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A Christmas Story's Ralphie: Facts Only True Fans Know About The Character

In "A Christmas Story," the only thing 9-year-old Ralphie Parker wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. Each time he expresses this desire to a grown-up, though, Ralphie is met with the same chorus about it being much too dangerous for him: "You'll shoot your eye out!"

Childhood dreams blow right past logic, reason, and any form of rationale. That's not always a bad thing, though, and for Ralphie, his Christmas wish becomes the center of his world the entire month of December in the 1983 box-office-disappointment-turn-holiday-favorite "A Christmas Story." As far as Ralphie is concerned, his school projects, family activities, and holiday traditions all revolve around one thing and serve one purpose: to get him that Red Ryder BB gun.

Like most classic holiday movies that endure year after year, there are fascinating layers to unpack from "A Christmas Story," both within its semi-fictional narrative and its real-life production process. However, the 1983 flick is just one of many projects starring Ralphie across the decades, even if they didn't all stand the test of time as well as "A Christmas Story." Let's dive into the lore, legacy, and little-known extended universe appearances of Ralphie Parker.

Ralphie is based on a real person

While it's a bit of a stretch to call "A Christmas Story" a biopic, the film is somewhat rooted in reality. It's loosely based on "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash," a 1966 collection of short stories that were, in turn, inspired by author Jean Shepherd's childhood near Lake Michigan. Both the book and the movie are told from the first-person perspective of an adult Ralphie reflecting on his youth. Seeing as Shepherd narrates the offscreen prose in "A Christmas Story," he's effectively Ralphie's alter ego in more ways than one.

Director Bob Clark pointed out to In the Credits, though, that "In God We Trust" was only the beginning of the source material used to inform the script of "A Christmas Story." Clark noted that "a great many of the stories" depicted in the film were inspired by Shepherd's storytelling at large, as the author not only wrote books but also spoke on the radio and made frequent public oratory appearances.

Steely Dan co-founder Donald Fagen, who listened to Shepherd's radio show growing up, described to Slate the difference in tone between what modern audiences associate with "A Christmas Story" and the figure's on-air tales. "In the film, the general effect is one of bittersweet nostalgia," Fagen wrote. "On the radio, the true horror of helpless childhood came through."

Ralphie's reaction to the leg lamp was genuine

Great actors convey the nuances of their characters' emotions with such visceral intensity onscreen that their scripted performance seems real. That's not to say a director can't still use clever tactics to bring out a bit of authenticity among the fabrication, though. Such was the case when director Bob Clark shot the infamous leg lamp scene for "A Christmas Story."

Ralphie's old man wins a "major award" in the form of a household lamp shaped like a woman's laced leg, foot to calf. In the scene during which the lamp arrives at the Parkers' house, the entire family has no idea what the prize is until they open the mysterious box together, and proceed to ogle in shock at its contents. Even if the actors all knew what was in the box, would at least not letting them see the actual lamp until filming the sequence add to the look of surprise on each of their faces? This was Clark's hypothesis, and it worked.

In "Another Christmas Story," a mini-documentary on the film's 2003 DVD release, actor Peter Billingsly, who played Ralphie, remembered filming the scene. "If I recall, Bob didn't let us see it until we were rolling on that, so it was kept in the box and then we shot that scene. It was a pretty real reaction on my part when I go up the leg and start looking at it."

Ralphie sees himself as a protector

Upon first glance, "A Christmas Story" might seem like a series of goofy vignettes, with Ralphie himself merely a typical kid who finds himself in the middle of these experiences. If we look closer, though, actor Peter Billingsly insists there's more to Ralphie than meets the eye. In the brief, one-month slice of the character's life that the audience sees, there's a sincerity that goes beyond punch lines and speaks to something as universal as childhood itself.

Billingsly reflected on making the movie to the American Film Institute in 2020, in particular attributing the fantasy sequences as being central to Ralphie's motivations as a character. Several times throughout the film, the audience sees Ralphie's daydreams of using his Red Ryder rifle to save the day, thwarting the likes of imaginary bandits and ne'er do wells alike. "Ralphie's journey is very much a coming-of-age one and a boy that's yearning to cross into adulthood," Billingsly said. "So much of how he sees himself is as this protector, this heroic cowboy. The film has a lot of different tones in it. There's the grounded humor, the emotion, and then there's these fantasy sequences, which I think can almost be kind of eccentric in terms of tone."

One such sequence was ultimately deemed a bit too eccentric: A scene that was filmed but never made it into the finished movie involved Ralphie imagining himself as a space ranger saving Flash Gordon.

Everything in Ralphie's room is authentically vintage

While "A Christmas Story" debuted in theaters in 1983, its narrative takes place in the 1940s. When a movie's timeline inhabits a bygone era, everything shown on the screen has to maintain that illusion. Production design, costumes, and props all have to make sense in preserving the integrity of the story, and in pulling it off the crew can make one of two choices: Either curate authentic items from the desired time period or recreate things based on their style. The finished product is often a melding of both methods, a blend of old and new that work together to depict a distinctive look. For the Parkers' home, though, everything was real.

