News and Commentary

Naughty Or Nice? Counting Down The Best On-Screen Santas
Left to right: Edmund Gwenn (1877 - 1959) as Kris Kringle, Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981) as Susan Walker and Maureen O'Hara as Doris Walker in 'Miracle On 34th Street', written and directed by George Seaton, 1947. (Photo by Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images)
Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

It takes a certain something to play Christmas’s most beloved figure. Any older gent with a beard and belly can approximate Kris Kringle. To bring the big guy to life on screen, however, requires something more substantial.

Humor. Heart. Gravitas. And the sense that the character knows if you’ve been naughty or nice.

Luckily, we’ve been blessed by some outrageously good Santas over the years, on screens both big and small. What unites some pretty disparate performances? Never winking at the audience, for starters.

Playing Santa means going all in. It’s not for those obsessed with meta moments or cynical asides. Santa is pure and noble, a selfless spirit that connects with one and all.

Sure, a few of the latter, grittier Santas turn the concept on its head, but the best Clauses never forget the core of the character.

Mickey Rooney

The Hollywood legend demands the top spot on this list even though we never saw him playing Santa. Rooney gave the character voice in five Christmas specials, including yuletide classics “The Year Without a Santa Claus” and “Santa Claus Is Coming to Town.”

No matter. Rooney remains the definitive Claus, from his creak, crusty voice to crooning songs like “Put One Foot in Front of the Other.”

Rooney captured the essential Santa spirit, from the endless reservoir of empathy to the hearty sense of humor. Generations of children grew up watching Rooney’s Christmas specials, and future generations will likely do the same.

Edmund Gwenn

The actor’s 1947 classic “Miracle on 34th Street” threaded the needle between reality and our Christmas dreams. Gwenn played a department store Santa who just might be the real deal. He’ll have to convince a judge of that, though, along with a cynical girl (Natalie Wood) and her family.

The brilliant concept wouldn’t work without the twinkle Gwenn delivers throughout the film, making it an integral part of any Christmas season. The actor certainly looked the part, but it’s the quiet dignity he brings to his legal fight, and the battle to win over young Wood, that makes him an essential Santa.

And he really threw himself into the part, dressing up as Santa during the 1946 Thanksgiving Day Parade while the film’s cameras rolled.

Left to right: Edmund Gwenn (1877 - 1959) as Kris Kringle, Natalie Wood (1938 - 1981) as Susan Walker and Maureen O'Hara as Doris Walker in 'Miracle On 34th Street', written and directed by George Seaton, 1947.

Silver Screen Collection/Getty Images

Ed Asner

The avowed socialist knows a thing or two about distribution. Perhaps that’s what helped him make “Elf” sparkle even brighter. The veteran actor has but a small role in the modern classic, but he plays it perfectly straight to let Buddy the Elf snare the requisite laughs.

Asner leans on Buddy during the film’s dramatic third act, but it’s his bond with the oversized Elf, and his cool under pressure, which sells the performance.

The actor previously met “Elf” director Jon Favreau while shooting the TV talk show “Dinner for Five,” giving them a comfort level that translated to the movie set.

Kurt Russell

The not so hidden secret about Santa Claus? He’s a cool cat, something the erstwhile Snake Plissken leans into in two “Christmas Chronicles” films. This Santa can rock, but it’s how Russell brings his decades of screen edge to the character.

Yes, Russell literally rocks out a time or two in the franchise, and while that won’t go over well with purists, Russell somehow makes the update connect with his character.

The sequel gets extra points for casting the actor’s longtime squeeze, Goldie Hawn, as Mrs. Claus. Only Scrooge could disapprove of that decision.

The first “Chronicle” generated more than 20 million views in its first week according to the Netflix bean counters. For part two, Russell wrote up a 200-page backstory to better flesh out the character.

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 18: Goldie Hawn (L) and Kurt Russell arrive at the Premiere of Netflix's "The Christmas Chronicles" at Fox Bruin Theater on November 18, 2018 in Los Angeles, California.

Rodin Eckenroth/Getty Images

Tim Allen

You can’t survive fame for three-plus decades without knowing what makes American audiences tick.

Enter Allen. He epitomizes that Everyman appeal, witness his twin sitcom smashes and not too shabby film career. The right-leaning comic snagged a surprise holiday hit with 1994’s “The Santa Clause,” a movie that literally turned him into ol’ St. Nick.

The comedy let Allen tap his softer side without sacrificing his signature comic chops. It also spawned a pair of sequels and a permanent place in many Christmas movie season lists.

Allen almost missed out on the whole Santa experience, though. The producers originally considered Mel Gibson, Tom Hanks and Bill Murray for the part.

“[Tim] can’t open a movie, he’s a TV star,” the producers claimed at the time.

Wrong again.

Billy Bob Thornton

The actor’s 2003 coal black comedy offers a sizable twist on the Santa Claus persona. This time, Thornton plays a crook who dresses up as Santa as part of the con. He doesn’t fill up stockings with toys. He takes whatever he can get his fingers on, thank you.

So why does he deserve a spot here?

This chronic criminal sees the light, to a degree, through his unconventional bond with lil’ kid (Brett Kelly), who could really use an ally.

How could a drunken, lecherous Santa become a holiday institution? Thornton himself weighed in on the subject.

“I think it’s the alternative to the real syrupy Christmas movies — I think people wanted that at the time and now, even more,” he told reporters.

The less said about the 2016 sequel, the better. Even Santa makes mistakes.

Mel Gibson

The latest entry on the list comes from a film many found abysmal, and for good reason. “Fatman” is a bald attempt to clone the “Bad Santa” vibe, and it fails in almost every way. 

“Fatman” follows a homicidal child who puts a hit out on Gibson’s Santa after they receive coal for Christmas.

Hilarious, right?

Casting Gibson, a gifted artist with demons aplenty, as Santa Claus proved the film’s sole inspiration.

Yet Gibson, along with an endearing Mrs. Claus (Marianne Jean-Baptiste), finds pathos in his character’s plight. In fact, the scenes of Mr. and Mrs. Claus canoodling are improbably sweet. Too bad everything else in “Fatman” proves sour.

Honorable Mention: Artie Lange

Mall Santas get little love. One recently fired Santa, in particular, earned every brickbat we can throw his way.

So the sight of Lange sitting on Santa’s throne (of lies) in “Elf” makes perfect sense. He’s a shlubby comedian in the Chris Farley mold, and when his iconic scene goes south he’s ready for the fight.

The visual of an overgrown Elf and a mall Santa in a battle royale in front of children is too crazy not to work.

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