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Elf: What The Cast Is Doing Today

In 2003, director Jon Favreau assembled a stellar cast that included rising stars, established comedy icons, and a group of living legends to create one of the most beloved holiday classics of the 21st century so far. Written by David Berenbaum, "Elf" is the story of Buddy, a baby who sneaks into Santa's sack one Christmas Eve and then spends the next 30 years living at the North Pole, learning how to be an elf despite his human roots. When Buddy learns the truth, that he wasn't actually born an elf, he journeys to New York City to meet his biological father, fall in love, and, of course, save Christmas.

To make the film happen, Favreau teamed up with star Will Ferrell, who wasn't yet the comedy blockbuster machine we now know him as, as well as the up-and-coming actress Zooey Deschanel. Rounding out the cast were legends like James Caan, Bob Newhart, Ed Asner, and Michael Lerner. The result is a Christmas comedy masterpiece for the ages, and nearly everyone involved has gone on to do even more great things. Here's what the cast of "Elf" is up to now.

Will Ferrell as Buddy

Like many of the biggest names in comedy of the last four decades, Will Ferrell's breakthrough came as a cast member on "Saturday Night Live," where he won fans playing everyone from a male cheerleader to George W. Bush. After seven years on "SNL," movie roles followed, included early films inspired by "Saturday Night Live" sketches such as "A Night at the Roxbury" and "Superstar," as well as the frat comedy hit "Old School."

Then came "Elf," which saw Ferrell delve into family-friendly comedy with the title role. As Buddy, Ferrell captured a character of almost pure optimism, diving headlong into the role with goofy energy and warmth, becoming a holiday icon in the process.

In the years since "Elf," more hit films have followed, including "Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy," "Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby," "Step Brothers," "Megamind," "The Other Guys," and many, many others. Alongside "Saturday Night Live" writing partner Adam McKay, who directed films like "Anchorman," Ferrell also co-founded Gary Sanchez Productions, which went on to become a Hollywood powerhouse, and co-created the website "Funny or Die." His most recent projects include the family dramedy "Downhill" and the Apple TV+ series "The Shrink Next Door."

Zooey Deschanel as Jovie

Though Will Ferrell was already a household name in the comedy world by the time of "Elf," his co-star Zooey Deschanel was still a relative unknown, with a few key film appearances in projects like "Almost Famous" and "The Good Girl." As Jovie, Buddy's love interest, she brings a slightly more cynical view of things to "Elf," although Jovie grows more optimistic as she comes around to Buddy's unique outlook on the world. She also got to show off her singing talents, which she would eventually apply to her musical duo project She & Him.

More major roles followed for Deschanel, including in TV series like "Weeds" and in films including "Yes Man," "Failure to Launch," and a career-defining role in "(500) Days of Summer." Then, in 2011, she landed another definitive role with the title character in the Fox sitcom "New Girl," which earned her a Primetime Emmy nomination and three Golden Globe nominations over the course of seven years on the air. Though Deschanel's taken a step back from acting in recent years to focus on parenting, via InStyle, she has done a few recent projects, including voices for the "Trolls" film franchise and an appearance in Katy Perry's "Not the End of the World" music video.

James Caan as Walter Hobbs

To capture Walter, Buddy's estranged father, "Elf" needed an acting titan who could demonstrate the character's gruff exterior and show his slowly softening heart over the course of the movie. To do that, director Jon Favreau turned to the legendary James Caan. His career before "Elf" spanned everything from Westerns alongside John Wayne like "El Dorado" and Michael Mann crime dramas such as "Thief" to, of course, his iconic role as Sonny Corleone in Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather."

However, Caan wasn't all swagger and rage on the big screen, and "Elf" proved it. As Walter, he had to play the most significant character shift in the entire film, and it's a role that made him a beloved Christmas icon along the way.

