The Stunning Transformation Of A Christmas Story Star Peter Billingsley

Many child stars have trouble transitioning from famous roles as kids to a stable, professional adulthood. That's not the case for Peter Billingsley, best known for starring as Ralphie in "A Christmas Story." The kid who captivated audiences with his relatable desperation to get an "official Red Ryder, carbine action, 200-shot, range model air rifle, with a compass in the stock and this thing that tells time" for Christmas is now a successful movie producer.

His famous friends are impressed by the fact that Billingsley was able to make the leap from child stardom to professional success, without all the usual personal troubles along the way. "The fact that [Peter] turned out to be, like, a good, normal person, with aspirations, coming out of a life as a child star — that's not a given," actor/director Jon Favreau told Buzzfeed. Billingsley lived with Vince Vaughn for a while, and the comic actor was impressed by his friend's work ethic. "He was very disciplined. He would make himself work during the day, even if he had nothing to work on," Vaughn said.

Along the way, Billingsley's career has experienced some fascinating twists and turns. From being the spokes-kid for an iconic chocolate brand to witnessing one of the most tragic events in modern American history, the "A Christmas Story" star's transformation has been a wild one.

Peter Billingsley started acting as a child

Peter Billingsley was very young when he began acting. Speaking with The Orlando Sentinel, Billingsley recalled starring in a Geritol ad when he was only 2.5 years old. He would go on to star in more than 100 commercials. "I've been really lucky in that I've been able to work so much, and pretty much everything I've done has been really great fun," he reflected.

One of Billingsley's biggest brushes with fame as a child was his recurring role in a series of Hershey's Syrup commercials. He played "Messy Marvin," a kid who frequently gets himself in sticky situations. In one ad, for example, Billingsley knocks over a can of paint while decorating a treehouse. Those mishaps, of course, are nothing a glass of Hershey's Chocolate Milk can't fix! "The only time he doesn't make a mess is when he makes his chocolate milk," the announcer says, and Messy Marvin replies, "Delicious."

In addition to burgeoning fame, being Messy Marvin came with other perks, too. "They would send me boxes of chocolate every year," Billingsley told "I was on that short list of special clients, and every Christmas we'd get a big box full of Hershey's candy ... I really enjoyed that."

His role as Ralphie in A Christmas Story made him famous

In 1983, Peter Billingsley won his biggest role yet: Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," the classic film about a moderately dysfunctional — but loving — family trying to make it through the holidays without anyone shooting their eye out with a BB gun. Billingsley revealed to Buzzfeed that he was the very first kid out of thousands who auditioned for the part. "[Director Bob Clark] thought, 'Well, jeez, you can't just hire the first person you see,'" he said. "So my assumption was, 'Well, that didn't go well.' But whatever." He eventually got the part. 

While many child stars get a big head thanks to their success, Billingsley's family made sure that didn't happen to him. "My parents kept that very much in perspective," he said. "It was always regarded as a privilege [and] an honor to be a part of this stuff."

The rest was Christmas movie history ... eventually. The movie wasn't a huge success when it was first released, but it later found a long life thanks to television reruns and VHS sales. "It was just a very odd, gradual fame," he reflected to Buzzfeed.  "For better or worse, it didn't hold me back, and it didn't propel me."

As Billingsley grew up and started to meet other Hollywood players, including Jon Favreau, the film followed him. "He never was resentful of what his past was," Favreau recalled. "I had him sign a Red Ryder BB gun for me."

Peter Billingsley was on the launchpad during the Challenger disaster

By the mid-1980s, Peter Billingsley worked as the spokesman for NASA's Young Astronauts program. In early 1986, Billingsley was invited to be present in the grandstands at the launch of the Challenger space shuttle. "I was there to host some pre-launch parties," he explained to "TODAY." Unfortunately, his presence meant that Billingsley bore witness to the disaster that unfolded when the shuttle exploded shortly after liftoff.

As the country grappled with the tragedy, Billingsley appeared on the morning news program the following day to talk about what he'd seen. He explained that this was his first time attending the launch of a space shuttle, so it took him a moment to realize that something had gone horribly wrong. "The people that knew that something was wrong were in so much shock that they didn't scream or anything," he said. "They just were silent." He recalled listening intently to a speaker in front of the crowd. "Then we heard the words, 'The vehicle has exploded,'" he said. "And with that, everybody went into trauma."

The Young Astronauts spokesman reported that the shock of what had happened hadn't turned him off from his interest in futuristic technology. "I think we should find out what happened wrong, and possibly today's Young Astronauts can possibly make a fuel tank that would be less prone to blowing up or could make a possible escape hatch on the shuttle," he said.

An afterschool special led to a fast friendship

In 1990, Peter Billingsley starred in an episode of the CBS Schoolbreak Special series. This special was titled "The Fourth Man," and Billingsley played a kid who started using performance-enhancing drugs so he could compete on his high school football team.

