Originally created 11/27/03

Movie Santa Clauses wear many faces



LOS ANGELES - Where else but in Hollywood would Santa Claus arrive bearing gifts, cuss words and even an ax?

Screen Santas have ranged from naughty to nice, including the polar opposites of Edmund Gwenn's saintly Kriss Kringle in the original Miracle on 34th Street to the ax-wielding psychopath dressed as Santa in the slasher flick Silent Night, Deadly Night.

This season's crop of St. Nicks features Billy Bob Thornton as a foul-mouthed, drunken thief who poses as a mall Santa so he and his helpers can pull off Christmas Eve heists in Bad Santa, which opened Wednesday.

Landing Tuesday on home video was last year's The Santa Clause 2, with Tim Allen reprising his role as a single dad who inherits St. Nick's job after accidentally killing Santa. The sequel sends him on a quest to find a bride, with Mr. Allen doing double duty as a fascist toy Santa replica that enslaves the North Pole with an iron will.

And there's Edward Asner in the current hit Elf as a wayworn Santa struggling to keep the holiday spirit alive in a world that has passed him by. Mr. Asner's Santa mistakenly brings an orphan infant home to the North Pole, where the baby grows into a towering man (Will Ferrell) who thinks he's an elf.

Mr. Asner has a long history as the man in the red suit.

"I've done so many Santa Clauses or characters close to it," Mr. Asner said. "I've got a good Santa stomach."

Mr. Asner's past Kringle credits include the voice of Santa in such animated TV specials as Olive, the Other Reindeer and The Story of Santa Claus and the live-action TV movie The Christmas Star, in which he played an escaped convict disguised as Santa to recover stolen loot.

With Elf, Mr. Asner brings a trace of his gruff Lou Grant persona from The Mary Tyler Moore Show, presenting a Santa who has seen a few too many Christmases to maintain his ho-ho-ho mojo at full power.

"I really had a feeling this Santa's bones were aching at times. He's wondering if he's getting too old for this job," Mr. Asner said. "I also had an undercurrent of feeling that this Santa liked to have the occasional or more than occasional nip."

In Bad Santa, Mr. Thornton takes far more than the occasional nip, playing a scruffy boozer who vomits in alleys and passes out in his Santa suit. Spewing profanity, Mr. Thornton's thieving Santa gets a lesson in holiday spirit from a misfit child convinced the shady crook is the real St. Nick.

With a hard R rating for language and sex but ultimately a warm, though twisted, heart, Bad Santa plays out like an episode of South Park that turns into It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Thornton said.

"What's great about the character, he's one of those guys who's so pathetic that you've got to love him," he said. "He's a sort of pitiful guy who's just sour all the time, and the fact that he ends up actually having a heart is great."

Previous Hollywood Santas generally have had more outward cheer about them. With 1947's Miracle on 34th Street, Mr. Gwenn set a Santa standard that few Christmas stories have rivaled since.

Mr. Gwenn's Kriss Kringle was the perfect Santa, a benevolent father figure with a perpetual twinkle in his eye.

The story - about a seeming nut case caught up in a public insanity trial for believing he's Santa Claus - has been remade several times for TV and the big screen, most recently in 1994's Miracle on 34th Street, with Richard Attenborough as Kringle.

Mr. Allen's wise guy St. Nick in The Santa Clause movies has become the quintessential Kringle for contemporary audiences. Ice Cube's Friday After Next from last year presented a Santa impersonator who broke into inner-city apartments to swipe Christmas presents.

Other big-screen treatments of St. Nick range from Dudley Moore's 1985 fantasy Santa Claus, with David Huddleston in the title role, to the campy 1964 B movie Santa Claus Conquers the Martians.

The 1983 favorite A Christmas Story features a brief encounter with a department-store Santa who's loud, boorish and a bit frightening as he and his "elves" rush children through the Santa's lap rigamarole with assembly-line brusqueness.

Many beloved Santas come from the small screen in such animated TV musicals as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Frosty the Snowman and Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.

"The Santa from the original Rudolph special was always my favorite," said Elf star Mr. Ferrell. "He and Mrs. Claus. She always seemed like the nicest lady ever. And I liked that that Santa was a little bit whiny. It just made him seem human. I like Santas with human flaws, that have lived life a little bit, who know the real world."

Bad Santa star Mr. Thornton wishes the real world had not intruded on his St. Nick fantasy when he was a boy.

"I was one of those kids who believed in Santa longer than he should have," said Mr. Thornton, who finally outgrew Santa at age 11 or 12. "I wanted so badly to believe in it that I finally asked my mother, and she gave the best answer.

"She said that there actually is a Santa Claus. Maybe not a guy that goes around the world and goes everywhere in one night and drops off things in your chimney. But there's the spirit of Christmas, so you can always believe in that."