"A Christmas Story Christmas" premieres Thursday. Photo courtesy of HBO Max
NEW YORK, Nov. 17 (UPI) -- Peter Billingsley says it took so long to make the sequel to his 1983 holiday classic, A Christmas Story, because everyone involved wanted it to be as close to perfect as possible, knowing how so many people cherish the original.
"It's been 39 years. That's a long time! It was probably becoming a little 'now or never,' I think," the 51-year-old actor/producer told UPI in a recent phone interview.
"It took some time to get it right," he said. "The original film is very dear to my heart and I know that sentiment is shared by a lot of fans around the world. Certainly, if this were in my lap, I wouldn't want to screw it up."
During its four years in active development, the filmmakers were able to option some of Jean Shepherd's essays and incorporate them into the screenplay that director Clay Kaytis wrote with Nick Schenk, based on a story by Billingsley and Shenk.
The result is A Christmas Story Christmas, premiering Thursday on HBO Max.
Set in 1973, the film follows grownup Ralphie Parker as he brings his wife and young kids from Chicago to his childhood home on Cleveland Street in Indiana for the holidays after the recent death of his father.
"We really wanted to be able to create that neighborhood, create the universe that feels like fans of the original were teleported right back into," Billingsley said.
He emphasized that everyone wanted to make a movie that was familiar and heartwarming, with callbacks to the original, but not a shot-for-shot remake with nothing new to say.
"We built 11 structures from the old Cleveland Street, including the Parker house and the Bumpus house next door," he said. "In order to have the resources to do that was something we had to get right. The whole original kid cast, we wanted to come back."
The actor said it was a "wild" experience seeing buildings that have been seared into his memory recreated in front of him.
"When we really got the whole street done, all the original cast was back at their hotels," he recalled, referring to a group that included Scott Schwartz, R.D. Robb, Zack Ward and Ian Petrella -- Ralphie's friends Flick and Schwartz, bully Scut Farkus, and Ralphie's little brother, Randy.
"I was looking at the schedule and I was like, 'I don't think we are all in a scene here on the same day.' So, I called them and I said: 'Guys, you've gotta get down here!'" he added.
"They all drove over and got out of their cars. It was fun to watch their faces. They could not believe it because it felt so much like we were back there."
Billingsley was 12 when he made the original movie and has vivid memories of his time on set, particularly in Higbee's department store, which had a slide kids would use to come down from a platform after meeting Santa Claus.
"If you build a slide like that somewhere and you have kids, you will not get them off of it," he said, remembering how the younger members of the ensemble would get yelled at by the adults.
"It was great, though. We got along, the kid cast, all of us did. Certainly, it was an exceptional experience for all of us to be back and doing this again."
The new film strives to properly honor Ralphie's father, lovingly referred to by everyone as the Old Man, without casting a pall on the story's joy and humor.
"Darren McGavin, who played the Old Man, was such a good actor and it's such a good performance. He is kind of like an iconic dad for us," Billingsley said.
McGavin died in 2006 at age 83.
"The thought of Ralphie trying to fill those shoes was a pretty exciting starting place. He loved his Old Man. They had a great relationship," Billingsley said, describing the new film as an "homage to dads in general and, certainly, to the Old Man."
"As a kid, all you want is the perfect Christmas gift. That's what Ralphie wanted -- a BB gun. We can all relate to that. But, then when you are a parent, all you want is for Christmas to be perfect for your kids. That comes with its own set of pressures and it gave us a quest that we thought was fun and relatable."
Ralphie is seen in the new movie teaming up with his mother (Julie Hagerty) and wife Sandy (Erinn Hayes) to give kids Mark (River Drosche) and Julie (Julianna Layne) a magical holiday like the ones he remembers as a boy.
Billingsley is still amazed at the life the franchise has had.
Although it was not immediately a hit when it was released in theaters, cable TV networks TBS and TNT have played A Christmas Story for the 24 hours leading up to Christmas since the 1990s, making it a must-watch tradition for many families.
"Through cable and video, this thing would start climbing back up the charts," he said. "It's been nice to see the movie sustain and grow an audience over the last 39 years."
Peter Billingsley attends the premiere "A Christmas Story Christmas" at the Gene Autry Museum in Los Angeles on November 12, 2022. Photo by Jim Ruymen/UPI | License Photo