An official Red Ryder carbine-action 200-shot range model air rifle. That's ''the Holy Grail of Christmas gifts'' the present that pint-size, bespectacled Ralphie Parker campaigns for during a 1940s Indiana winter in 1983's holiday comedy A Christmas Story. Adapted from Jean Shepherd's 1966 memoir In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, the film starred 12-year-old Peter Billingsley as owlish, dreamy Ralphie. Shortly thereafter, though, Billingsley seemed to melt out of sight like a Christmas snowfall.
An actor since age 2 1/2, Billingsley had more than a hundred commercials (he pitched videogames with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), five features (Paternity, Death Valley), and a TV gig (Real People) under his belt by the time he was cast in Story. ''He was the first kid I saw, and I saw 10,000 more,'' says director Bob Clark. ''I worried he might be overexposed because of the TV show, but when I heard him, I thought that was it. But I had to see the 10,000 anyway.''
Now 25 and dividing his time between West Los Angeles, New York, and Phoenix, Billingsley briefly attended Phoenix College but opted for full-time showbiz instead. He has spent the last 13 years producing, editing, and directing a variety of films and acting in TV movies (he received a 1995 Emmy nomination for CBS' The Writing on the Wall). His role in the just-finished independent feature No Deposit, No Return sounds like a 180-degree shift from Ralphie: ''I betray my best friend, borrow money from a loan shark, nearly overdose on crystal meth, and then commit suicide in a bathtub,'' he laughs. ''It was a lot of fun.'' He's also signed to direct a family feature this spring about a young boy's coming of age (no air rifle in this one). In his free time, he sometimes plays golf with Clark.
Meanwhile, despite little fanfare and limited theatrical release, A Christmas Story has become a modern-day holiday tradition, thanks to cable television (it airs six times this month on TNT and TBS) and video (it makes Billboard's top 40 sales chart for at least five weeks each year). The film even spawned a sequel, 1994's My Summer Story (which starred Kieran Culkin).
Billingsley's own Christmas story has him spending each Yuletide with his family (mom Gail; dad Alwin, a financial consultant; and his four older siblings), singing, drinking eggnog, and partaking in a late-night reading of '''Twas the Night Before Christmas.'' He's not bothered that so far nothing has matched his achievement as Ralphie. ''Odds are,'' he says, ''there'sonly one time in any career that you can have a badge that wonderful.''
Dec. 20, 1983
TV viewers spent their evenings in Dallas, readers paid a visit to Stephen King's Pet Sematary; Sudden Impact hit moviegoers hard; and Paul McCartney and Michael Jackson sang, sang, sang ''Say Say Say.''