Peter Billingsley: From child actor in 'A Christmas Story' to Hollywood power player

Billingsley went from a child actor to Hollywood power player.

ByABC News
November 22, 2017, 9:16 AM

— -- While most people know Peter Billingsley for "shooting his eye out" as Ralphie in 1983's "A Christmas Story," the actor-turned-director/producer has had a far greater impact on Hollywood than many realize.

The New York City native had a hand in shaping the superhero genre dominating the box offices today, serving as an executive producer on 2008's "Iron Man," and worked alongside his friend, Vince Vaughn, on "Four Christmases" and "The Break-Up."

Billingsley, 46, sat down with ABC's "20/20" in advance of the show's holiday special, "Lights, Camera, Christmas," a show that takes holiday film fans behind the scenes of some of their favorite classics, to talk about how he turned a cult classic role into a mini movie empire.

A Christmas miracle ... 3 years later

Billingsley started acting in the 1970s doing local commercials with "no real aspirations" of stardom.

"I just thought it might be a fun thing to do to get a little something for the scrapbook so to speak," he told ABC News.

Then, when he was 12 years old, he landed the leading role in "A Christmas Story," playing Ralphie, a precocious boy who does his best to get a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas.

"It was just another audition, probably one of three or four that day. Three months later, I did the screen test and got it. It took two and a half months," he said. "We shot in Cleveland in the winter, then Canada in the studio."

However, he never knew what the movie would become, especially because the reception at the box offices wasn't all that strong. "It wasn't a hit," he said. In fact, "A Christmas Story" made just $2 million in the opening weekend and $20 million overall.

"Nobody had any expectations. It was this quirky, weird period movie about a kid who wants this BB gun, with all these dreams sequences and fantasies. It's kind of eccentric," Billingsley explained. "It's an odd tone, but clearly the filmmakers got it right."

PHOTO: Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella poses for a cast photo for the movie "A Christmas Story."
Peter Billingsley, Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, and Ian Petrella poses for a cast photo for the movie "A Christmas Story."
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

Director Bob Clark and company would slowly find out just how right they got it a few years later when it began to play on TV and became popular among holiday film rentals.

Billingsley started to really notice when people would tell him how they and their family would watch "A Christmas Story" every year for the holidays. Now, almost 35 years later, people still bring up the movie to him everyday.

"There's just something about these movies that people relate to and connect with," he said.

A comedy dream team

After "A Christmas Story," Billingsley took on other roles in shows like "Who's the Boss?" and "Punky Brewster," but he also started to take interest in editing, directing and producing, after being inspired by Clark.

"I was glad I learned how stuff was made instead of just leveraging my visibility into an opportunity and then just BS-ing my way through it," he said of those early experiences on set, sitting with directors and the crew.

PHOTO: Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers, 1996.
Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn in Swingers, 1996.

In the late 1980s, he met another young actor, who had just moved out to Los Angeles from Chicago, looking for his big break into show business: Vaughn.

"One of the last acting things I did was an after-school special he was in," he said. "It was pretty obvious with him how talented he was. It was just a question of when, not if, he was gonna be famous. He was awfully dedicated, devoted funny and good."

PHOTO: Peter Billingsley, Vince Vaughn and Tim Ferriss attend The Vulture Festival at Milk Studios, May 20, 2017, in New York.
Peter Billingsley and Vince Vaughn attend The Vulture Festival at Milk Studios, May 20, 2017, in New York.

Billingsley became a producer a few years later, and worked alongside Vaughn and his "Swinger" co-star Jon Favreau on the film "Made." He would go on to collaborate with one or both of his friends on "The Break-Up," "Four Christmases," "Couples Retreat," "Elf" and others.

"It was nice for us to get together coming up in acting as opposed to you meet when you're successful," Billingsley said. "Everyone was kind of grinding it out back then trying to get on the board with their ideas."

A 'super' producer's origin story

Before 2008's "Iron Man," Marvel Entertainment had been loaning the movie rights to their biggest and brightest superheroes to studios like Sony and 21st Century Fox. "Iron Man," which was directed by Favreau, was considered to be "the largest independent film ever made," Billingsley said.

"With 'Iron Man,' this was a make or break," he added. "It'll either change everything or they'll go back to more traditional licensing deals with those studios borrowing the characters."

Billingsley credits the film's star, Robert Downey Jr., with helping to make the movie a monster success.

"It was his first big movie coming out of a dormant period," Billingsley remembers. "But he was such a talented guy. Now I can't think of anyone else ever being that role."

PHOTO: Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man," 2008.
Robert Downey Jr. in "Iron Man," 2008.

"Iron Man" grossed almost $600 million globally and launched an empire. Now, it's a surprise if films like "Thor," "The Avengers" or "Captain America" don't eclipse $700 million or $800 million, even north of $1 billion.

'I'm just a fan'

In addition to directing films like "Couples Retreat" and last year's "Term Life," Billingsley has found his footing in producing documentaries and sports specials.

In 2015, he was an executive producer on the doc "Prescription Thugs," which explored the abuse of prescription drugs in America. He also earned a Emmy nod for the "30 for 30" film about the 1985 Chicago Bears, which was narrated by Vaughn.

He's spent the last three years producing "Undeniable with Joe Buck," a sports show featuring its namesake, and has been hard at work on an animated show for Netflix, "F Is for Family."

"I'm a big watcher of sports, consumer of sports content, so I love documentaries, I love the format," he said. "You're going to spend a long time with the stuff you work on, you might as well like it."

But no matter what, there's always going to be some tie in to that 1983 Christmas classic. Up until a few years ago, Billingsley produced the Broadway musical version of "A Christmas Story," which was nominated for a handful of Tony Awards. It has since made its way across the country.

"It's a musical inspired by the movie, but it's totally it's own thing," he said, noting that he's been able to watch performances in various cities. "It was a great extension of the brand, it wasn't by any means remaking of the movie."

“Lights, Camera, Christmas! Inside Holiday Movie Classics,” featuring Tim Allen from “The Santa Clause, Chevy Chase from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” and more, airs on a special edition of “20/20” tonight at 10 p.m. EST on ABC.