Caan followed the film up with a role in the drama series "Las Vegas," which he held for four years in the 2000s, as well as roles in films like "Get Smart," "Henry's Crime," "The Good Neighbor," and the short-lived sitcom "Back in the Game." His career slowed down in the late 2010s, but Caan would star in the late-in-life 2021 romance "Queen Bees" (opposite Ellen Burstyn), which would serve as his on-screen swan song and his last film released while he was still alive. Caan died in July 2022 at the age of 82.

Mary Steenburgen as Emily Hobbs

To balance out the cynicism of James Caan's Walter, "Elf" needed an actress to play Buddy's stepmother Emily, who was as warm as Walter was cold. Mary Steenburgen turned out to be the perfect fit. With a career stretching back to the late 1970s, she was already a household name when the Christmas classic arrived, with roles in films and TV series including "Tender is the Night," "Parenthood," "Back to the Future Part 3," "Nixon," and more. As Emily, she adds a sense of welcoming grace to Buddy's early New York adventures and helps turn the tide for the character when adversity starts to hit them.

In the years since "Elf," Steenburgen has remained an extremely prolific performer with a long list of film and television appearances, including other Christmas films like "Four Christmases" and "Happiest Season" that have made their way into holiday rotation since their release. Apart from Christmas projects, her best-known work includes "Curb Your Enthusiasm," "Joan of Arcadia," "The Proposal," "The Last Man on Earth," "Book Club," and "Zoey's Extraordinary Playlist." She can also be seen in the TV movie "Zoey's Extraordinary Christmas" and in Guillermo del Toro's "Nightmare Alley."

Daniel Tay as Michael Hobbs

While it may have taken Buddy's father, Walter, a long time to come around to loving his long-lost son, it did not take Walter's other son, Michael, any time at all to build a relationship with the displaced North Pole resident. Thanks to one pivotal snowball fight and Buddy's infectious sense of fun, Michael and his big brother became fast best friends, and Michael's willingness to stand up for his fish-out-of-water sibling forms a key bond in the film.

Michael is played by Daniel Tay, who made his feature film debut in 2003, the same year "Elf" was released. In his first movie role, Tay plays a young Harvey Pekar in "American Splendor," which places him in two very different classics within the same year. From there, he took on voice acting work with the title character in the animated feature film "Doogal," then appeared in the movie "Beer League" in 2006. His other roles include voices for the video games "Bully" and "Grand Theft Auto 4," as well as appearing in the live-action film "Brooklyn Rules." 

Since the late 2000s, though, Tay has largely stayed away from acting. According to Hello!, Tay graduated from Yale University in 2014 and has spent time working as a tutor, but there's no indication that he's itching to come back to movies at the moment.

Bob Newhart as Papa Elf

The visual style of "Elf" is a blend of old and new, combining a modern comedy aesthetic with old school set designs that echo classics like "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer." As such, it makes sense that director Jon Favreau would want to cast some old comedy legends alongside his new stars. For the role of Buddy's father, Papa Elf, he turned to the great Bob Newhart.

Newhart had, of course, been a comedy legend for decades by the time of "Elf," starting his screen career through performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" before transitioning to sitcom work. Through his self-titled "The Bob Newhart Show" and its follow-up "Newhart," the comedian became an American icon across two decades of television, which carried that on to even more TV work in the 1990s.

These days, Newhart is largely retired, but he does occasionally put in an appearance in a film or series. His most prominent recent appearances include a guest-starring role on "The Big Bang Theory" and its spinoff "Young Sheldon."

Ed Asner as Santa

To play Santa Claus in "Elf," Favreau found an actor who truly seemed like he'd been everywhere and done everything in Ed Asner. Like Newhart, Asner was already an American TV and film icon by the time "Elf" came around, with a career stretching back to the late 1950s. His early work included everything from short films to Doris Day movies, but he was perhaps best known for his work as Mary's boss, Lou Grant, on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show" and its spinoff, the aptly titled "Lou Grant."

As Santa, Asner brought Lou Grant's sense of no-nonsense wisdom to the role, creating a more practical version of the character who nonetheless brings the magic when it counts, teaching Buddy what it means to be authentically himself.

