Billingsley stands beneath the marquee of the Chicago Theater to promote his musical in Chicago, Illinois. / Alex Garcia/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images
Peter Billingsley in a scene from the motion picture A Christmas Story. / TBS
The child star of the 1983 holiday comedy classic A Christmas Story, Peter Billingsley, 41, has always welcomed the attention the movie brought him. Although he has gone on to produce such movies as Four Christmases with Vince Vaughn and Iron Man with Jon Favreau, he doesn’t cringe when fans shout the movie’s catchphrase: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” In fact, Billingsley is one of the producers of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which is in previews on Broadway. We catch up with him:
How does the stage version differ from the movie? “We follow the same story, but the fantasy sequences blow out into big ensemble dance numbers. There’s a big Leg Lamp kick line that fills the whole stage.”
Wish you could be playing Ralphie’s dad? “You don’t want me on stage singing and dancing. I don’t have those talents.”
How is Broadway looking? “I’m a bit of an outsider, but it seems like it’s thriving. The demand for shows seems to be high and the quality of shows seems to be high. To that community, reviews matter. That’s no longer true with films and TV, where Facebook pages matter more than anything else.”
The story is set in 1940s Indiana, yet it seems timeless. It’s a realistic family going through things during the holidays — trying to make a turkey, get a tree, buy gifts. That’s still going on today.
Are 9-year-old boys like Ralphie different today? Maybe every boy doesn’t want a Red Ryder BB gun now. Maybe they want a PlayStation. But young boys still yearn for "that gift".
What do you want for Christmas? A couple days off. The older you get, the more emphasis you want to put on relationships in your life. I work and travel a lot. I want to spend time with my family.
Describe your typical Christmas. My parents live in Florida and so does my sister, who has six kids. We’ll more than likely go to my sister’s house. The kids will be anxiously waiting for us to arrive because they can’t open their presents until we’re all there.
Do people often recognize you? I still get stopped, especially when I’m wearing my glasses. Ralphie’s glasses were not a prop.
How do you handle “A Christmas Story” fans? With grace. Things could be much worse. People have enjoyed the movie, and they’re coming up to acknowledge that. They’re excited to talk to me about it. I certainly enjoy that. I’m a glass half-full guy.
Did you have a BB gun growing up? My brother and I had a Daisy Pal, which is very similar to the Red Ryder. I was a pretty good shot. I actually have the gun from the movie. They gave it to me as a gift. I also have the bunny suit and the cowboy outfit. They’re fun keepsakes. I keep them in a climate-controlled storage facility.
Did “A Christmas Story” help your career? I think so. It wasn’t an instant hit, but it really built over time. Back in 1983, there wasn’t much life for a movie after theaters. Video was just starting. Before cable, there were 13 channels. With all the movies in the world and 13 channels, A Christmas Story didn’t come up very often. It caught on as a seasonal title on cable. It was a slow build. It wasn’t like you go to bed one night and wake up the next morning and your life has changed.
Do you think Macaulay Culkin had a more difficult time? (Overnight success) is tough, and a lot of people have come out the other side of it with a lot of struggles. This is not the most exciting answer, but I think it’s the truth. I had a really good family. My work was kept in perspective. I had to go home and do chores. I’d do a movie and come home to the reality of life. You have to have a balanced perspective. Fortunately my parents had enough wisdom to provide that. You can’t get too caught up in (stardom). It’s easy to do that because everyone is kissing your butt and throwing the world at you.
How did you come to work with Vince Vaughn? We met in 1990 when he moved out to L.A. and was trying to be an actor. I was learning how to produce and direct. I watched his career blossoming in front of the camera, and he watched mine start. He was very supportive. We have a company (Wild West Picture Show Productions) that produced The Internship, starring him and Owen Wilson. It comes out next June. We’re also producing Sullivan & Son for TBS. We’ve been able to collaborate and maintain a really good friendship.