To the casual observer, the Holiday Season (November 1-January 1) is a time to spend with loved ones, splurge on the electric bill and watch those same Classic Christmas movies. Classic is the word that represents the line of demarcation for this discussion. Classic Christmas movies can be the feather in the cap for some actors. It can be the high water mark for their career. Can be, but not necessarily has to be.
All of the notable actors in classics, tend to be actors whose resumes speak for themselves. Jimmy Stewart, Chevy Chase, Bill Murray, Richard Attenborough, etc. Jimmy Stewart was a household name before It’s A Wonderful Life. As was Chevy Chase (Christmas Vacation wasn’t even the first big hit of the National Lampoon’s franchise). Bill Murray is one of the more accomplished comedic actors of the time, he did not need Scrooged. And just off of recollection, Attenborough at the very least had Jurassic Park. Big names can carry big Christmas movies, no question.
The bigger question is what happens to an actor whose career is not peaking who chooses to do a Christmas movie? And more specifically choose to do a made for TV Christmas movie? In some cases it can catapult an actor or serve as a jolt to an otherwise once promising career that has become stagnate. Peter Billingsley may be the greatest case of how a Christmas movie role can do one of two things. Keep a name relevant long enough that they are able to parlay that into a respectable career (i.e. Peter Billingsley) or it can be the crowning achievement never to be duplicated again (i.e. Macauley Culkin). After starring as Ralphie in A Christmas Story (a movie that was never supposed to be a classic) Billingsley, over time made quite a name for himself. You just never noticed because he wasn’t in front of the camera.
Billingsley has 33 acting credits including A Christmas Story. Essentially, 32 of which would not be impressive by most standards. However, as a producer and even a director, Peter Billingsley has made a nice little career for himself. He has directed Couples Retreat (starring Vince Vaughn, Jason Bateman, and Jon Favreau) and almost a quarter of the episodes of Sullivan and Son. He has also produced Made (another Vaughn/Favreau film), Zathura, The Break-up, Iron Man, Four Christmases, and has been the executive producer for all 33 episodes of Sullivan and Son. Now, are these comparable to Stephen Spielberg’s resume? No, but for the kid who would shoot his eye out, it’s not bad work. And sure, connect the dots. Much of his work comes from Vince Vaughn or Jon Favreau or both. But in the end, the guy still has to do the job once he gets the job.
Macauley Culkin seems to be the exact opposite. As an exercise (without google or imdb) what was the last meaningful thing you heard Culkin involved with that happened after 1995. I’ll give you the cliff notes. Home Alone-1990, My Girl-1991, Home Alone 2-1992, The Good Son-1993, and the less popular Pagemaster and Richie Rich were both in 1994. Since then, I don’t recognize a single thing short of a cameo on someone else’s show. Maybe Home Alone money is just that good.
On the other side of the spectrum, David Huddleston will probably always be remembered as Santa Claus in the 1985 movie co-starring Jon Lithgow and Dudley Moore. There are a number of versions of A Christmas Carol, half of which can boast the “I remember him from” moment. I can say with some level of confidence that even if George C. Scott had an acting career before or after A Christmas Carol, he will be widely remembered for playing Scrooge. Now once we leave the realm of “Christmas Movie Classics”, the pendulum swings hard in favor of the ‘jump start their careers’ direction.
Two big name examples to consider are Kelsey Grammar and Tim Allen. Kelsey Grammar started out strong, faded and resurged. Wings (TV), Cheers, Frasier, Down Periscope (still one of my favorite 1990s mid budget comedies), Just Shoot Me, Toy Story 2, then the bottom fell out. Bartok The Magnificent, The Sports Pages, 15 Minutes (do you recognize any of those? Ok maybe 15 Minutes). Then our first lead in a made for TV Christmas movie, Mr. St. Nick, followed by A Christmas Carol: The Musical, which was then followed up by a number of cameos and little known small stuff. Then in 2006, Kelsey Grammar was cast as Dr. Henry “Hank” McCoy (otherwise known as Beast) in X-Men 3: The Last Stand. Then as President Andrew Boone in Swing Vote which eventually lead to the leading role of Mayor Tom Kane in the political drama “BOSS”. Reprised role of Beast in X-Men: Days of Future Past, Transformers, Think Like A Man Too, The Expendables 3, and he currently has four projects spanning the next 18 months that are recently completed, post production, or filming. Now at the end of the day, he is still Kelsey Grammar. But at one point, the prevailing wisdom was that Dr. Frasier Crane of Cheers and Frasier fame would be the apex of his short career.