In the years after "Elf," Asner spent his 70s and 80s adding to his already robust resume, racking up dozens more live-action and voice acting credits in a career that already included hundreds of projects. To younger audiences, however, he's perhaps best known as the voice of Carl in Pixar's animated feature adventure, "Up." Asner passed away in August of 2021 at the age of 91.

Faizon Love as Wanda

One of the great tricks of "Elf" is the way the film surrounds Buddy with characters who not only don't understand his worldview but are also completely put off by it. The thing is that each of those characters still has to be funny, and to make that happen, director Jon Favreau turned to performers like Faizon Love

After his career launched through his stand-up comedy in the early 1990s, Love quickly began adding sitcom credits and film roles to his resume, and he fit right in with "Elf." As Wanda, the manager of the toy department at Gimbels, Love provides the perfect irritable balance to Ferrell's always-on brightness and even sneaks in one of the film's most famous lines, "There's no singin' in the North Pole."

Love has kept plenty busy in the years since "Elf" with roles in TV series like "The Big House" and films like "Who's Your Caddy?," "Zookeeper," "The War with Grandpa," and more. His recent projects include the streaming series "Step Up: High Water," and appears in films like "Block Party," "The Fastest Man Alive," and "Friendship Day."

Peter Dinklage as Miles Finch

Peter Dinklage only makes one appearance in "Elf" in a scene that arrives long after other characters have built him up as a legendary children's author with a reputation for brusqueness. When he finally appears, it's worth the wait, and it's a testament to Dinklage's talent that he makes author MIles Finch so memorable.

Before "Elf," Dinklage distinguished himself with roles in films like "The Station Agent," and he followed the Christmas classic with other projects like the sci-fi TV series "Threshold." However, in 2011, his career hit another gear when he was cast as Tyrion Lannister in the HBO series "Game of Thrones." As one of the only characters to survive the entire series, Dinklage turned in an Emmy-winning performance and became an international star in the process. 

Significant roles in films like "X-Men: Days of Future Past," "Pixels," "Avengers: Infinity War," and more followed. These days, Dinklage is still very busy, with recent roles in projects like "I Care A Lot" and the acclaimed new adaptation "Cyrano." He will also appear in a remake of "The Toxic Avenger."

Amy Sedaris as Deb

One of the great joys of watching "Elf" is the various cast members who make up the smaller supporting roles in the background of the main action. Among those, one of the standouts is Amy Sedaris, who brings a brightness to Walter's assistant Deb that offsets James Caan's gruff demeanor. Even when she's just having a phone conversation in the background, she's memorable.

Sedaris' big breakthrough came in 1999 when she co-created the delightfully weird Comedy Central series "Strangers with Candy," in which she also starred. Through "Elf," she became part of a holiday classic, and her connection with director Jon Favreau later led her to a role in his "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian." 

Since then, she's had several film and TV credits in both live-action and voice projects, including the role of Princess Carolyn in "BoJack Horseman," Mimi Kanassis in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt," and herself in the comedy series "At Home with Amy Sedaris." Her recent projects include the TV series "No Activity" and the film "The Boss Baby: Family Business."

Michael Lerner as Fulton Greenway

As "Elf" begins, Walter Hobbs seems like the bad guy of the piece, if the movie has one. Santa tells Buddy that he's on the naughty list, and the first thing we see him do is to turn down a nun when she asks to hold on to some books for the children in her care. However, viewers soon learn that Walter's hardened heart is at least partially the result of who he works for.

As Fulton Greenway, character actor extraordinaire Michael Lerner brings an even sterner heart to the film than Walter does. This, in turn, gives Buddy's father a fresh sense of resistance that he has to overcome if he's ever going to put his family back together and, in the process, save Christmas. It's an outstanding performance in a decades-long career of scene-stealing moments from Lerner, which include roles in "Barton Fink," "No Escape," "Eight Men Out," "X-Men: Days of Future Past," and more.