In the featurette "Another Christmas Story," Billingsly remembered the detail of the set. "The prop department was so great because everything that they had gotten for my room and for the house was real. It was the old stuff," Billingsly said. "It was really fun on breaks to go through my room and to find these little comics and to read them and to play with the old trucks. The attention to detail, even in things in the desk drawers, was all so period. It was very easy to escape into that world."

From Christmas classics to the MCU, Peter Billingsly has done it all

Peter Billingsly's stamp on showbiz didn't end with playing Ralphie as a child actor. He later became a producer and came to know actor/filmmaker Jon Favreau during the production of "Dinner For Five," the first of the pair's many collaborations. As Favreau directed the 2003 holiday movie "Elf," the project presented itself with abundant opportunities to pay tribute to classic Christmas films. In homage to "A Christmas Story," Favreau cast his pal Billingsley as an elf in Santa's workshop — the one who encourages Buddy that he's not a cotton-headed ninny muggins.

Billingsly served as executive producer of the Favreau-directed "Iron Man" in 2008. That's right, Ralphie from "A Christmas Story" was crucial to laying the foundation for the Marvel Cinematic Universe's first movie. Speaking to ABC News in 2017, Billingsly reflected on the way "Iron Man" was approached as an independent film and the start of a major experiment, calling it "a make or break" moment in movie history. He remembered thinking, "It'll either change everything or they'll go back to more traditional licensing deals with those studios borrowing the characters."

Billingsly also appeared onscreen in "Iron Man" as William Ginter Riva, an employee at Stark Industries. (He's the one at whom Obadiah Stane famously shouts, "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave!") Billingsly reprised his role in 2019's "Spider-Man: Far From Home" as Riva joins forces with Mysterio (Jake Gyllenhaal) to manipulate Stark technology.

Peter Billingsly's audition was the first reviewed by the director

The casting process of a film can look different depending on the production. Sometimes a casting director may have a particular actor in mind for a role because of previous experience working with them or exposure to their past work. Other times, a select group of actors might be invited to audition, and other times still a huge casting call is held to vet as many potential options as possible. In the case of finding Ralphie for "A Christmas Story," director Bob Clark knew he found what he was looking for in the very first audition he reviewed — but he still did his due diligence and continued with the audition process, just in case.

In an interview with In the Credits, Clark noted how he watched Peter Billinsgly's audition first and thought he'd be a good fit for the role but still felt obligated to review others. After thousands of other auditions, Clark ultimately went back to audition number one and chose Billingsly as Ralphie.

The bunny suit lives

So many specialty items are created and so many others still are curated in preparation for filming a movie, and once they're part of it, they've instantly become immortal. That's not just a pair of glasses, that's the pair of glasses that the Ralphie wore in the holiday classic "A Christmas Story." Costumes, props, pieces of the set, and everything in between all become an important part of film history. Despite this elevated reverence, not everything is destined to an equal fate. Some items might be destroyed or lost once they're no longer needed, others might be saved by the studio for potential use in a future production, or more iconic objects might find their way onto some sort of studio tour or archives exhibit. And then there's the stuff that the actors take with them when the shoot is over.

Remember the embarrassing pink bunny costume that Ralph's aunt sends him and he begrudgingly tries on at his mother's insistence? Peter Billingsly still has it — or, at least, he did in 2003, when he shared in a mini-documentary that the suit was "tucked away in my mom's attic somewhere." As a kid, he wasn't fond of it. "I was definitely not acting. It was quite uncomfortable to put that on in front of the crew as a 13-year-old guy," Billingsly remembered. "It was hot. It was nasty."

Ralphie in the Multiverse of Madness

"A Christmas Story" wasn't the only time Ralphie was portrayed onscreen. It wasn't even the first. Derivative of Jean Shepherd's book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" — just as "A Christmas Story" was — the 1976 made-for-TV movie "The Phantom of the Open Hearth" was Ralphie's film debut, in which he was played by David Elliott, an actor who would later become a construction coordinator for movies like "Rat Race" and "The Hunger Games: Catching Fire."

In 1982, more of Shepherd's stories were adapted into "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters," an episode of the PBS series "American Playhouse," in which Ralphie was portrayed by none other than a young Matt Dillon! Another Shepherd-inspired "American Playhouse" episode, "The Star-Crossed Romance of Josephine Cosnowski," aired in 1985 with Pete Kowanko as Ralphie, followed in 1988 by "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss," a Disney Channel movie starring Jerry O'Connell as Ralphie. Though these each depicted Ralphie (called "Ralph" in most) in his usual down-on-his-luck misadventures, they had entirely different casts and were otherwise unrelated to "A Christmas Story."

