In today's world, we all know and love "A Christmas Story" as a seminal classic of American cinema that runs for 24 hours straight on TBS Christmas Day. But, things weren't always so rosy for this holiday flick. It was a small, low-budget production that flew under most people's radar when it was released in November of 1983, and it was out of theaters by Christmas of that year, oddly enough. I'm still the only person I know who actually saw "A Christmas Story" in theaters, and people are always amazed and/or disbelieving as I tell them that when the subject comes up...which it inevitably does at one point or another during the holidays.
Regardless, the film endures because it is a pitch-perfect love letter to a long gone era of Americana, and because it is what Christmas should be in all of our hearts and minds.
HNGN had a chance to sit down with two stars of the film, Scott Schwartz (Flick) and Zack Ward (Scut Farkus), who share their memories of making the film, and their thoughts on it 30+ years down the line.
(HNGN: Jerry Bonner; SS: Scott Schwartz; ZW: Zack Ward)
HNGN: What is your favorite memory from the making of "A Christmas Story?"
SS: Peter [Billingsley] and I used to do a thing where we would order food when the set broke and people were coming back to the hotel, so Peter and I would order food for [the film's director] Bob Clark. The man never turned down a good meal in his life! Finally, a month later he said, "Listen, whoever is ordering me this food, I love it and appreciate it, but you don't have to do it anymore!"
ZW: Favorite memory was Bob Clark helping me to remember my lines and focus, treating me like a professional, a small professional, but still a professional with respect and expectations. He was a huge influence on my life and choices. I miss him all the time.
HNGN: My favorite character has always been Randy (Ralphie's little brother)...any interesting stories/anecdotes about the kid (Ian Petrella) who played him?
SS: Ian was so much younger than the rest of us, we were 13 and 14 and he was 7 or 8, so it wasn't like he was going to go to popping around and play video games with us or anything. At the end of the day, Ian went back to the hotel with his Mom.
ZW: As Scott said, he was about 8-years-old, so we didn't really "hang," but I do remember him leaning out his Winnebago window, waving at the kid extras, saying "I'm in a movie!" He was a sweet kid having the time of his life and that laugh is ALL him!
HNGN: Any interesting stories about Darrin McGavin (The Old Man) or Melinda Dillon (Mother) to share?
SS: Unfortunately, I had little interaction with them on screen. There is the one scene with Melinda where she comes in and breaks up the fight with Ralphie and Scut Farkus that we are both in. She was just a sweet lady...very easy to talk to, very kind, very soft spoken, and just a really nice, nice lady to work with.
The only time I really had to talk to Darrin at any length was at the table reading before we even started shooting. Here I am, I'm 14-years-old and I'm talking to him about "Kolchak: The Night Stalker" and he would tell me about how they made blood and did some of the special effects...and for a 14-year-old kid that was great! Outside of that, I didn't really see him beyond two minutes here and two minutes there.
ZW: I had no scenes with Gavin or Medina, but they were very nice whenever I saw them.
HNGN: "A Christmas Story" seems to be the classic example of one of those films that did OK in theaters, but then really took off on home video/DVD...and of course, the TBS yearly marathon on Christmas Day which began 1997 helped the popularity of the film along. Why do you think that is?
SS: I think it was just time. And I don't mean the time it was released, I mean the time that it was out there. It was out in the theaters, people liked it! It went from 400 theaters to 800 theaters to 1200 theaters, and then the big holiday movies came out and we got knocked out of the theaters. Then it went to video...people had heard of it...they went and got it on VHS, and their friends heard about it and they were like, "Hey, you haven't seen this yet? Here, borrow my copy." It got this cultish following and word of mouth helped and, of course, once you are on national television for 24 hours straight, the overall quality of the movie shines through to the masses.
ZW: "ACS" made an impact on VHS when the cassettes cost $80 a piece so people traded them, bragged about their collection and watched them over and over. That was the grass roots inadvertent marketing and I would bet money that whoever was working for TBS and decided to launch the 24 hour marathon grew up with a parent that had bought the tape. It's the perfect storm of a great movie with no press meets technology, word of mouth and pure dumb luck.
HNGN: Tell me about Bob Clark? How was he as a director? What style did he employ? How did he handle the kid actors?
SS: Bob was fairly hands on, especially with Peter because he [Bob] had this vision of what Ralphie was...with like the bullies and stuff. He kept them away from us so we'd be afraid of them. When we got to the set, and we got a look at these two guys, it was like, "Oh, my goodness!"
With me, Bob was easy because Bob knew I could do anything he threw at me. I had already done "The Toy" and he knew if could hold my own with Gleason and Pryor, this movie was going to be a cakewalk. The infamous scene, the tongue on the pole, all it says in the script is: "Flick gets stuck to the pole." That's it. The rest, [Bob] just looked at me and said, "Ehh, come up wit somethin'. Go for it." That was Bob...easygoing, very easy to work with and sort of knew in his own head what he wanted to see and explained it very well to the actors that needed it. That was it.
ZW: Bob Clark was like the loving uncle that didn't baby you but brought you up to his level of expectations while loving you so much that you knew you were safe and he was always on your side.
HNGN: Have you ever been back to the house in Cleveland where the movie was filmed? It's a museum/tourist attraction now.
SS: Sure, we went to the opening of the museum in '06, I believe it was. And have been back there a few times since.
ZW: Been to the house in Cleveland. Looks amazing. Always a treat.
