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Whether he's called Santa Claus, St. Nick, Kris Kringle or Father Christmas, the man in the big red suit is a regular sight in holiday movies.
Tim Allen, Ed Asner, Paul Giamatti and Leslie Nielsen are just some of the actors who've donned Santa's white beard and black boots in live-action films on the big screen.
The history of live-action portrayals of the jolly gift-giver goes all the way back to 1898, when the less-than-two-minute short film simply titled Santa Claus was created by pioneering filmmaker G.A. Smith. It is the earliest known example of parallel action, according to the British Film Institute, creating the first iconic moving images of Santa entering a house through the roof while a young child lies sleeping in bed.
Harold Smith played Santa Claus in that film, regarded as the first ever Christmas movie, but the motif of the character, from his beard, to his suit and his pointy hat, continue to identify the holiday character more than a century after his first portrayal.
As you prepare for Christmas, take a look at some of the other actors who've made a list and checked it twice in movies like Home Alone, Elf, A Christmas Story and multiple versions of Miracle on 34th Street.
Edmund Gwenn - 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1947); Richard Attenborough – 'Miracle on 34th Street' (1994)
Edmund Gwenn (1947) and, later, Richard Attenborough (1994) assume the role of Santa Claus in the Christmas classic, Miracle on 34th Street. An old man modestly dressed in a brown trench coat, who has dubbed himself Kris Kringle, claims he is the real Santa Claus after the original Santa’s responsibilities were revoked. Once Kringle takes the lead as Santa, he begins to convince the town of his new identity, which leads to a court case to question his authenticity. These two actors, separated by nearly 50 years but connected by the famous role, both persuaded audiences to believe in the power of Christmas and the reality of Santa Claus.
Jeff Gillen - 'A Christmas Story' (1983)
This Santa, played by Jeff Gillen, is famous for telling the film's young protagonist, Ralphie (Peter Billingsley), that he’ll “shoot his eye out” with the gun he wants for Christmas. Ralphie is excited to see the gun under his tree Christmas morning, but does, in fact, hurt his eye as Santa and others predicted he would.
Jan Rubes - 'One Magic Christmas' (1985)
One magic Santa (Jan Rubes) is the only one who can fix the Grainger family’s horrific Christmas in this 1985 film. Jack Grainger (Gary Basaraba) is laid off and must move out of the company house. His family having little money and Jack with no leads on a new job, he begs his wife, Ginny (Mary Steenburgen), to let him take their savings to open a bike shop. Their daughter, Abbie (Elisabeth Harnois), attempts to send a letter to Santa to ask for some Christmas solace. Ultimately Rubes' Santa reminds Ginny and viewers what's really important during the holidays.
David Huddleston - 'Santa Claus: The Movie' (1985)
This Santa Claus origin story tells the tale of a woodcutter named Claus, who spends his days making toys for the village children. In an attempt to deliver his gifts, he and his wife, along with their two reindeer, are caught in a snow storm that ultimately takes their lives. In death, they are taken to the “ice mountains,” which are inhabited by a community of elves who share with Claus their desire to do as he does: make toys to deliver to children worldwide. They tell Claus that they can work together and can get gifts to the children each Christmas Eve. The reigning elf renames him Santa Claus and he remains in this role for the remainder of time, frozen in his age.
Ken Hudson Campbell - 'Home Alone' (1990)
Ken Hudson Campbell doesn’t play the real Santa in Home Alone, but instead he's a Santa Claus impersonator with whom Kevin McCallister (Macaulay Culkin) interacts when he is looking for his family around town. Kevin tells this Santa that he knows he isn’t the actual Santa Claus – “I’m old enough to know how this works” – but one of Santa’s workers and makes him promise to tell the real Santa that he doesn’t want presents this year, only for his family to return home.
Leslie Nielsen - 'All I Want for Christmas' (1991)
Leslie Nielsen takes on an unusual task for the average Santa in All I Want for Christmas, when Hallie O’Fallon (Thora Birch) tells Nielsen's Macy's Santa that for Christmas, she wants her parents to get back together. The request is just part of Hallie and her brother Ethan's (Ethan Embry) attempts to reunite their folks.
