In Hollywood, Santa Claus comes in all stripes, from the childlike Edmund Gwenn in “Miracle on 34th Street” to North Pole draftee Tim Allen in “The Santa Clause” flicks to gutter-mouth Billy Bob Thornton in “Bad Santa.”
The latest incarnation is a thoroughly modern Santa: Overworked, stressed-out over his whitening hair, battling to maintain inventory, and squaring off against an efficiency expert who wants to downsize St. Nick out of a job.
As played by Paul Giamatti in “Fred Claus,” Santa tries to keep the ho-ho-ho in his voice despite a weight problem and a centuries-old case of sibling rivalry involving his black-sheep brother (Vince Vaughn).
“I just got such a kick out of seeing Santa Claus as a human being with, like, his issues of being a saint and having to take care of everyone, and how he’s carrying that,” said “Fred Claus” director David Dobkin.
The movie mold for Santa was established by Gwenn in 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.” Richard Attenborough did a sturdy take on Gwenn’s character in a 1994 remake, while Ed Asner played an endearingly wayworn Santa in Will Ferrell’s 2003 comedy “Elf.”
Thornton was the anti-Claus in the expletive-laden “Bad Santa” as a boozehound who uses his store Santa gigs to pull off Christmas Eve burglaries.
Competing with Edmund GwennAllen has been the modern standard-bearer, playing a mortal who inherits St. Nick’s job in 1994’s “The Santa Clause.” He reprised the role in two sequels, done up in the classic trappings of the ruddy-faced Santa.
“When I’m up there in full regalia, in the full coat and beard, you think, it’s Santa,” said Allen, whose “The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause” debuts Nov. 20 on DVD. “The look we went for is like the Santas on the Coca-Cola tins from the early 1900s. That’s the Santa I responded to.”
Even Allen acknowledged he had big boots to fill in Gwenn’s wake.
“That’s to me my only competition. Face to face, in that black and white, he kills me,” Allen said. “He’s probably the top rung. He did the bait-and-switch where you never knew for sure whether he was the real deal.”
Gwenn played a slightly daffy yet infinitely lovable old coot who lands a job as a Macy’s store Santa and revives the spirit of the season for a single mom and her daughter.
“He probably represents the epitome of the kindly old man who gave of himself and was the essence of a paternal, all-is-well figure. It is the essential Santa Claus,” said William Shatner, narrator of “Stalking Santa,” a mock documentary that came out on DVD Tuesday tracing an obsessive man’s quest to prove Santa is real.
“That image of Santa, incredibly generous and loving and patient and supportive, it was just a great idea of what Santa was,” said Kevin Spacey, who plays the conniving efficiency expert trying to shut down the North Pole in “Fred Claus.” “And then you get Paul Giamatti.”
‘A little bit of a Shakespearean Santa’In “Fred Claus,” Giamatti does a weary, harried Santa trying to keep everybody happy — his corporate overseers, his needling wife (Miranda Richardson), his adoring but judgmental mom (Kathy Bates), his legion of elves and all the kids of the world.
Complicating matters is brother Fred, a huckster who hits up his sibling for some quick cash and reluctantly agrees to work it off at the North Pole. Fred’s spent eons envying Nick, the favorite son who could do no wrong.
Jessie Nelson, a producer on “Fred Claus” who came up with the story, said the idea hit her one night as she tucked her young daughter in bed.
“She said to me, ‘Does Santa Claus have a family?”’ Nelson said. “‘Does he have a brother?’ I said, ‘Yes, he has a brother.’ Then I began to think, it must be so hard to be Santa Claus’ brother, because he’s this perfect kid. He’s jolly, he’s always giving away his birthday presents, he’s laughing all the time. It must have been so tough to grow up in the shadow of that.”
Giamatti found some odd inspiration for his Santa emulation. While watching TV during the movie shoot, Giamatti caught the campy cult flick “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians,” in which St. Nick is abducted by aliens.
“The guy’s actually really good in that movie,” Giamatti said. “He’s really sort of dark and adult in that movie. He’s got a lot of gravitas. A little bit of a Shakespearean Santa.”
Grinch or Billy Bob? Everyone has a favorite
In an interview alongside each other in a Warner Bros. sound stage, sitting in front of a two-seater sleigh used in “Fred Claus,” Giamatti and Vaughn compared notes on their Santa encounters.
Vaughn said he loves the little Santas in such stop-motion animation TV specials as “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town.” He also thinks some actors more than others possess the right grandfatherly qualities people want in their Santas.
“Was it Burl Ives that did some voice?” Vaughn said. “I think that he and James Earl Jones played Santa at one point. Even if they didn’t, in my mind they did, and you’ll never prove that they didn’t.”
(Ives did not play Santa but was the snowman narrator of TV’s “Rudolph,” while Jones provided the voice of Santa for episodes of the animated show “Recess” and co-starred in the TV movie “Santa and Pete.”)
Like many TV viewers, Giamatti is fond of a particular Santa poseur.
“Hey, the Grinch is good. I’d forgotten about him. He does a good Santa Claus job,” Giamatti said of the creepy cave-dweller who impersonates St. Nick in “Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.”
And like the little brother who screams in terror at a store Santa in the 1983 holiday gem “A Christmas Story,” Giamatti finds something creepy in just about anyone who puts on the red suit.
“I was scared when I went and met the guy. He freaked me out,” Giamatti said of his childhood experiences with store Santas. “My kid when he came to visit the set was kind of freaked out by me in the costume. There’s something a little bit off about it. It’s red and it’s white and it’s big! It’s a lot for a kid.”
“And you’re going, HO HO HO!” Vaughn said.
“Yeah, that and being a little bit ... demonic,” Giamatti said. “So it can be scary for kids, I think. I know I was scared by the department store guy.”
Some people like their Santas demonic. “Fred Claus” co-star Chris “Ludacris” Bridges doesn’t hesitate when asked about his favorite Santa flick.
“‘Bad Santa’ with Billy Bob Thornton,” said Bridges, whose head was digitally grafted onto an elf’s body as the North Pole’s DJ in “Fred Claus,” in which he plays “Here Comes Santa Claus” over and over to inspire Santa’s helpers. “I love him for being a very bad Santa, taking the whole idea and just flipping it to reality. I thought that was funny as hell, man.”