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vol 5 - issue 04 (dec 2002) :: interviews
PETER BILLINGSLEY
interview by insane wayne chinsang
illustration by fphatty lamar

YOU MIGHT NOT REMEMBER PETER BILLINGSLEY AS THE TWO-YEAR-OLD PROP IN THAT GERITOL COMMERCIAL FROM THE SEVENTIES. BUT YOU PROBABLY DO REMEMBER HIM AS "RALPHIE" FROM A CHRISTMAS STORY. READ ON TO FIND OUT JUST HOW MUCH OUR LITTLE PETER HAS GROWNS UP, AND GROWNS UP, AND GROWNS UP.

Wayne: So, how did you get into acting?

Peter: I guess sort of by luck. I grew up in New York City, and people used to tell my mom that my brother and I were cute, and that we should be in commercials. My mom didnít know much about it, but she took us to an agent with aspirations of maybe getting a print ad in The Times in our little sailor suits or something. One agent said we were too fat, another agent said we were too ugly. (laughs) She was kind of beaten up from the business after a couple of meetings. But the third agent said, ďYeah, theyíll work.Ē So I went on an audition for Geritol, and I got it. I was two-and-a-half years old. Betty Buckley played the mom, and there were some other kids, but I was basically a prop. And she said something like, ďWith kids like these you take Geritol twice a day.Ē It just snowballed from there.

W: I was going to ask how a kid--

P: Was using Geritol?

W: Yeah. (laughs)

P: Yeah. They were just popping me full of pills. (laughs) I was blessed because I didnít have the child star syndrome family that you hear a lot about. It was always just something that was to be done for fun. If anything, my family was trying to stop and make sure that I was comfortable doing it. And I was.

W: That was part of my next question. There seems to be so much talk of child actors being thrown into the ďharsh worldĒ of Hollywood. Do you think itís that dramatic?

P: I think it was a different time for me back then. The amount of available money wasnít as great. Now, kids are making adult salaries. Before, there were kid salaries and adult salaries. So I think itís encouraging parents more and more to see thereís some financial benefit that they can make off of their kids. But also, the regulations have improved. But I was really lucky. I donít have an E! True Hollywood Story. (laughs) Some woman from E! came up to me in a bar one time and said, ďOh, we should do one.Ē And I said, ďI donít think it will get good ratings.Ē Thereís nothing to talk about. You know: ďPeter grew up in a loving family in Phoenix.Ē

W: (laughs) ďHe did not smoke crack or star in porn.Ē

P: (laughs) ďHe tried a cigarette once. Weíll be right back.Ē Thereís really nothing there.

W: You hear a lot, especially earlier on and with child actors, about how people sign their royalty rights away because it wasnít something anybody considered. Were you fortunate enough to not sign away your royalties?

P: Yeah. As far as I understand it, it was all done through the Union through SAG, so it was whatever the contracts were at the time. The unfortunate thing is that with movies like A Christmas Story, made in Ď83, cable was something that only a couple of lucky people had. No one really knew what it was. So, they had to find a royalty based for cable back then, and itís really worth nothing, and of course TNT plays it a lot. But, itís certainly not about that. Iím just thrilled to have been a part of a movie that goes on and on. I mean, Jesus, it plays 24 straight hours. Thatís pretty awesome.

W: I was wondering about that. Thereís so many things that people associate with the holidays. They watch certain things, or they do certain things. And A Christmas Story is a big part of many other people's holidays. What is something that is a big part of your holiday?

P: Trying to avoid watching A Christmas Story. (laughs) Sometimes I go back and my parents will still put it on. My family is all spread out so, like a lot of families, we just try our best to get together at Christmas time. Every other holiday and birthdays fall by the wayside, but Christmas is one time we all try to meet up. Weíre just spread out everywhere. Iím on the West Coast, I have family in Philly, Florida and New York. And Iíve got a brother in Turkey.

W: Yeah. I read an interview E! did with you, and you were in Turkey while you were doing the interview.

P: Really?

W: Iím pretty sure. I remember thinking it was bizarre you were in Turkey. Maybe they made it up.

P: Well, I was in Romania once, and I saw a TV movie that I had done; it was one of the last things I had done acting. I was about 21 at the time. But it was dubbed in Turkish, and I had the voice of a 55-year-old guy. (laughs) I had a really deep voice.

