Over the past 20 years, Peter Billingsley has served as a producer on such hit movies as Elf (2003), The Break Up (2006), Iron Man (2008) and Couples Retreat (2009), which he also directed.
However, he’ll always be best known for playing Ralphie Parker, the bespectacled Indiana preteen who pines for a Red Ryder Carbine Action 200-shot Range Model air rifle in the 1983 holiday classic A Christmas Story.
Naturally, his association with the movie — which was a box-office disappointment upon its release but became a staple thanks to years of marathon airing on TBS — is one of the first things people bring up when meeting him.
“They feel a need for me to know who the Parker family is their family, too,” Billingsley tells Yahoo Entertainment. “Either their dad or their grandpa is ‘The Old Man’ [played by the late Darren McGavin] and their mom [is similar to the movie’s matriarch, played by Melinda Dillon] and how they were with the siblings was [relatable].
“They have an ownership of it in a good way. Like they feel as though it’s kind of their movie. It’s very personal for people, which is really interesting for a movie.”
Billingsley says he never gets tired of being connected with the role, evidenced by the fact that he just reprized Ralphie, now grown with his own family, in the four-decades-later HBO Max sequel A Christmas Story Christmas, which he also had a heavy hand in developing and scripting.
“A lot of people ask me, ‘Well, you’re always associated [with that role], it’s gotta get old.’ But it’s very genuine, people’s association to it, and it’s very rich. And it’s very real. So I have not had an issue staying associated with that. You know, my life has moved on, my career has moved on into other areas until this moment when it all kind of came together [for the new film]. I’m pulling from all my toolkits now, from acting earlier and writing, producing, throwing it all into the soup.”
A Christmas Story is chock-full of memorable moments, none more famous than the sequence in which Ralphie’s pal Flick (Scott Schwartz) accepts a triple dog dare to lick a frozen flagpole and gets his tongue stuck.
“First of all, it’s real,” Billingsley says. “We were warned that it’s real. We were told ‘Don’t do it.’ I know some people have done it on chairlifts when they’re skiing, which is like the worst thing you can do, ’cause then you’re stuck in the air. At least be on the ground if you’re gonna try it.”
While most of A Christmas Story was filmed in Cleveland, the flagpole scene was captured in St. Catherine’s, Ontario.
“It was very cold outside. I mean, it’s a blizzard and that was real. There were no special effects in that movie. But the effect there was a little fake pole over a real flag pole, a hole cut in it with a hose that sucked air. So when he stuck his tug on it and it was just like a little suction trick and that was it. And it just kind of stuck. This was the 1983, we had to [use] low-tech special effects on the set of A Christmas Story. But you know what? They worked and they worked better than probably now. Now someone would say, ‘Oh, we’ll do it digitally.’ It’s like, ‘No, just do it. … Logic works.’”
(In a 2015 interview with Yahoo Entertainment, Schwartz noted that he had no problem getting his tongue off the pole. The bigger issue was the weather. “The worst part about it was just the bitter, bitter cold that we had,” Schwartz recounted . “We were two days out there, and it was between 20 and 25 below zero with the wind chill.”)
The scene was immortalized in bronze and installed in Hammond, Ind., hometown of A Christmas Story author and narrator Jean Shepherd, in 2013.
Billingsley is something of a Christmas movie junkie now. He also appeared in this fall’s Christmas With the Campbells. And A Christmas Story isn’t his only yuletide classic: Billingsley made an uncredited cameo in the contemporary Christmas favorite Elf, playing one of Santa’s lead toy-shop workers, Ming Ming. That nugget of information blew the internet’s collective mind in 2008, going viral on Twitter and Buzzfeed as longtime Elf lovers never realized the same actor played both Ralphie Parker and Ming Ming.
Elf was directed by Jon Favreau, who, along with fellow Swingers Vince Vaughn, has long been good friends with Billingsley.
“Jon was doing Elf and he [said], ‘Hey, would you do a little cameo on this thing?’ And I was joking [at first]. I was like, ‘You know, you can’t just get the Christmas magic.’ He’s like, ‘I want the Christmas magic!’ So I didn’t even take credit. I’m not in the credits in that thing. It was just sort of like, ‘Come do it for fun.’ And then some people started to discover, including myself, that Jon raised my voice in post-production. That’s why I actually don’t even sound like myself. He took all the elves’ voices up, so I’m pretty well hidden in that.”
A Christmas Story Christmas is now streaming on HBO Max.
Watch the trailer: