By SEAN DALY
Times Pop Music Critic
The nerdy specs and pinchable pudge are gone, but those hopeful blue eyes remain. So maybe that's why this time of year, with everyone watching him again and again, some still approach and, with good-natured if fanatical mirth, greet him thus:
"You'll shoot your eye out, kid!"
Peter Billingsley is 40 now, a successful producer (Iron Man) and director (Couples Retreat) in the Hollywood town that basically birthed him. He has a production company with Vince Vaughn; he's profitable pals with actor-director Jon Favreau, whom he casually calls "Favs."
And yet, for millions of us, he is forever and always Ralphie Parker, a preteen kid in 1940s Indiana desperate for that Red Ryder BB gun with a compass in the stock.
Does the mania surrounding A Christmas Story bother him?
Not at all.
"I get a lot of double-takes, a lot of looks, especially around Christmas," says Billingsley, on the phone from Los Angeles. "People stop me on the street, say hi, and move on. It could be the elephant in the room, but I just kind of embrace it. There's such a distance from it at this point, I can appreciate it as a film."
As a film — and now as a singing, dancing, eyeball-shooting Broadway musical, too.
Twenty-eight years after making the 1983 flick, Billingsley is so comfortable with his legacy he's producing a theatrical version of the classic, which will play Tampa's David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts through Sunday.
"There have been a lot of ideas bandied about," says Billingsley, who has heard pitches for a straight stage show as well. "But a musical, I thought that was a really cool idea, especially with all the fantasy sequences."
He says except for one classic scene, all the film's iconic moments are represented in the festive musical: "Little Orphan Annie and the decoder ring didn't make it in. It's really got to be the pursuit of that gun."
Billingsley went decades without giving interviews about A Christmas Story. He stayed away from fan conventions; he declined invitations to visit the Cleveland site of the Parkers' house, which now stands as a fan-crazed tourist destination.
"I really didn't talk about the movie until these last couple of years," he says. "It was always just this nice nostalgia trailing behind me."
Instead, he quietly watched as the strange little flick with the gently bent sense of humor and "modest box office return" became iconic. "After [the advent of] cable and video, it just started coming back more and more. And then boom!" He doesn't cue it up on the DVD, but he doesn't avoid it, either. "My nieces and nephews in Miami love it, and they'll have it on. … My favorite line is 'Fra-gee-lay.' "
Ah, yes. If you've never seen A Christmas Story, you might be a little lost right now. But just know that it features a sexy leg lamp emitting "the soft glow of electric sex," a surly Santa, Dickensian schoolyard bullies and, alas, a kid with his tongue stuck to a flagpole.
Billingsley has fond memories of making the movie, especially "sitting back and watching" Darren McGavin give one of the great comedic performances as Ralphie's "Old Man." But at that time, the movie was another gig in a long string of acting roles. When he was just a toddler, his mother took him and his siblings to various auditions, but she was far from a stage mom. "She thought maybe I'll get a print ad, pose in a sailor suit," he says.
But Billingsley became one of the hottest child actors of the late '70s and '80s, including a spot on the TV show Real People plus another iconic role, Hershey Chocolate's Messy Marvin. When I tell him that, as a kid, I also repeatedly watched him in Burt Reynold's 1981 comedy bomb Paternity, he laughs, "Wasn't there anything better on cable those days?"
Like Jodie Foster and Neil Patrick Harris, Billingsley seems to be one of the few notable child actors who didn't go off the rails later in life. These are days of enfants terrible, a la Lindsay Lohan, but Billingsley says it "was a totally different time back then. That was before the Disney Channel, before Macaulay Culkin. Kids weren't making the same salaries as adults."
For as much as his mother was responsible for his acting career, she was also responsible for him not turning into a raging brat: "I've had a nontabloid life because I had a really good family. When I was home, I was treated like a regular kid. I had to shovel dog c---, mow the lawn."
That's why his advice to Clarke Hallum, who plays Ralphie in A Christmas Story: The Musical, was geared more toward life than acting. "You know, I told him to follow the interest of the character, because you don't want to be a carbon copy. And he's such a talented kid. I was blown away. But mainly I told him to just enjoy it, enjoy life. I had a great time! I did! And he's just a kid. He should be having fun with it."
If the musical eventually travels to Cleveland, where part of the movie was filmed, Billingsley says he might pay a visit to the old Parker residence. The Bumpus house next door, minus those turkey-thieving dogs, still stands, too. "I've heard it's cool," he says.
But if he never makes it there, the film's diehards shouldn't take it too hard. No, he does not own a leg lamp. But the Boy Who Would Be Ralphie does have a few original props from the movie: the bunny suit, the cowboy suit. And yes, in a poetic footnote: "I have one of the Red Ryder BB guns."
Sean Daly can be reached at [email protected] tampabay.com or (727) 893-8467. Follow him on Twitter (@seandalypoplife) and Facebook (facebook.com/blogs/poplife).