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Peter Billingsley a natural for 'Couples Retreat'

THE DIRECTORS

The actor who played Ralphie in 'A Christmas Story' moved behind the camera as an adult, producing films. Now he makes his feature film directing debut with 'Couples Retreat.'

September 13, 2009|Glenn Whipp

Not long after meeting as costars of a 1990 after-school special about steroids, Peter Billingsley and Vince Vaughn rented an apartment together in Hollywood with three other guys. Vaughn had just started acting; Billingsley, nearly a decade removed from playing the Red Ryder BB gun-obsessed kid in "A Christmas Story," was 20 and already contemplating a career change.

Aside from the Top Ramen noodles and the late-night walks around the block talking about the future and what Vaughn describes as the "towels that would move on the floor," Vaughn remembers one other thing about those days -- he could never persuade Billingsley to come to the racetrack with him.

"If I didn't have an audition, I'd go to the track," Vaughn says. "And Pete would be, 'No, I can't. I'm working today.' And I'd say, 'Pete, you don't have a job. You can take one day off.' But he would not break from his daily routine of working, whether it was learning how to edit or going to school or trying to set something up."

That discipline has carried Billingsley into the second phase of a movie career that has eclipsed what he did as little Ralphie, the 9-year-old boy with the big glasses whose mother feared he'd shoot his eye out.

After spending the last decade collaborating as a producer with Vaughn and Jon Favreau variously on "Iron Man," "The Break-Up" and "Made," Billingsley makes his feature film directorial debut Oct. 9 with the fish-out-of-water comedy "Couples Retreat." The movie, co-written by Vaughn, Favreau and Dana Fox, began life when Vaughn wondered why there were so many movies about guys going off on journeys of self-discovery but nothing about couples doing the same thing. Favreau was going to direct and Billingsley would produce.

But those assignments turned into a game of musical chairs when Favreau needed to start prepping "Iron Man 2." Billingsley's new responsibility struck everyone as a natural extension of what Favreau calls the "backstop work" he had long been doing as a producer. Or, as Billingsley puts it: "The pursuit of directing was never about having to direct. On this particular movie, it just made sense."

That kind of practical self-awareness, as much as anything, defines the 38-year-old Billingsley, the rare child star able, like Ron Howard and Jodie Foster, to fashion a second act in Hollywood and still remain grounded. Between bites of a pastrami sandwich at a restaurant near his Hollywood Hills home, the strikingly blue-eyed Billingsley (he ditched the glasses long ago for contacts) credits his parents for developing an early perspective on priorities.

"They saw my career as an opportunity, but the emphasis was always more about who I was as a person and how I fit into the family," Billingsley says. "The question wasn't what audition came next. It was: Had I got my chores done?"

Growing up in Phoenix also kept Hollywood at a distance, though it didn't keep Billingsley from working steadily as a child actor. Most of his energy, and he admits to being a hyperactive kid, was spent on commercial work, notably his run as Messy Marvin, the crazy, bespectacled kid in a series of Hershey's chocolate syrup commercials.

In the early '80s, right before "A Christmas Story," Billingsley landed roles in two high-profile films -- John Schlesinger's big-budget comedy "Honky Tonk Freeway" and "Paternity," which starred Burt Reynolds at the height of his popularity.

Both movies bombed.

"Everyone was convinced they were going to be huge," Billingsley remembers. " 'Honky Tonk Freeway' had all this crazy [stuff] -- an elephant on water skis, a rhinoceros running down the freeway. 'Paternity' had big movie stars. They were supposed to change my life, but nobody saw them."

The Billingsley movie that audiences did see was only a modest hit in theaters. Arriving in 1983, just as cable and home video were redefining viewing habits, "A Christmas Story" has enjoyed a phenomenal second life with TBS annually devoting 24-hour marathons to the movie around the holidays.

"There's no pandering in that movie at all, and I think that's what people respond to," Billingsley says. "There's a lot of meanness in it, and some of the fantasy sequences are extreme. And ultimately it's about a child pursuing a gun." Billingsley shakes his head, laughing. "That movie would have a hard time getting made today."

The movie's director, Bob Clark, became a mentor, telling Billingsley to learn editing as a way into telling stories from the other side of the camera. By the time he met Vaughn on "The Fourth Man," the after-school special that the two parodied onstage in the 2006 documentary "Wild West Comedy Show," Billingsley was knee-deep in career transition.

"When you're a child actor and play the precocious kid, the temptation is to wear leather pants or a cutoff shirt to redefine yourself," Billingsley says. "But I never felt the need to randomly reshuffle the deck and say, 'Don't call me Peter. Call me Pete.' I just figured you evolve naturally and you'll be recognized for what your successes are."

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