Anyone who flips the dial on Christmas day, especially guys, in advertantly stops at TBS, which will again this year will have its marathon of “A Christmas Story.” Over and over young Ralphie will long for his red Rider BB gun, only to be told he will “Shoot His Eye Out.” Generations can repeat the lines, watch and howl at the delivery of the leg lamp and enjoy the quirky family as they end up eating Chinese duck on Christmas day. The hero of the movie is “Ralphie,” played over 25 years ago by Peter Billingsley. In the years since, Billingsley has gone on to be an actor, producer and director, but will always be known for the quirky kid struggling to make his Christmas wish come true.
This year Billingsley made another wish come true for himself, that of being a Broadway producer. He is part of the team bringing that timeless story of Christmas in the Midwest to Broadway in “A Christmas Story The Musical” at the Lunt FontanneTheater.
However away from the world of Hollywood and Broadway, Billingsley has a deep love of sports, which included more than a few brushes with greatness with some big names over the years.
We caught up with Peter to talk about the musical, the Yankees and his beloved Arizona Cardinals…
You were born in New York, is that where you began as a sports fan?
“Yes for sure, New York is and was such a great sports town. As a kid who was active, it was impossible not to be involved and get hooked on sports with so many teams playing here. When you live in the city as a kid, you have to kind of manufacture our own games. I used to play stickball at PS6 in Manhattan or street hockey, pretending to be some of the Rangers. We’d pray for a snow day when they’d close the streets because that opened up a whole other world of sports. My family moved out of New York when I was nine, I have such great sports memories growing up there.”
What was the first team you really embraced?
“I was a huge Yankee fan growing up. Those were the years when Steinbrenner really got New York engaged again, the time of “The Bronx Zoo” and “The Bronx is Burning,”. I loved those guys. I was lucky enough that my dad would take me to games from time to time and tell me stories of when he was a kid and couldn’t afford a ticket. So he’d climb the fence and steal a peak at players like Joe DiMaggio.”
Any early memories stand out?
“One of the games my dad took me to happened to be the famous night when Ron Guidry struck out 19 California Angels. To see that live as a six year old boy is a memory I’ll never forget. Guidry was the guy you’d want to be when we were playing stickball or whiffle ball. He wasn’t this big muscular guy, he could have been any of us but he could throw so hard. I can vividly remember sitting there live and the excitement and the crowd noise that night was unlike anything I have ever experienced before or since. It was one of those amazing New York sports moments that stay with you your whole life.”
Obviously you started acting at an early age, any times when the worlds of acing and sports intersected?
“I did a lot of commercials in New York city when I was a kid. Most of these were with fake families and other actors selling things like insurance or Band-Aids or waffles. But the coolest commercials I did were when I got to work with Reggie Jackson, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and Billy Martin. In this business you’re lucky to meet a lot of movie stars. But I got most star struck around athletes.
Kareem and I did a commercial for an old-school video game in the 70s. I was four foot nothing and came up to his knee caps. He was a very cool guy, real Zen like, and was nice enough to sign a basketball for me. I was broken hearted five years later when it got stolen.
Reggie Jackson and I did an ad for Blue Bonnet margarine. It was right around the time he hit three homeruns in the World Series in 1977, so there was hardly a bigger athlete in all of sports.
What about your run-in with Billy Martin?
The coolest of them all was Billy Martin. This was a time when he was involved in his famous feud with Reggie Jackson. He had a reputation of being a real hot head. I was nervous about meeting and having to work with a guy who was portrayed in the press as being so fiery and intimidating. My grandfather gave me a piece of advice. He said ‘don’t let him give you any shit.’ So when I met him, I marched up to him and said, ‘My grandfather told me not to let you give me any shit.’ He laughed and loved it. To this day, he’s one of the nicest, most genuine and down to earth guys I’ve worked with. Between takes we’d talk baseball, he’d pitch me balls and work on my stance, none of which he had to do, but because he genuinely wanted to. It was a big lesson for me in forming your opinion of someone based on your own experience with them. It’s easy to jump to judgment with celebrities and athletes, but until you spend some time with them you really don’t know. At the end of the shoot, Billy even signed a ball for my grandfather. It said ‘Dear Fred, don’t worry I didn’t give Peter any shit.’ My grandfather kept that ball and told the story until the day he died.
So you move to Arizona when you turn ten and all they have are the Suns, but then the Cardinals come to town and you had a team again?
It was interesting to go from a city with eight major sports team to a city with one. But when the St. Louis Cardinals arrived in Arizona as the Phoenix Cardinals, I became a fan and still am today.
Initially it was tough for us, and I’m sure on the players as well. You basically wake up one morning and someone says ‘Here’s your new team and your new city’. I would go to a lot of games, but since most people in Arizona were transplants, half the time it felt like a home game for the other team. The Cardinals have long since left that reputation behind them. They have an awesome new stadium, great coaching staff, and everyone remembers their Super Bowl appearance in 2009 with Kurt Warner. Kurt came to the premier of Couple’s Retreat and I got a chance to meet him. I know some people warn against meeting your heroes, but getting a chance to spend time with Kurt and his wife Brenda did not disappoint.
No thoughts of leaving the Giants behind?
The Giants of my youth were Brad Van Pelt and Joe Pisarcik, not LT or Eli. They weren’t glory years and they had already moved to the Meadowlands so although I liked them, it wasn’t love. And when someone brings you a team to your town, no matter how bad they were, they became your guys. There was no way I couldn’t love the Cardinals, good times or bad, and there was lots of bad early on.
What about hockey, you received the Coyotes as well?
That was a little different, hockey in the desert, even with Wayne Gretzky in the owners chair. It was nice but it was hard to find the ice sometimes in Phoenix. I loved the Rangers before we left and I still enjoy the game perhaps now more than ever. The last few years (A Christmas Story The Musical played in Chicago last year) I became friends with a good number of the Black Hawks. Hockey players are so down to earth, they loved the show and I’m hoping the lockout ends so we can work with the Rangers and the Devils and the Islanders to get some guys to see it, they love the lines from the movie and will really like the play
Now Christmas Story The Musical which is now in previews and opens on Broadway on the 19th may not be thought of as a guy’s show, but it is. Why?
After the run of the musical last year, a lot of my friends would come up to me and tell me how much the old man and Ralphie reminded them of their relationship with their own father. Some of these guys are professional hockey players and police officers in Chicago, and it touched even the toughest ones. The bond between father and son is as meaningful a relationship that a man will have in his life. Whether the connection comes from sports, apprenticeship, or in Ralphie’s case, getting the gun from the only person he never asked. Somehow the old man just knew, like all fathers know…
And you have even more of an intangible draw with Dan Lauria playing the narrator’s role made famous by Jean Shepard in the movie. Was it a coincidence “Lombardi” ended up in the role?
“Vince Vaughn saw Dan Lauria in ‘Lombardi’ and was very impressed with his performance. When it came time to cast the father in our new TV show Sullivan & Son, Dan was the perfect choice. And when it came time to cast the role of Jean Shepherd, we were thrilled when he said yes. He is a great mentor to the young people in the cast, and has been an amazing addition to the show. Everyone will love Dan in the role, he is a perfect fit and it is great to get him back on Broadway.”