Billingsley's co-star was another young actor, Vince Vaughn, and the two struck up a fast friendship that would continue for decades after they acted together. "We just really hit it off," Billingsley later recalled to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "[Vaughn] was new to town at the time, but, even then, it was apparent to me that it wasn't a question of if he was going to become successful in his own right, but when," he said. Their paths were crossing in another sense, too. As Billingsley later explained to, "I was kind of finishing up my acting career, and he was just starting his." Sure enough, Billingsley's time as a star was winding to a close.

Years later, honoring the way their friendship began, Billingsley and Vaughn paid homage to "The Fourth Man" by performing the somewhat overwrought script onstage as a comedy act. Segments of their performance were included in Vaughn's documentary "Wild West Comedy Show: 30 Days and 30 Nights – Hollywood to the Heartland," which follows Vaughn and friends on a comedy tour around the country. In addition to appearing in the movie, Billingsley also produced the film.

Peter Billingsley is a multiple Emmy nominee

Though Peter Billingsley was consciously stepping back from acting in an attempt to move behind the camera, he acted in another afterschool special the year after "The Fourth Man." This one was called "The Writing On The Wall," and he played a kid who commits an antisemitic hate crime by defacing a temple with frightening graffiti. The special was critically acclaimed, and Billingsley was nominated for a Daytime Emmy for his role in the show.

The following decade, Billingsley found himself nominated again, this time for a Primetime Emmy. He was recognized for producing "Dinner for Five," a series where director (and frequent Vince Vaughn collaborator) Jon Favreau ate dinner with various celebrities. The "Hoboken Chicken Emergency" star told that his favorite episode involved Burt Reynolds, with whom he had worked as a child. "He's one heck of a storyteller, and, boy, has he been through a lot of generations," Billingsley remembered. "When you think back, he really kind of had a hit in every one of those generations ... it was really fun to hear him tell stories."

He's made a number of cameos in big films

Thanks to his longstanding friendship with Jon Favreau, Peter Billingsley can be spotted in small roles in his films "Elf" and "Iron Man." In the former, Billingsley plays an elf at Santa's Workshop. Decked out in a red version of Buddy's iconic green suit, he grills Will Ferrell's character about how many toys he's been able to produce. Interestingly, Billingsley's role is uncredited, meaning every so often the Internet realizes he's Ralphie from "A Christmas Story." 

"I didn't take credit," he told the Dan Patrick Show. "It's been fun to see people realize that I'm in 'Elf,' and they make this connection." When people ask him why he went uncredited, Billingsley said he tells them, "It's more fun to see your face like this now, when you realize it."

In "Iron Man," Billingsley produced the film and also played William Ginter Riva. Riva is the scientist on the receiving end of the now-iconic line: "Tony Stark was able to build this in a cave! With a box of scraps!" Billingsley told Vulture, "It's very easy to work with Jeff [Bridges] because he's so real, and he definitely did scare the s*** out of me in that moment when he leans in and screams at me." 

Billingsley brought the character back for "Spider-Man: Far From Home," in which Riva helps Jake Gyllenhaal's villainous Mysterio. "Who knows," he told Vulture. "Maybe William Ginter Riva will live again to fight another day."

He returned to Christmas films in 2008

Five years after appearing in "Elf," Peter Billingsley returned to holiday films. In addition to producing the movie, he had a small role as an airline representative in "Four Christmases," a comedy starring his friends Vince Vaughn and Jon Favreau. "I think we keep getting drawn and pulled into Christmas movies together, which has been awesome," Billingsley told Collider. In the film, Vaughn and Reese Witherspoon play a couple who are trying to visit all four of their divorced parents over one holiday season, and they encounter some trouble at the airport.

Billingsley and Vaughn discussed the movie on "A Christmas Cinematic Journey," reminiscing about the story's journey to the screen. In conclusion, Billingsley ruminated on why the film has stuck around. "A lot of people love that it's a little edgier than most, sort of, maybe more saccharine Christmas movies," he offered. "The cast is so good ... Check the iTunes around the Christmas season, and this movie is sneaking up in the top ranks every single year."

Peter Billingsley produced a musical based on his most famous role

Peter Billingsley produced "A Christmas Story: The Musical," an attempt to turn the classic holiday film into a stage show. He told Lancaster Online that it was a natural evolution from screen to stage. "Some films really lend themselves to the musical format and some don't. This one does," he said. "Ralphie was such a dreamer anyway, and was always having all these fantasies." Ralphie's flights of fancy were turned into musical numbers like "You'll Shoot Your Eye Out" and "Up On Santa's Lap." The music was written by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, the duo who would go on to write songs for "Dear Evan Hansen," "The Greatest Showman," and more.