Tim Allen’s struggles had shorter gaps and were allegedly caused by the demons of his own choosing. There were two schools of thought on Tim Allen in the early days. He’s either the biggest stand up turned sitcom actors of the time or once Home Improvement runs it’s course he’ll be thrown out like last week’s trash. While Grammar went from high to low back to high again, Tim Allen has lived most of his career bouncing between pretty good and almost bad. During his Home Improvement days, Tim Allen was smart enough to capitalize on two franchises that would keep him employed long after Home Improvement. One is obvious, the voice of Buzz Lightyear in the Pixar juggernaut Toy Story (1995-2010). The other is the Santa Clause franchise that when from 1994-2006. In between those gems, Tim Allen fluttered in what most would consider to be mediocrity. Jungle 2 Jungle, For Richer or Poorer, Galaxy Quest (which I personally love), Joe Somebody, Big Trouble (not bad if you have the time), Christmas with the Kranks, The Shaggy Dog, Zoom, and Wild Hogs. In Tim Allen’s case, Christmas movies kept his career relevant (along with Toy Story) while he was doing the kind of movies most people would wait to see on video.
As we move along the progression, there is no end to some of these household names who have slummed it in Christmas movies, especially made for TV versions. Whoopi Goldberg, Victor Garbor, Anne Heche, Jamie Lee Curtis, Wallace Shawn, Jenny McCarthy, Tom Cavanaugh, Verne Troyer, Larry Miller, Dan Akroyd, Cheech Marin, Lauren Holly, Tom Arnold, Kristin Chenowith, Sam Elliot, and a number of less known names that used made for TV Christmas movies as a tool to start or jump-start their respective careers.
The most intriguing group is those that turned made for TV Christmas movie success into a dramatically improved acting career post-Christmas movie. These will be random so bear with me.
After The Christmas Wish, Neil Patrick Harris took that success and slowly turned it into Undercover Brother, Harold and Kumar. Then starred in The Christmas Blessing opposite Rebecca Gayheart (Felicity) and Rob Lowe. Which promptly became a role in How I Met Your Mother. And since the start of HIMYM, he has leaned heavily on his affection for Broadway starring in many Broadway productions, hosting the Tony’s, winning a Tony, and even having a significant role in a Muppets movie.
Doris Roberts’ success on Everybody Loves Raymond, she transitioned nicely into the role of Mrs. Miracle which she played in three separate movies. And while her career didn’t take the path of NPH, she has stayed busy. I choose to believe due to Christmas movies.
In 2002 a made for TV Christmas movie came out starring William Devane, Meredith Baxter, Dean McDermott, and Aaron Ashmore. Devane took it and ran. The West Wing, Stargate SG-1, 24, The Dark Knight Rises, and Interstellar. Meredith Baxter has continued to work, but nothing I’d call impressive. McDermott who is best known as Tori Spelling’s husband followed up Christmas Visitor with Santa Baby 2 and a myriad of made for TV movies, and TV series’. Most surprising is Aaron Ashmore. The West Wing, Veronica Mars, Fringe, Smallville, Lost Girl and Warehouse 13. Not to mention a number one time engagements on major network dramas.
Following Fred Claus, Paul Giamatti booked the title character in HBO’s John Adams and never looked back. Let’s be honest, Giamatti never needed help scoring roles, but getting John Adams right after Fred Claus is interesting.
After A Season for Miracles, Carla Gugino left the smaller roles as in her work on projects like The Son in Law, Michael and Snake Eyes and transitioned into more substantive roles like Chicago Hope, Sin City, Night at the Museum, American Gangster, Watchmen, Entourage, Californication, Political Animals, and Man of Steel.