Still with different actors but more of a spiritual successor was 1994's "My Summer Story," a theatrically released film with "A Christmas Story" director Bob Clark returning to the helm. It found another future-famous Ralphie in young Kieran Culkin, who would go on to star in "Succession." With this roster of Ralphies, "A Christmas Story: No Way Home" would make a pretty epic movie.

Ralphie's bad luck continues in his teenage years

The long list of forgettable television and film adaptations of Jean Shepherd's Ralphie stories that followed "A Christmas Story" in the '80s and '90s mostly pushed the restart button rather than attempt to continue the cinematic universe, per se, established in "A Christmas Story." Such was not the case for 2012's "A Christmas Story 2," which was comprised of different cast members from the original but otherwise treated the 1983 film as canon.

The direct-to-DVD movie skips ahead to Ralphie's teenage years, and his knack for bad luck has unfortunately stayed with him. In fact, "A Christmas Story 2" depicts a completely blundering Ralphie (played by Braeden Lemasters) as something of a cross between Charlie Brown and Beaver Cleaver, earnest in his intentions but turning everything he's part of into a disaster. Though the production design and costumes can be commended for their chic 1940s style, and it's nice to see Daniel Stern of "Home Alone" fame in another holiday role, playing Ralphie's old man, "A Christmas Story 2" is mostly one cringe scene after another.

Matthew Broderick brought Ralphie to life for one night only

"A Christmas Story" eventually became a Broadway musical in 2012, which was adapted into a live television special in 2017. For that performance, Matthew Broderick portrayed the adult narrator version of Ralphie. Different from the 1983 movie, Broderick actually appeared onscreen alongside other characters (though, of course, invisible to them) rather than just voicing an offscreen narrator. In the last scene, Broderick's adult Ralphie even shook hands with his younger self, played by Andy Walken. Broderick's involvement in the production was especially poignant considering his late father, James Broderick, played Ralphie's old man in "The Great American Fourth of July and Other Disasters," a 1982 television adaptation of the same collection of Jean Shepherd's stories that inspired "A Christmas Story."

The Broadway musical and subsequent live special mostly stuck to the same version of Ralphie modern audiences know and love from "A Christmas Story" — the same wish for a Red Ryder rifle, the same fight with Scut Farkus, the same traumatic encounter with Santa ...the main difference being everyone burst into song, with tunes written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, also known for "La La Land" and "The Greatest Showman."

There's a tribute to Ralphie at Walt Disney World

Jean Shepherd, who co-wrote and narrated "A Christmas Story," later voiced the main character in "Carousel of Progress" at Walt Disney World's Magic Kingdom in Florida. D23 reported that the ride, which transports the audience through the twentieth century from the perspective of four American families, initially debuted at the 1964-65 New York World's Fair before finding its permanent home in Orlando in 1975. In 1993, Disney extensively revised the attraction, at which point Shepherd entered the picture.

In his book "Magic Journey: My Fantastical Walt Disney Imagineering Career," former Imagineering writer Kevin Rafferty recalled how his team hired Shepherd to voice Father, the audience's guide through the decades in the ride. In "A Christmas Story," Shepherd's voice performance as adult Ralphie speaks of days of yore with a balanced sense of authority and charm. Seeing as that's exactly what the host of "Carousel of Progress" does, Shepherd was perfect for the role. Rafferty notes that during the recording session with Shepherd, the prolific voice actor and author delighted him by sharing real-life stories in his signature style between takes.

In tribute to "A Christmas Story," one scene in the ride includes Shepherd's character talking about a man named Schwartz just before a fuse goes out. Knowing the history behind the voice actor, viewers can assume these are knowing references, respectively, to Ralphie's friend Schwartz and the moment in "A Christmas Story" when a fuse goes out in Ralphie's home.

Peter Billingsly continues Ralphie's legacy in HBO Max's legacy sequel

Nearly 40 years after "A Christmas Story" first debuted, portraying Ralphie is what most people know Peter Billingsly for. Despite his other career accomplishments, being associated with the character and talking about the role isn't something Billingsly gets tired of. In an interview with In the Credits, he noted how the film "has a real profound effect on people," and he feels an obligation to reciprocate the "sincerity" of the film's fans.

In that spirit, Billingsly reprised his role as Ralphie in "A Christmas Story Christmas," the 2022 HBO Max film. Billingsly told People Magazine that the movie centers around Ralphie honoring his late father. In real life, Darren McGavin, the actor who portrayed Ralphie's old man in the 1983 film, passed away in 2006. "Ralphie's not really where he wants to be in his life, but he's still a dreamer, so he still has these fantasies of what his life could be, where it could go," Billingsly shared with People. "And then he's called home with some real responsibilities and burdens." The actor emphasized the cast and crew's effort to celebrate the original movie and to "create something that could stand on its own, that's original."

"A Christmas Story Christmas" debuts on HBO Max on Thursday, November 17.