With Christmas just around the corner, and our episode devoted to Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer coming this Thursday (look for it on iTunes), we’ve decided to salute our Top 5 Underrated Santa Clauses. Sure Miracle on 34th Street was great, but stop hogging the spotlight Edmund Gwenn, give some other Santas a chance!
5. Douglas Seale & Oliver Clark in Ernest Saves Christmas
Like a parasite which must find a new host once it has sucked the old one dry, so too must the spirit of Santa Claus bury itself within new flesh to renew the magic of Christmas. In 1988’s Ernest Saves Christmas, Jim Varney’s titular nitwit and a random runaway named Harmony must help an aged and doddering Santa (Douglas Seale) find somebody to take his powers before it’s too late. If they don’t then Christmas will be lost forever.
Santa has his eye on Joe Carruthers, a good-hearted former children’s television host (Oliver Clark) for the gig– but when St. Nick’s pick hesitates, Ernest must take up the reins of Santa’s sleigh in the interim and deliver all the weird glowing orbs to the good girls and boys. In the end, Carruthers comes around, putting on the suit to bring the world joy as Santa Claus for years to come (or at least until he falls from Tim Allen’s roof).
4. John Goodman in Futurama
Who doesn’t love John Goodman? Nobody. Maybe some sort of Grinch-type character living in a mountain somewhere, but why do you care what he thinks? From Roseanne to The Big Lebowski to this year’s Argo, Goodman is one of the mostly reliably delightful actors of our time. In Futurama‘s “X-Mas Story” he voices a homicidal robot Santa in the year 3000! What’s more awesome than that?
Goodman would later reprise the role of Santa in a live-action remake of the Rankin-Bass special The Year Without a Santa Claus co-starring Delta Burke as Mrs. Claus (insert Delta Burke joke here).
3. Leslie Nielsen in All I Want For Christmas
Clausin’ ain’t easy. There’s little glamour or glory for mall Santas, who spend the entire holiday season holding court across from the Old Navy, racing to get though each child’s list before the urine filled time-bomb on their lap goes off without warning. Then you get some precocious kid with the misguided, yet adorable, wish for her divorced parents to get back together. And that’s it, your entire weekend has gone to hell. This is why Santa drinks. Luckily for Thora Birch her local mall Santa happens to be both Leslie Nielsen and the real Santa Claus, who provides the requisite Christmas miracle to get her folks back together in All I Want for Christmas.
But how many kids from divorced families saw this movie and were given false hope they could pull off the same trick with their parents? And even if Santa did get them back together, we all know the moment the fat guy (Santa, not your dad) is up the chimney, they’d both be at each other’s throats again. Maybe you should have asked Santa for the Cabbage Patch doll after all. Nielsen once again donned the white beard for 2000’s Santa Who? in which old Saint Nick gets amnesia, and ends up wandering the streets of New York without any clue who he is or why he’s jonesing for gingerbread.
2. Ed Asner in Elf & Charles Durning in Elmo Saves Christmas
We couldn’t choose between these two cranky character actors, so it’s a tie! First up there’s Ed Asner in Elf— casting the gruff former Lou Grant star as Jolly Old St. Nick may seem like an odd choice, but it pays off big time. Asner is both endearing and intimidating, just like the real Santa, I assume. Also Leon Redbone plays a Burl Ives-esque snowman which is pretty great.
Then there’s Charles Durning in Elmo Saves Christmas, a TV special from a time when Elmo made headlines for doing wholesome things like saving Christmas… unlike today… *cough* Durning would go on to play Santa three more times, in Mrs. Santa Claus with Angela Lansbury, A Boyfriend for Christmas, and Mr. St. Nick starring Kelsey Grammer, presumably as Frasier Crane.
1. Art Carney in The Twilight Zone
The Twilight Zone’s Christmas episode “Night of the Meek” is a touching story about a drunken department store Santa who actually gets to be Santa for a night! That’s right, he got to be Santa without killing him, Tim Allen! Anyways, Carney’s performance is chock-full of Yuletide pathos, enough to warrant his inclusion in the pantheon of great Santa Clauses.
Carney played Kris Kringle again in 1970’s The Great Santa Claus Switch (with The Muppets) and 1984’s The Night They Saved Christmas, which is about a ruthless oil company that threatens Santa by drilling in the North Pole! And, and, he was, of course, Chewbacca’s creepy family friend in The Star Wars Holiday Special— which makes Art Carney Christmas royalty in my book.