Of all the “Where Are They Now?” stories about former child stars, Peter Billingsley has one of the most fascinating.
The man who so famously played Ralphie Parker, the air rifle-seeking, Hammond, Ind., pre-teen in the 1940s-set holiday staple A Christmas Story, didn’t at all disappear into anonymity. He just moved mostly behind the camera as a producer and director. Often working with close friends Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn, the now-51-year-old Billingsley was a producer on Made (2001), The Break-Up (2005), Iron Man (2008) and Four Christmases (2008), and directed the 2009 ensemble comedy Couples Retreat.
Billingsley has never stopped acting, either, in bits and pieces: He blew the internet’s collective mind with an uncredited appearance in the Favreau-helmed Elf, and reprised his Iron Man role of Stark Industries scientist William Ginter Riva in 2019’s Spider-Man: Far From Home.
Returning to Ralphie, though, is something Billingsley has long considered since he wrapped the 1983 classic, and he finally took a shot at it with HBO Max’s new four-decades-later sequel, A Christmas Story Christmas.
Peter Billingsley talks to @djkevlar about reprising his iconic role of Ralphie Paker in the new four-decades-later sequel #AChristmasStoryChristmas - and the bad ideas he heard for it along the way. pic.twitter.com/6BBwFWFY3D
— Yahoo Entertainment (@YahooEnt) November 18, 2022
“It’s been officially in the works for about four years,” Billingsley explains. “But over the years it would enter my head, and then nothing necessarily stuck. I don’t know that the timing was right, or the entry point was right. There’s been some bad ideas that I’ve been pitched. Or people just wanting to monetize it. Any time something’s successful, you know Hollywood: ‘Do it again, do it again, do it again.’
“But for me, just knowing the history of the original, it’s almost sacred now, that movie, at this point. So you really want to have the confidence at the starting point to get it right. And so it’s taken a while to build the story around the elements that we needed.”
Billingsley co-wrote the story for the sequel, and also co-produced it with Vaughn (it’s directed by Clay Katis from a script by Kaytis and Nick Schenk). In 1973, Ralphie is now a struggling Chicago sci-fi author married with two children who returns to Hammond after the death of his father, aka “The Old Man” (Darren McGavin) — and feels the full weight of planning a perfect Christmas, something his father excelled at, on his shoulders.
As for those bad ideas Billingsley was pitched? “The low-hanging fruit [was always], ‘Ralphie wants something new. What object do adults want? And he’ll go crazy trying to get it.’ [There’s] just no thought being put into what that journey was.
“So the starting point [in A Christmas Story Christmas] is, what’s Ralphie like as a father? What’s his family like? The thesis that we open the movie with is that as a kid you want the perfect gift, but as a parent you want Christmas to be perfect for your kids. And he’s kind of in that shift where he’s in that place now and that’s what he wants to do. And his struggles are the passing of The Old Man recently, so him not able to rely on anyone, and going home [when] his life is not where he wants to be.” He’s got a great family. He’s in The Big City. But with his career, he hasn’t quite measured up yet.”
In life imitating art, Billingsley admits he felt the pressure of reviving a property as cherished as A Christmas Story.
“A hundred percent,” he says. “We described it a lot as a real combination of playing offense and defense, which you generally don’t do in a movie, you just want to be offensive and go and score and win and make something great. But you’ve got to be smart and protective of it. You’ve got to be disciplined. Have your Easter eggs, but don’t dip in for too long [when it comes to] your callbacks. Have the nostalgia but don’t overstay it. Create something new.”
Billingsley credits Vaughn, Kaytis, Schenk and his cast (including Airplane! vet Julie Hagerty, who steps into the role of Mrs. Parker) with helping him dutifully return to the Christmas Story universe.
“It took a while to get right,” he says. “We had to have the pieces in place, and the resources. Otherwise it was go do something else. This was not the one to be tackling.”
A Christmas Story Christmas is now streaming on HBO Max. Billingsley will also soon be seen in Christmas With the Campbells, opening in theaters and streaming on AMC+ Dec. 2.