W: One of the most timeless qualities about A Christmas Story is that Jean Shepherdís writing is so universal. I know you said you try and avoid watching it, but how does the film hold up for you?

P: I say that I avoid it really only as a joke. Iím at the point where I can appreciate it now. Itís just that, when youíre so close to something, and youíve got so many memories associated with it, itís hard to be objective when watching it. But Iím actually at a point when I can watch it, and it does hold up. He (Shepherd) just seemed to have a knack, and everyone,.. (pauses) I think the movie speaks for itself. So itís a bit difficult to articulate why the movie works. Jean just really had a way of capturing the world through a childís eyes, and creating a family life that everyone can relate to. He was a great guy.

W: There has always been a lot of comparisons between A Christmas Story and The Wonder Years.

P: Yeah. The similarities are pretty obvious, I guess. Hats off to Ďem. They were smart enough to be inspired by the film and to make a really successful TV show about it. It was neat to watch.

W: The interview that I read on E!--

P: I donít know what this interview on E! is.

W: I can send you the link.

P: They cannot be trusted. (laughs)

W: (laughs) But the funny part about the interview is that it is with ďThe Christmas Story KidĒ, not Peter Billingsley. Does it ever get frustrating being ďThe Christmas Story KidĒ?

P: (laughs) Yeah. But thank God itís not like, ďOh. Youíre Mikey from Life.Ē At least itís a great film. Itís kind of something I want to be known for. Being associated with it is a really positive thing.

W: Itís cool to hear that you enjoy being a part of it, because so often you hear people that are like, ďThat was forever ago, and I donít want to have anything to do with it now.Ē

P: I think your life takes you where you lead it. And, in time, people will get to know you. And I prefer to move more organically toward the things Iím doing next. As I became a teenager, I wasnít going to rip off my glasses, spike my hair, and say, ďOh. Iím a young adult.Ē I was still blind; I still wore my hair down. It was just a lot easier to be myself through the phases of life than to try and do something fake. My family life was a blessing. With the kids I was working with at the time, really the big difference was the family. We were raised in Phoenix, I had a lot of brothers and sisters, and acting was something that was a privilege and a joy to be a part of. And if it wasnít fun, then it was just going to stop.

W: Thatís a great way to look at it. I just interviewed James Gunn, and we talked about how so many people just bitch about working in Hollywood. And he said they should just get a different job.

P: Itís a pretty awesome business to be involved in when you break it down. I mean, what weíre actually doing for a living is pretty incredible.

W: The freedom has to be amazing.

P: Itís great. But youíre also in that a little bit, arenít you? I imagine you can budget your schedule, and you get to call up cool people and ask them funky questions.

W: (laughs) Yeah.

P: Try and rattle their cages a little bit. (laughs)

W: A bit. (laughs) So, has there been any talk of a sequel?

P: There was one.

W: You mean the one where no one from the original returns?

P: Yeah. With Mary Steenburgen and Kieran Culkin. Did you see it?

W: No. But Iím talking a sequel with the original cast, where the kids are all grown up.

P: Well, A Christmas Story is a short story in Jeanís anthology. There was some talk about it. But Jeanís gone now, and I donít know,.. you know, the idea certainly entered my head. But I donít know how you approach it without him. Without the voice and without his vision behind it, it would be hard.

W: Good point. So, my father loves the movie. He got me hooked on it as a kid, and he wants me to ask you who got to keep the leg lamp?

P: I believe Jean did. But thereís a knock-off company thatís been putting them out. I got a call from my aunt, and she said that some people had just come to visit, and they brought their leg lamp to show off. I do have the gun though. And I got the cowboy suit and the bunny suit.

W: No shit?

P: Yeah. (laughs) Itís been tucked away for awhile. But the gun is really cool.

W: (laughs) Thatís cool that you got to keep that stuff. A few months ago someone lent me a copy of The Hoboken Chicken Emergency, and my friends and I were just wondering what the hell that was all about. (laughs)

P: (laughs) What silver lining did I see in that story? A seven-foot chicken and me?

W: (laughs) But you were a kid, so what the hell.

P: I thought it was kind of cool. I showed up and saw a guy in a seven-foot chicken suit.

