, which was filled with wonderful anecdotes inspired by Shepherd’s youth, but was far from a Christmas tale. Clark, at the time, was best known for writing and directing the horny-teen sex comedies Porky’s and Porky’s II: The Next Day, as well as one of the other holiday classics referenced above, the horror film Black Christmas. Clark, who died in 2007, was nothing if not eclectic, as he also directed Tribute, Murder by Decree, Rhinestone, Loose Cannons, and Baby Geniuses, as well as My Summer Story. That last film was actually a sequel to A Christmas Story, again co-written by Shepherd, but with a new cast. It opened in just a handful of theaters, garnered tepid to middling reviews, and grossed less than $71,000 at the box office. That’s not a typo… $71,000. As Caseen Gaines’ wonderful book 2013 book details, the road from this box office result, to the film becoming a holiday classic, is unlikely as hell.
Now here we are, in 2022, and HBO Max is streaming A Christmas Story Christmas. It’s a full-on sequel that centers on Ralphie, played once again by Peter Billingsley, who is – are you ready? – 51 years old. This version of Ralphie is a married dad with kids of his own, and he’s pulling out all the stops to give them a memorable Christmas in his old, familiar home. The place holds great memories and hopefully will again, but life isn’t quite the same, as the Old Man has recently passed away.
Billingsley mostly works as a producer these days, often in tandem with Vince Vaughn, and he’s helped such films as Made, Elf, and Iron Man get made. Yes, Billingsley was an executive producer on Iron Man, meaning he helped create the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
He’ll occasionally pop up in those films, too, in cameos. During a recent Zoom call with Fatherly, Billingsley acknowledged that no one wants to mess with a classic, meaning that A Christmas Story Christmas needed to tick several boxes before he came back on board, this time as producer, star and co-writer of the story.
“For sure, you don't want to mess with it,” he said. “I always thought that this was an exercise in playing defense as much as you're playing offense. You want to create a movie that has momentum, is entertaining, and scores, but you want to try to protect what the original created and what it's become in that fan base. So, I think tone was what we started with. You want to feel like you're back in the world. We were able to license a lot of Jean Shepherd's books, to get his words. Though he's passed, we were able to create a lot of the voiceover, and the narration, and even a lot of dialogue from his writings. (We needed) to have the resources to build the original house on old Cleveland Street. We knew we needed that, so you could feel like you're back on that street. The original cast… (look for cameos!). These were all the things that were important to have lined up.
“We didn't take as long to get this made,” he continued. “The first movie took about 12 years, and we're a little closer to four, but from the development to trying to get it right, there was more time. And then to have the support team we had: Nick Schenk, a great writer, and (director) Clay Kaytis. I had my longtime producing partner, Vince Vaughn, with me. He’s a friend. Also, Legendary/Warner Brothers. Those pieces needed to be right.
“And, for me as an actor, being older was great,” he said. “The idea (is) that Ralphie has grown up, has his own family and isn't obsessed with a gift now. He’s really obsessed with trying to give his own kids a great Christmas. All those pieces together felt like, ‘Okay, now feels like the right time.’”
So, what was it like to inhabit Ralphie again?
“It might be one of the longer sequels (waits) for a character,” Billingsley said. “I don't know how it ranks, but I don't know many children that became (actors as) adults. Sometimes maybe those qualities didn't translate. What I liked is that he is still a dreamer, and that's a fun thing to play. They're grown-up fantasies, but also, he's a hard guy to deter when he's after something. In the original, he was pretty relentless in his pursuit of the gun. Here, he's unstoppable even when things aren't going well for him.
“Those are qualities that, as an adult actor, you can gravitate towards and find your way in,” he said. “It was (also) fun thinking, ‘What kind of dad would he be? How much would he be like his old man, from the original? How much do you draw from that? How much do you separate a little bit from it?’”
Billingsley has looked on with pride and amusement as A Christmas Story gained holiday-favorite status and spun off everything from lady-leg lamps and a Christmas album to a Broadway and touring stage musical. He smiled when asked what the next iteration might be if audiences embrace A Christmas Story Christmas.
“Jeez, that’s a good question,” Billingsley replied. “I don't know. Maybe Ralphie as a grandfather. Who knows? You got to wait some years, now that we've waited this long. Maybe we'll wait a while.”
A Christmas Story Christmas is streaming now on HBO Max.