As a young actor, Peter Billingsley took on one of his most memorable roles as “Ralphie” in the classic holiday film, A Christmas Story, which still plays every year on Christmas day on the cable channel TBS. In the film, which millions have seen, and—especially guys—adore, the oft-tormented young Ralphie is on a quest for a Red Rider BB Gun as a Christmas present, while constantly daydreaming about teachers and heroes, girls and fighting off the bullies in his snowbound-Midwestern world.
It is true Americana, and although it probably has not defined Billingsley as a person or an entertainment star (he is an accomplished producer with a hit on TV's Sullivan and Son, and another one coming on Broadway's A Christmas Story: The Musical), it certainly doesn’t hurt that over 30 years later Ralphie can still be a great calling card for the New York native.
From a sports perspective, guys of any age can see a clear tie between those who love to watch and play games and the father-son dynamic of Ralphie and “The Old Man.” What makes the tie even stronger to this day is that in real life Billingsley has been somewhat of a tormented sports fan, especially because of his love for the oft-maligned and star-crossed Arizona Cardinals, his longtime NFL team of choice.
As a youngster, Billingsley grew up in Manhattan, idolizing the Yankees of the late 1970’s and actually appearing in some commercials with the likes of Reggie Jackson, Billy Martin and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. However, his family moved to Phoenix after his ninth birthday, and since neither the Jets nor the Giants of the 1970’s were anything to write home about, becoming a fan of this newly transplanted franchise seemed like a natural choice. The result has been a growing and passionate following for the team from the desert, through all their trials and tribulations.
Billingsley recently said,
When I moved to Phoenix, it was tough to leave all that greatness in sports behind, but you get pulled into the newness of what was going on in sports there, which at the time wasn’t much. I got to Arizona in 1980, before the Cardinals, Diamondbacks and Coyotes. The sun rose and set with the Phoenix Suns, and it wasn’t very spectacular. But I became a loyal fan and went to a lot of games. This was long before the championship run of Charles Barkley. It was the good old days of short shorts, high tube socks and sweat bands. Guys like Alvin Adams, Sweet D Walter Davis, Larry Nance, and Kyle Macy became my basketball heroes.
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But a lot of that changed when owner Bill Bidwell announced that he was bringing the NFL to Arizona. For a young sports fan, it was like a Christmas gift in the heat of the desert summer. “When the St. Louis Cardinals arrived in Arizona as the Phoenix Cardinals, I became a fan and still am today,” Billingsley added.
Initially it was tough for us, and I’m sure on the players as well. You basically wake up one morning and someone says, "Here’s your new team and your new city." I would go to a lot of games, but since most people in Arizona were transplants, half the time it felt like a home game for the other team. The Cardinals have long since left that reputation behind them. They have an awesome new stadium, great coaching staff and everyone remembers their Super Bowl appearance in 2009 with Kurt Warner. Kurt came to the premier of [the film] Couple’s Retreat, and I got a chance to meet him. I know some people warn against meeting your heroes, but getting a chance to spend time with Kurt and his wife Brenda did not disappoint.
Still, apart from the good times, there were the tough early days, rooting for players who were cast-offs or mismanaged in front of houses that in many ways were filled with fans rooting for the opponent. Billingsley recounted Sundays at Sun Devil Stadium, where the stands were awash in Cowboys colors or Big Blue for the New York Giants. The Cards tried to build a fanbase among people who were transplants themselves and didn’t want to change their rooting after decades, especially with Arizona still dropped in the NFC East, the former home of the St. Louis Cardinals.
“It was tough for a while, you would say you were a Cardinals fan, and everyone thought baseball. You would have to say no the FOOTBALL Cardinals the ones who play here, and you would get a quizzical look, but we persevered," Billingsley said.
One inspiration he thinks came delivered from Hollywood in the form of the film Jerry Maguire. Tom Cruise’s client is downtrodden Cards receiver "Rod Tidwell" (played by Cuba Gooding, Jr.), who steals the show and the hearts of millions in leading the fictitious Cardinals to the Super Bowl.
“It was like people came out of the movie and found out we had a team. Suddenly, it was cool to be a Cardinals fan, and having Jake Plummer as our quarterback at that point didn’t hurt either.”
These days, Billingsley spends a good deal of time in LA, a city still without a football team, and New York, where the Giants are defending Super Bowl champs and the Jets are at least great theater, but his loyalties still run to the desert.
“I have really enjoyed the team the last few years, with guys like Bolden and Fitzgerald and a management team which has the franchise going in the right direction, and I know many of the people I grew up with in Arizona who were there at the start are having fun now too,” added Billingsley, who is also a diehard fantasy football player. “They come to New York in a few weeks, so maybe we can sneak a few of the guys in to see the show, so long as it doesn’t do anything to break the traditions of preparation for the Jets.”
As far as what Ralphie would have enjoyed in sports, Billingsley said it was probably football. “The musical and the movie are in the Midwest, and we talk about both the Bears and the Packers in the script,” he added.
“Ralphie and his father are definitely football fans, and I’m sure would have adored Vince Lombardi’s Packers and the Lions of Alex Karras and crew. Ralphie also got pushed around a lot by some of the bullies, so he was used to getting knocked down and getting back up.”
It is that father-son bond that Billingsley believes will also draw sports fans to the Lunt-Fontanne Theater for the musical, which starts previews this week and opens November 19th through the end of December. It also doesn’t hurt that Dan Lauria, who many guys enjoyed in The Wonder Years and then on Broadway in Lombardi will be the narrator in the musical.
“Dan is an amazing talent who guys also identify with, and loves sports, especially the Giants and the Yankees, so he helps complete the picture for everyone coming to see the show. It will be a great fit for a really larger audience than most shows for the holidays.”
All great stuff for an NFL Cardinals fan, who sees positive things coming for his work and his team.
Jerry Milani is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained first-hand.