W: Yeah. Itís hilarious.

P: Yeah. I gotta go buy a turkey for my mom for Thanksgiving, but I get sidetracked and run into a mad scientist who has concocted a seven-foot chicken named Henrietta. (laughs) It was done for PBS, and it was part of a series called Wonderworks, which were sort of fantasy kid stories. And I was picked as one of the lead spokesmen for the series. So I went to this big gala dinner, and all the affiliates were there. And the one thing my dad always said was when you do press, just be honest; how you can never go wrong when youíre honest about stuff. So I got up and took some questions from the audience. They asked if I watched PBS, I said yes. They asked what I watched, and I said that I liked the animal shows. And then they asked what other stuff I liked, and I said, ďWell, personally, I like violence. I watch The A-Team and The Dukes of Hazzard.Ē So I got booted off the project, and there was no sequel to The Hoboken Chicken Emergency. (laughs)

W: Oh man. Youíve got to be kicking yourself. But then again, how could you ever follow up after the first one?

P: Exactly. No sequel to Christmas Story, no sequel to Hoboken Chicken Emergency. Wow. (laughs)

W: (laughs) Iím always interested to know if actors watch their own films, and if so how regularly. Is it just by chance that you watch your own stuff?

P: Yeah. I certainly donít pop in the DVD and get a bowl of popcorn going,.. and call up the ladies. And say, ďCheck out my old stuff.Ē

W: (laughs) ďYou should see me when I was eight.Ē

P: Yeah. And then it kind of hits you. ďWoah. What was I thinking?Ē But as I said, it was always fun. It was a thrill to be working and traveling. But I do like watching the old stuff. I havenít really acted in a long time. I guess now Iíd be mortified to watch it. But Iíd still want to watch dailies if I were doing it. I know a lot of directors are reluctant to have actors do it, but,.. especially having been on the other side now for awhile.

W: So, with the other side, with producing and writing--

P: Nice segue.

W: Thanks. (laughs) How did you make that move?

P: I was petering out in acting, and wanted to study other things. I got some advice from some people, Bob Clark (director) included, who said, ďGet into the editing room. No matter what you want to do on the other side of the camera, thatís a very valuable place to learn.Ē So I did a movie called Arcade. It was a direct-to-video gem, with Seth Green, actually. I asked to apprentice in the cutting room. And then I worked through post-production for a long time. I started directing some short form stuff; just going through a lot of different facets of the business. I didnít really know where I was going to land. I was just trying to keep an open mind with enjoying whatever I was doing at the time, and learning. And then producing seemed to be the logical thing. I was producing some television, working on a show called The X-Show, and I had known Vince Vaughn for a long time. We met during an after-school special. It was coming over the crest of my acting career; I was on my way down, and he was at the bottom of the hill just starting off. (laughs) So we kind of passed each other. And we became great friends. It was one of the last things I ever did. It was called The Fourth Man. (pauses) The pause means you want to hear more?

W: Sure. Go ahead.

P: (laughs) Iím just dumb-founded. The Fourth Man referred to the fourth man of a relay team. And my dad was an athlete, and Vince played my best friend who was also an athlete. And I ďtook after my mother a little more,Ē so I could never make my dad happy. So I was determined to join the track team. But I made the fifth guy, so I wasnít going to be on the team. And then I meet Malibu from American Gladiators. He was playing the drug dealer. So he sells me steroids, I make the team, break out in zits, date Nicole Eggert, donít understand my friends anymore, etc. But anyway, thatís how we met. (laughs) Years later I met Jon (Favreau) through Vince, when they had met on Rudy. They had set up Made over at Artisan as an independently produced movie, and they were kind enough to ask me to help. So that was really my first experience producing a film. And the three of us and John Starke (executive producer) got in the trenches and got it done.

W: So everything is connected from that after-school special.

P: Thatís the one linking point. Itís probably the most pivotal thing Iíve done in my career. (laughs) Vince and I became good pals and itís led to a lot of great stuff. Vince almost didnít get the job because this lady meditated. I was the guy who was chosen first, so I had to read with the other guys trying out. And the producer, when she had a tough choice to make,.. like there was a toss up between Vince and this other guy, so she shut the door and meditated for about ten minutes. And everyone had to be silent. Then she came out and said, ďWeíre going with Vince.Ē (laughs)

W: (laughs) And his career was born. Do the three of you have anything planned together for the future?

