Peter Billingsley may feel that any day he gets to produce or direct is like Christmas, but a particular yuletide is shared with him by countless fans.
Lately a filmmaker who’s worked with close pal Vince Vaughn on such comedies as “The Break-Up” and “Couples Retreat,” Billingsley is forever famous as the child actor who played wide-eyed Ralphie — he of the deep desire for a Red Ryder BB gun that his mother (Melinda Dillon) warned would “put your eye out” — in the 1983 classic “A Christmas Story.”
Before TBS gives that movie its annual 24-hour marathon on Christmas Eve and Day, Billingsley directs Thursday’s (Sept. 13) first-season finale of the cable network’s sitcom “Sullivan & Son.” Along with “Cheers” veteran Rob Long, Billingsley and Vaughn are executive producers of the show about a New York lawyer (comic Steve Byrne, also a “Sullivan” co-creator) who left that city and career to take over the family business, a Pittsburgh bar.
“We’ve been having a lot of fun with it,” Billingsley tells Zap2it about the series, which ends Year One with guest star Will Sasso (“MAD TV”) as a co-worker who files a harassment complaint against sarcastic bar regular Hank (Brian Doyle-Murray). “Sullivan & Son” got a second-season renewal last week, and Billingsley says, “It’s always great when a show resonates with an audience, and we found one and were able to hold it.”
The initial “Sullivan & Son” episodes all were made before the show began its on-air run, and Billingsley reflects, “You never know until you go on. We certainly were happy and proud of the work we had done, and we were hopeful that audiences would respond. We were thrilled when they did, but when you finish up, you just shake hands and cross your fingers.”
The “Sullivan” season wrap-up was the first time Billingsley directed multi-camera television, in a period that’s had several “firsts” for him. Another proves he embraces his “Christmas Story” past: He’s a producer of a stage-musical version that starts a Broadway holiday-season run Monday, Nov. 19, following a Chicago engagement last winter.
“I had always been very curious about all the comings and goings on the other side of the camera,” explains Billingsley. “Acting was never anything I was pressured into doing. For me, it was pre-Macaulay Culkin and pre-Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, before the real ‘business’ of children.
“It was just kind of a fun thing to do, but instead of going back to my trailer, I would always hang out on the set between set-ups and watch … and I learned a lot more than I realized. And I was fortunate to have a good perspective on it, because I wasn’t a moneymaker for my parents’ future. It was just something I felt lucky to be a part of.”
An actor again more recently in “Four Christmases” (which he executive-produced) and “Iron Man,” Billingsley was mentored in his off-camera pursuits by Bob Clark, the late director of “A Christmas Story.” That kept them connected as the reputation of the Jean Shepherd-inspired movie rose — in much the same way “It’s a Wonderful Life” became a holiday viewing staple — after what Blllingsley allows was “a mediocre performance” profit-wise in its original theatrical run.
“In a way, it really caught its audience through home video, which had just started a couple of years before. A movie would come out in theaters, and maybe you could get a re-release (which ‘A Christmas Story’ did) if there wasn’t a crowded Christmas window the next year.
“Cable and video weren’t really part of the equation back then,” Billingsley notes, “so the popularity of the film really grew as I got older and outgrew being able to play that age where I would have been able to be cast for other things. It’s nice to have been a part of that movie and to have seen it grow. You never expect to have that kind of success.”