Sometime in the next 18 or so hours, I’m going to do the annual quoting of A Christmas Story on my Twitter. You should unfollow me now.
I came across this delightful interview that Peter Billingsley did with Buzzfeed News that made me really happy to read.
[After he auditioned for the film and] didn’t hear back from [Director Bob]Clark for weeks, Billingsley just thought, oh well, he’d lost the role. “Bob Clark said for whatever reason that I was the first kid that he saw,” says Billingsley. “But [he] thought, Well, jeez, you can’t just hire the first person you see. So my assumption was, ‘Well, that didn’t go well.’ But whatever. You were quickly onto the next thing.”
Thousands of kids later, and after an eventual callback, Billingsley did indeed land the film’s lead role, and shot the film in Toronto and Cleveland over roughly a month in the dead of winter. “This was a real little grinder kind of indie [film],” he says with affection. “It took [Bob] 12 years to get the movie made. Nobody wanted to fund it, this period movie about a BB gun. Nobody cared about it.”
I think about stories like this a lot. I think about how it’s almost always the little indie movies that nobody wanted to give a chance that end up becoming the films that define a generation. There’s a similar, likely made up by my mom and a publicist story, about Rob Reiner seeing me before anyone else for the role of Gordie in Stand By Me. There is also a similar story about how nobody wanted to release the film, no studio wanted to fund the film, everyone in the industry at the time had passed on it, and when we landed at Embassy (before it was bought by Sony), it still wasn’t a sure thing (HA A SURE THING THAT’S VERY CLEVER WHEATON) and the production was nearly cancelled just a few days before we were supposed to begin filming. We were already on location, and Rob Reiner called Norman Lear, who wrote a personal check to get the movie made.
So. For the five of you who don’t know, Peter Billingsley played Ralphie in A Christmas Story. We both auditioned for the role, and even went to final callbacks together. I wrote about it way back in 2001:
I think that A Christmas Story is the greatest Christmas movie ever made. Each year, I watch it, over and over, on TNN or TNT or TBS, or whatever T-channel does that marathon, and I never, ever, get tired of it. Every year, when I watch it, I am reminded of the time, when I was about 10 or so, that I auditioned for it. The auditions were held on a cold, rainy day in late spring, down in some casting office in Venice, I think. I saw the same kids that I always saw on auditions: Sean Astin, Keith Coogan, this kid named “Scooter” who had a weird mom, and Peter Billingsley, who was very well known at the time, because he was “Messy Marvin” in those Hershey’s commercials. I sort of knew Peter, because we’d been on so many auditions together, but I was always a little star struck when I saw him. (One time, I saw Gary Coleman on an audition…now, this was HUGE for all of us kids who were there, because we’re talking 1982 or 83…and he was Arnold freakin’ Jackson, man…wow). [tangent] Whenever I see Sean Astin, I sob at him that he got to be in Goonies, and I didn’t, and he always says, “Hey, man, you got Stand By Me. I’d trade all my movies for that.” I haven’t seen him since he did Lord of the Rings…but something is telling me that he wouldn’t be so keen to trade that. 😉 [end of tangent]
So I remember that audition, for A Christmas Story. The scenes we had to read were the one where Ralphie is telling Santa what he wants, and panics, telling Santa that a football is okay, the one where Ralphie is decoding the Little Orphan Annie message, and the one where he thinks he shot his eye out.
There’s a similar, possibly apocryphal story about Stand Be Me that claims I was the first kid Rob Reiner saw for Gordie. I’m not sure if it’s true, but I do know that we were also a tiny indie movie nobody wanted to fund, no studio wanted to release, and was nearly cancelled literally the day before filming was to begin.
I sometimes look at movies that didn’t cast me, and wonder what I could have done with the role, if given the chance. Sometimes I feel sad when that happens. But I don’t feel that way about A Christmas Story. Peter is perfect in that role, and though I’d known he made a career for himself working behind the camera, I didn’t know what, precisely, he’d done. It makes me happy to know that he’s another survivor of the Child Actor’s Club.