P: Yeah. Weíre all talking about doing another film, which Vince and Jon will act in. Itís a script that Jon wrote just after Swingers called The Marshall of Revelation. Jon plays a Hasidic Jew gunfighter in the Wild West, and Vince is his companion. Itís great, brilliant. Theyíve been trying to get it set up for a long time. And then thereís a film that Vince has in development with MGM called Toy Men, about toy men in the 1970s. Then thereís some other fun stuff that weíre trying to do. So thereís definitely a goal to put together all the resources and get some more stuff done. We have a great time working together. Itís a blessing when you get a chance to not only work on stuff you love, but also do it with friends.

W: Thatís the best thing you can ask for.

P: Absolutely.

W: So you produce Dinner for Five, but how did the idea come about and what has the feedback been like?

P: The feedback has been fantastic. Jon did a movie called Mrs. Parker and the Vicious Circle, that was based on Dorothy Parker and the Algonquin Round Table. Basically, Dorothy Parker would host this round table with socialites, and they would kick around different topics. And then it grew into this popular thing where people would come and watch. And I think that was the impetus for the idea. And back when the Internet was just starting off, Jon thought it might be an interesting thing to do there. But then that bubble burst. So he wanted to do it on TV, and the Independent Film Channel stepped up to the plate and said that they really wanted to be a part of it. And his initial vision is what still holds true. Itís really simple: thereís no pre-planned topics, you just sit down, have dinner, and talk. The goal is to get windows and insights into people that you donít get on Leno, or on a junket. And I think that is also a challenge for guests. Because itís not acting where you have a script, or itís not press where you have your pre-planned sound bites. Itís just being real.

W: And each time the restaurant is different, right?

P: Yeah. Weíve been welcomed into a lot of cool spots.

W: Who have been some of the more interesting guests that youíve had on?

P: Everyone is really interesting to me, because you have a preconceived notion of the people. And then, after theyíre settling down and they get their salad in their belly, you really get a cool window into them that is completely different than what you would perceive them to be. We just had Amy Irving on when we shot at the Algonquin Hotel. She was great; really talkative and fun and extremely outgoing. And I expected her to be a lot quieter, but she wasnít. She was kind of leading the charge of the table.

W: You had Marilyn Manson and Sarah Silverman on, right?

P: Yeah. Marilyn was great.

W: Those two seem to be pretty willing to speak their minds, whether itís in front of the camera or not.

P: Yeah. We had Sarah on with Rod Steiger, which was a pretty interesting combination. We were lucky enough to get him right before he passed away. He was probably, just from a fun standpoint, the coolest guest to have on. His resume is by far the most impressive of anyone weíve been able to have on. And he was a really candid person. Sarah said, just kind of fucking around, ďWhatís your first homosexual experience?Ē And the table laughed, but Rod went right into it.

W: (laughs)

P: He told this really funny story about this guy that tried to kiss him, and how it ruined their friendship. (laughs) He was just an honest guy.

W: Thatís great. So whatís next for you?

P: A lot of the other stuff with the guys. Hopefully, weíll have a couple movies that we can get started this year. And a third season of Dinner for Five is definitely on the horizon. I canít mention specifically who it is, but weíre about to close a deal for a DVD for Dinner for Five. Which will be cool because a lot of people donít get IFC. So weíre going to do a first season box set of Dinner for Five. And people can find official information for it on the show's website.

W: Alright. Last question: In your amateur opinion, do you think dogs have lips?

P: (pauses) All dogs have lips.

W: Thank you.

P: Whatís your opinion?

W: Thatís what I say.

P: Absolutely. People say, ďGive me a kissy,Ē donít they?

W: And dogs are able to howl.

P: Iíve seen dogs smile. Are you a dog or cat guy?

W: Dog guy.

P: Same here.

W: I bought a black lab a couple months ago. Unfortunately, my fucking asshole landlord said I couldnít have her, so I had to return her. But luckily my girlfriend bought it back. Now it lives with her.

P: So now you have visitation rights? (laughs)

W: (laughs) Yeah. I have to pay puppy support.

VISIT DINNERFORFIVE.COM TO LEARN MORE.


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