At first, "A Christmas Story: The Musical" was a touring production. In 2012, the show opened on Broadway, according to Playbill. The musical was so acclaimed that it was nominated for several Tony Awards, including Best Musical, though it didn't wind up winning any. "A Christmas Story: The Musical" closed a few weeks after it opened — at the end of the holiday season — but the show returned in 2013 for a limited run at Madison Square Garden. Speaking with Theatermania about the show's second New York run, Billingsley promised that the show would be fun for the whole family, fans and newcomers alike. He concluded, "It seems to put everyone in the Christmas spirit."

He directed Couples Retreat and Term Life

In 1987, speaking with The Orlando Sentinel, Peter Billingsley expressed an interest in someday leaving acting to be a filmmaker. He cited "Happy Days" star Ron Howard, a fellow child star-turned-director, as an inspiration. "I might also like to move on to the other side of the camera sort of and try to maybe write or produce," he reflected. While working on "A Christmas Story," Billingsley shadowed director Bob Clark as much as he could. "Most kids finish a take and go back to the trailer. I hung around the set and asked a lot of questions," he told Lancaster Online.

Billingsley went on to direct his friend Vince Vaughn in two films, including 2009's "Couples Retreat" and 2016's "Term Life." The former starred Vaughn as a man who attends a therapy retreat to work things out with his wife. Billingsley told that he wanted to approach it by making sure to honor the reality of the moment, even if the situations were absurd. "Audiences appreciate it when you follow the trajectory a little more toward what the character would actually be feeling," he said.

"Term Life," on the other hand, is a thriller where Vaughn plays a hitman trying to survive so that his daughter can receive his life insurance payout. Billingsley told Cinemablend that he enjoyed shooting the film on location. "We're set in Atlanta, so we're shooting Atlanta for Atlanta, which is very freeing," he said.

Peter Billingsley married Buffy Bains in 2015

In 2015, Peter Billingsley's representatives announced to Us Weekly that he was engaged to a woman named Buffy Bains. The magazine wasn't able to get many details about the relationship, including how they met or what the proposal was like, but they did confirm that Bains was once a member of a Young Republicans club in Chicago. As of 2016, Bains was a fitness instructor at a Bar Method location in Marina Del Rey, a neighborhood of Los Angeles. The couple never actually announced their wedding, but Billingsley confirmed that they'd gotten hitched seven years later in a 2022 interview with People

In addition, he revealed for the first time that he was the father to two children, a daughter and a younger son. The following week, Billingsley appeared on "The Art of Fatherhood Podcast" and opened up about what it was like to become a dad. He said he'd realized that the love he felt for his children was like a new category of love, in addition to what you feel for your parents, siblings, spouse, and friends. "It's like this portal of love that you have as a dad, and you can't compare it to any other," he reflected. "It's this new unique thing, and it just, it hit me like a lightning bolt when we were in the hospital, the second she was born."

Peter Billingsley brought back Ralphie in A Christmas Story Christmas

There have been numerous sequels to "A Christmas Story." In 1988, "Ollie Hopnoodle's Haven of Bliss" followed the Parker family on summer vacation. This time, Ralphie was played by Jerry O'Connell. "My Summer Story," also titled "It Runs In The Family," followed in 1994; this one was also about the Parkers during the summer. Ralphie was once more recast, this time by future "Succession" star Kieran Culkin. Finally, Braeden Lemasters played Ralphie in the confusingly-titled fourth film, "A Christmas Story 2."

The series came back with 2022's "A Christmas Story Christmas," a Max Original. For the first time, Peter Billingsley reprised his most iconic role. Ralphie is now a father, dealing with kids of his own at Christmastime. He told People that he waited for just the right project. "If you re-approach something like this, you've got to get it right," he insisted. He especially wanted to do right by the first film's fans. "There's not only a fan base for this, but it's borderline sacred for a lot of people," he said.

Billingsley told Entertainment Weekly that he slipped right back into character, even though he hadn't properly led a film since 1985. "You get in that balance where you don't want to be mimicking the things you did as a kid, but you want to be trying to channel him," he said. "Since [Ralphie] never left me, it took a minute, but he got right back in there."

Peter Billingsley is also a podcaster

Beginning in 2022, Peter Billingsley began co-hosting a podcast called "A Christmas Cinematic Journey," produced by Vince Vaughn. According to a statement released to People, the series — which began with six episodes and then returned for another season in 2023 — aimed to "celebrate the nostalgia of classic holiday films while answering the question: Why do people love holiday movies so much?"

The show's first episode was, fittingly, about "A Christmas Story." Billingsley and his co-host Nick Schenk were joined by co-stars Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, and Ian Petrella to talk about the movie, swapping behind-the-scenes anecdotes and talking about the effect the movie had on their lives. Billingsley revealed that there were some scenes shot for the film that didn't make it in, including a Flash Gordon fantasy sequence that no longer exists. "This was before DVDs," he said, "and like, everyone doing featurettes and deleted scenes. So they just threw out the negative."

Billingsley seems to have enjoyed his trip down memory lane. In the final moments of the podcast's first episode, he reflected, "That was pretty great for me, to be able to move through the movie and the experiences and the history."