HNGN: Did you ever get a chance to read the Jean Shepard book ("In God We Trust, All Others Must Pay Cash") "A Christmas Story" is based on?
SS: Years ago. I haven't read it in 25 years though.
ZW: I've not read "In God We Trust," but I did read the story Jean Shepard did in Playboy, 1967, "Scut Farkus and The Murderous Mariah." It was Scut's first appearance. Pretty amazing story.
HNGN: Since this is a period piece, did you have to do any research on the pop culture stuff that they had you guys dressed in or doing (coon skin caps, radio shows, etc.)?
SS: Nope. It was just wardrobe. We knew it was a period piece and supposed to be "waaay back," but it didn't really affect our performances because kids are kids. For me, Flick was just a fun guy.
ZW: No research. We were kids being kids wearing wool pants that chafed like crazy.
HNGN: I read that Bob Clark initially wanted Jack Nicholson as "The Old Man." What do you think that would have been like...what would he have brought to the role?
SS: A totally different vibe. Listen, Nicholson wanted to do it, but his people, his agents and all were like, "Yeah, sure absolutely... 4 million." And the "Christmas Story" people were like, "Well, that's 80 percent of our budget, so thank you!" And it wasn't like it is now where people will do things, these smaller or indie films, for scale or whatever just because they feel strongly about the project. Back then it was get every dollar you can. Maybe if he would have had the "Batman" money then, he would have done "A Christmas Story" for nothing. Guess we'll never know.
ZW: Jack Nicholson would have been a different world. What would Darren McGavin been like in "The Shining?"
HNGN: Why do you think "A Christmas Story" endures after 30+ years?
SS: People come back to it because it's a multi-generational film and it doesn't have a particular age group that it focuses on, it seems to speak to everyone on some level. Everyone seems to recall what they got that one, special Christmas and they love it. When you break "A Christmas Story" down, it is a relationship movie. It's about a father and a son, and the father watching the son come into his own. It's wonderful to watch Darrin's reactions to Peter getting the BB gun because you can see Darrin, the father, become 9-years-old again through his son.
ZW: "ACS" endures because it's honest and relates to all ages as everyone can see their own life experiences reflected in the movie.
HNGN: Zack, Scut's braces in the movie...real or fake?
ZW: Real. Those were my braces.
HNGN: Scott, did Flick have a real name? Did anyone ever give you any insight there?
SS: Nope. Flick was just Flick as far as I know or was told.
HNGN: Zack, tell me about your video game work. Do you prefer that kind of work over "regular" acting...why or why not?
ZW: My video game work is mocap, performance capture, and VO. It's like playing make believe as a kid with a helmet on your head covered in cameras, a spandex suit, and reflective dots painted all over your face. I love doing it, and I'm working on a new one I can't say but it's coming out next Christmas and is one of the biggest names in video games. Sooo, I'm pretty excited.
HNGN: Scott, what was it like working with Richard Pryor and Jackie Gleason on "The Toy?"
SS: Priceless. Mr. Gleason was the utmost professional. He was very kind to me, gave of his time, and his knowledge. He did things that we didn't think he would do...it was said that he hated working with kids and animals, but I was a fan and I knew his body of work, so we would talk about "The Hustler," "Smokey and the Bandit," and "The Honeymooners." He got a real kick out of the fact that there's a 13-year-old kid who knows who he is. We had a lot of fun together.
Richard Pryor became my friend, my big brother, and my muse. He was the kind of person that would do whatever you asked of him. He'll answer any question you got. I was full of questions, and he told me stories about working on "Stir Crazy" in the prison with the mass murderers. We talked about "Live on the Sunset Strip," and we talked about Gene Wilder, and [Richard's] own experiences with racism. There were times when I'd hang out with Richard on a Saturday night when we were shooting, and we'd play video games until the wee hours of the morning, and I'd pass out in his room. Then, we go to get breakfast together on Sunday morning. That's the Richard Pryor that I knew...and I was friends with him until he passed.
HNGN: Zack, did you ever get that pristine/bagged and boarded copy of the "Superman vs. Muhammad Ali" comic you mention in the "A Christmas Story" DVD special features?
ZW: Nope...still hoping Santa will make it happen.
HNGN: Scott, you worked in the adult industry for a time in the 90's. What was your experience like there?
SS: Everybody has to pay their bills. And the adult industry opened up an avenue for me to have a job at a time when I needed one. I got to perform, produce, run the office, shoot, and direct. What more can you ask? I put a roof over my head, food on the table, and gas in the car. And I still have many good friends from the industry and from that time.
HNGN: Zack, Any interesting stories from the making of the "Postal" film? How was working with Uwe Boll and Dave Foley?
ZW: Dave Foley was hilarious and so was Uwe, but for totally opposite reasons. Big fun shooting cat silencer guns!
HNGN: Anything you guys are working on right now that you'd like to plug?
SS: I am the President of an organization called A Minor Consideration which protects child actors and works to reform child labor laws. Parents need to be educated as much as the children do, the world of show business isn't an easy one, it's filled with ups, downs, temptations, the media and of course a child making decisions that can change their lives in various ways. I grew tired of burying my friends and it's time to get the acting kids of today mentally healthy so their futures aren't such a mental and physical strain.
ZW: I'm directing a few films next year, but check out "Don't Blink" on Netflix starring Brian Austin Green, Mena Suvari, and myself. It's getting great reviews!