Tim Allen - The 'Santa Clause' Series (1994, 2002, 2006)
The first film in The Santa Clause trilogy hit the theaters in 1994 with Tim Allen making his debut as Saint Nick. When dad Scott Calvin (Allen) accidentally scares Santa off the roof of his house, Scott assumes the role of Santa for the rest of the night, much to the delight of his young son. When the sleigh inevitably returns Scott to the North Pole, the elves explain that when he put on the suit and stepped in the sleigh, he agreed to "The Santa Clause," a contract that explains that whoever wears the suit agrees to the responsibilities of that position. The second and third installments in the series follow Scott’s new life as Father Christmas and lock Allen in as a known Santa Claus.
Billy Bob Thornton - 'Bad Santa' (2003) and 'Bad Santa 2' (2016)
In the two Christmas-connected comedies, Billy Bob Thornton plays an untraditional Santa – a robber, a drunk and a sex addict. Willie (Thornton) and his buddy Marcus (Tony Cox) are conmen who pose as Santa Claus in malls to later hack into the security systems and steal from the stores. A connection he develops with a boy causes Willie to attempt to turn his life around for the better, hanging up the red suit and leaving his days as a Santa Claus conman behind him.
Ed Asner - 'Elf' (2003)
On Christmas Eve 1973, Elf’s Santa Claus (Ed Asner) is dropping off gifts in an orphanage and returns to the North Pole with a baby boy he names Buddy (Will Ferrell). Santa helps to raise Buddy, as an elf, and later helps Buddy reconnect with his American family. When Buddy faces Christmas negativity in Manhattan and Santa's sleigh plummets in Central Park, unable to fly because of the lack of Christmas spirit, Santa and Buddy work hard to encourage New Yorkers to believe so they can finish getting all of the kids their gifts on Christmas Eve. Asner reprised his role for the 2014 animated film Elf: Buddy's Musical Christmas.
Austin Pendleton - 'Christmas with the Kranks' (2004)
The Kranks (played by Tim Allen and Jamie Lee Curtis), a couple known to be avid participants in Christmas festivities, boycott the holiday when their daughter, Blair (Julie Gonzalo), leaves for the Peace Corps during the holiday season. The town is angered, with local vendors losing major business from the Kranks alone. When Blair surprises her parents for the holiday, they scramble to assemble their normal Christmas decorations and Christmas Eve celebration. Through this, the Kranks remember why they love Christmas and what the real meaning of the holiday is. Santa, played by Austin Pendleton, is seen selling umbrellas on a street corner and later resurfaces as Marty, an almost supernatural addition to the town that shows hints of Santa Claus' magic everywhere.
James Cosmo - 'The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe' (2005)
James Cosmo plays Santa Claus in the first film of the Chronicles of Narnia series, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Narnia, the seemingly make-believe land hidden in the depths of a wardrobe in a London estate – where four children seek refuge – has been struck with a never-ending winter that will continue as long as the White Witch remains in power. As the children venture through Narnia in an attempt to save the land from the curse, they meet Father Christmas who assures the children that winter is coming to an end.
Paul Giamatti - 'Fred Claus' (2007)
Saint Nick’s (Paul Giamatti) brother, the lesser-known Claus, Fred (Vince Vaughn), is constantly angered by Nick’s desire to do good and give back to the community. Nick takes on the role of the modern-day Santa Claus, dedicating his life’s work to giving to others. Fred, meanwhile, makes a mess of the workshop when he visits the North Pole to help his brother for some pocket change, which propels Clyde, an efficiency expert there to evaluate the North Pole, to shut down Christmas altogether. With Nick out of power, Fred, after having a change of heart, takes on the responsibility of his brother’s role and saves Christmas by delivering gifts to children around the world.
Kurt Russell - 'The Christmas Chronicles' (2018)
Netflix got into the Christmas movie game with 2018's The Christmas Chronicles, starring Kurt Russell as a more rough and tumble kind of Santa Claus. When Teddy (Judah Lewis) and Kate (Darby Camp), the two children of a down-on-her-luck widow Claire (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) manage to sneak aboard Santa's sleigh on Christmas Eve, chaos ensues. The sleigh crashes and Santa's time-warping hat are lost somewhere over Chicago, forcing the trio to try and repair the sled and find the lost hat before the Christmas spirit is lost forever.
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