Now in his 80s, Lerner continues to lend his instantly recognizable face and voice to film and TV projects, including recent appearances on "Maron" and "Internet Famous." He will also appear in "First Oscar," where he'll play the scandalous Hollywood legend Louis B. Mayer.

Andy Richter as Morris

"Elf" features a cast packed with recognizable faces, even down to the smaller roles who only appear in a few scenes with a few lines. Andy Richter — who plays Morris, one of Walter's in-house writers — is one of the most memorable of these actors, adding a little layer of jolly weirdness to the scenes at Greenway publishing.

At the time "Elf" premiered, Andy Richter was best known for playing himself and serving as Conan O'Brien's sidekick on the variety series "Late Night with Conan O'Brien," a role he held until O'Brien moved over to "The Tonight Show." Richter followed O'Brien there and to his TBS series "Conan," serving as both a writer and the sidekick on each show.

In the 2000s, projects like "Elf" helped Richter transition into acting, and you may have seen him in everything from his short-lived series "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" to "Arrested Development" to "Santa Clarita Diet." His most recent projects include the Hulu original "Love, Victor."

Kyle Gass as Eugene

As he tries to beat a Christmas Eve deadline to nail down the perfect children's book pitch for his overbearing boss, Walter drafts two writers, Andy Richter's Morris and Kyle Gass' Eugene, to put the project together. Though both have limited screen time, they prove to be scene-stealers, and Gass, in particular, adds a layer of weirdness to the side story of two guys who are just trying to get a book pitch together.

Though he has acted regularly over the years in various projects, Gass is best known for his work as one half of the comedy rock duo Tenacious D. Alongside Jack Black, he's co-written albums, comedy sketches, series, and the feature film "Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny," distinguished himself as the quieter member of the group alongside Black's ferocious energy, as well as a very accomplished guitarist.

Gass' most recent acting credits include yet another Tenacious D project — "Tenacious D: Post-Apocalypto" — as well as a recurring role on the ABC sitcom "Speechless."

Artie Lange as Gimbels' Santa

One of the single most memorable scenes in "Elf" revolves around what happens when Buddy arrives to see Santa at Gimbels, only to find that the person in the Santa suit is not the Santa he knows from the North Pole. Instead, this Santa, played by Artie Lange, is a guy in a fake beard just trying to earn some money. What follows is a knock-down, drag-out fight that begins after Buddy utters the classic phrase "You sit on a throne of lies."

Beginning his career as a stand-up, which he continues to do today, Artie Lange first gained national recognition as a cast member and writer on MADtv in the 1990s. A part on the sitcom "Norm" followed, along with continued stand-up gigs and roles in films like "Mystery Men." These days, Lange continues to perform stand-up and make talk show appearances, and his most recent acting gig was as a version of himself on the HBO comedy series "Crashing," created by and starring fellow stand-up comic Pete Holmes.

Jon Favreau as Dr. Leonardo

In one crucial scene in "Elf," Walter decides to find out once and for all if Buddy is really his son by taking him to get a DNA test at a doctor's office. The doctor emerges, and it turns out to be none other than the director "Elf" himself, Jon Favreau. It's a cameo role, but it's part of a long history of Favreau finding roles for himself in projects he's helmed.

After beginning his acting career with minor roles in the early 1990s, Favreau broke through on the indie film scene in 1996 with "Swingers," which he both wrote and starred in. He followed that up with directorial efforts, including "Made," then transitioned into larger films. "Elf" was just his second feature as a director, and soon he caught the eye of the fledgling Marvel Studios, which tapped him to helm their first Marvel Cinematic Universe picture, "Iron Man." As both a director and co-star, Favreau established Iron Man as a force to be reckoned with on the blockbuster scene, and bigger projects followed. 

Favreau's other films include "Chef," which he also starred in, and "The Lion King," while his TV projects include the "Star Wars" series "The Mandalorian" and "The Book of Boba Fett," which he created for Disney+. Among his upcoming high-profile work is a sequel to his hit "The Jungle Book."