A surprising one is Tate Donovan. Before Silver Bells, Tate Donovan was a notable “also in…” After Silver Bells, The O.C., Shooter, Damages, Argo, Deception, Hostages, and 24: Live Another Day.
Not the biggest one, but one I find intriguing. Warren Christie who played Morgan Derby on The Most Wonderful Time of the Year in 2008. Previous to that I would be able to pick Warren Christie out of a police lineup. Since then, Flashpoint, Apollo 18, Once Upon A Time, Alphas, Arrow, Castle and Motive. Mr. Christie went from being only a smidgen more famous than me to a staple in major network action drama TV.
As recently as 2012, Katie McGrath who I wouldn’t know from Eve take A Princess for Christmas and flip that into a recurring role on the short-lived, but at the time thought to be a major player TV show called Dracula starring Jonathan Rhys Meyers.
In 2013, Chyler Leigh who I only knew from those horrible “Not Another Teen Movie” type stuff, did maybe my favorite made for TV movie, all things considered called Window Wonderland. Full disclosure, she apparently was in Grey’s Anatomy and it’s spin offs. After doing Window Wonderland, she was immediately offered the starring role in Taxi Brooklyn. Before you laugh, yes it was short-lived, but we’re still talking about headlining a drama on NBC in primetime.
In 2011, it seemed Lindy Booth might try to contest Candice Cameron’s strangle hold on Queen of TV Christmas movies. A Christmas Visitor (2002), Christmas in Boston (2005), Christmas Magic (2011), Twelve Trees of Christmas (2013). Then a one episode appearance on Supernatural before locking up a spot on TNT’s adapted TV series that was modeled from the movie series, The Librarians.
After all of that, which is only the tip of the iceberg so to speak, does an appearance in a theatrical release Christmas movie or made for TV Christmas movie signal a spike in one’s acting career? I don’t have a definitive answer for that. What I do know is that it is entirely to frequent for it to just be a coincidence across the board. Would Kelsey Grammar still get BOSS without Mr. St. Nick? Probably. Does Tate Donovan get Argo and Hostages without it? I can’t exactly say. But again, this is extremely frequent. It’s frequent enough that I am compelled to believe this is an approach that agents do suggest as a way for their clients to surge ahead in their careers.
Sometimes, it can also work in the relative opposite direction. Sometimes an actor or actress visits Christmas movie land and never leave. After Candace Cameron exhausted herself in 1980s and 1990s sitcoms like Who’s the Boss, Growing Pains, and Full House, she eventually starred opposite Tom Arnold in Moonlight and Mistletoe. Which she followed up with The Heart of Christmas, Let It Snow, and Christmas Under Wraps. The prevailing wisdom is that as long as people are still excited to see D.J. Tanner starring in made for TV Christmas movies, she may never stop until the viewers do.
Lacey Chabert may be another leading lady that is stuck in TV Christmas movie land. Dating all the way back to 1994, Chabert has been a presence in voice over work. Then in 1998 played young Penny Robinson is the Lost in Space remake which lead into Party of Five. Then if you subtract animated movies and series’ and voice over work, there is very little of note until the first appearance of a Christmas movie, Black Christmas (not exactly the kind of thing that inspires the joy of the season). Then Matchmaker Santa, A Royal Christmas, and The Tree That Saved Christmas all within one calendar year.
The bottom line is, like it or not, made for TV Christmas movies have played a part in the redirecting of careers. Maybe not all that go down that path are better off for it, but enough are that it makes the assertion at least viable. So the next time you and your loved one sit down to watch something indicative of the season, remember there are more that A Christmas Carol, Story, Vacation, or Grinch. In many ways since about 2000, the made for TV circuit has dramatically stepped up their game. One thing is for sure. There is a blueprint to these movies. A toddler could write half of them. But on occasion, when you see a name you recognize slumming it in made for TV Christmas movie land, chances are pretty decent that you’ll enjoy the time you spent. They always have happy endings, the guy always gets the girl, and there is an overall sense of joy and whimsy when it’s all said and done. They all aren’t winners, but when you do catch a good one, it’s a nice alternative to the Christmas Movie Classics that we all know by heart at this point.