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‘A Christmas Story’ star Peter Billingsley calls sequel ‘a love letter to the Old Man’

Darren McGavin, who who played the leg lamp-loving father in the original, died in 2006.
/ Source: TODAY

It's been almost 40 years since Ralphie got his beloved BB gun (and nearly lost an eye), his father won a "major award" leg lamp and poor Flick stuck his tongue to a frozen pole in 1983's "A Christmas Story," a movie that's become a hilarious holiday staple.

But the long-awaited sequel, "A Christmas Story Christmas" isn't only going to follow the adventures of a now-grown Ralphie in 1973 (still played by Peter Billingsley, now 51). As Billingsley tells People magazine in a new interview, it's also going to be a tribute to his co-star Darren McGavin, who played his dad ("The Old Man") on camera and died in 2006 at age 83.

A Christmas Story. from left: Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella, Peter Billingsley, 1983.
From left: Melinda Dillon, Darren McGavin, Ian Petrella and Peter Billingsley in "A Christmas Story" in 1983. ©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

"It very much is, in many ways, a love letter to the Old Man character and to Darren himself," he says. "Darren was the best. He was such a gifted actor and a great person and such a mentor to me in the shooting of the first film and was kind of like having (another) dad."

"A Christmas Story Christmas," which premieres Nov. 17 on HBO Max, features several other original cast members reprising their roles: Ian Petrella (as Ralphie's brother Randy), Scott Schwartz (Flick), R.D. Robb (Schwartz) and Zack Ward (the "yellow-eyed" bully Scut Farkus).

A Christmas Story. Peter Billingsley, Ian Petrella, Darrin McGavin, Melinda Dillon, 1983.
Ralphie and his family in "A Christmas Story.:©MGM/Courtesy Everett Collection

Billingsley says that the film, which was in development for nearly four years, had to get the right "tone" and recognize that Ralphie's family is far from perfect. With "the resources" that the new film had, he says they were able to re-create a lot of the familiar sets from the original film, including Ralphie's family home and the home of the Bumpus family, owners of the turkey-devouring dog herd.

"To get those details right was such an important aspect to us that all those pieces had to align ... (we had) to have the story right," he explains.

Newcomers to the cast include Erinn Hayes (Ralphie's wife, Sandy); River Drosche (his son Mark), Julianna Layne (his daughter Julie) and Julie Hagerty (taking over from Melinda Dillon as Ralphie's mom; Dillon retired from acting in 2007).

Actor Peter Billingsley on February 3, 2018 in Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Peter Billingsley in 2018.Michael Loccisano / Getty Images

"A Christmas Story" was originally based on the 1966 book "In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash" by Jean Shepherd, who narrated the 1983 film. A 2012 sequel, "A Christmas Story 2," tried to recapture the magic with Daniel Stern playing McGavin's Old Man and Ralph played by Braeden Lemasters (with clearly dyed blond hair), but it wasn't well received. Billingsley helped produce the Broadway musical based on the original that same year, and it was nominated for three Tonys.

Billingsley won't reveal much about the new film's plot except to emphasize that Ralphie may be grown up, "but he's still a dreamer." It's a production he thinks McGavin would have appreciated. Regardless, Billingsley himself is proud of Ralphie's adventures.

"It's not something I could have run from, had I chosen to," he says. "And so it’s certainly something that I welcome."