Who rocks the best bowl-full-of-jelly belly in movie history? Father Christmas has shown up in enough movies that he has his own subgenre: the Santa Claus movie, a whole category of family friendly fantasy films dedicated to exploring the magic of St. Nick.
Here are some of the most memorable movie portrayals of Santa Claus.
1. Edmund Gwenn in Miracle on 34th Street (1947)
The gold standard for cinematic Santa Clauses, Gwenn plays Kris Kringle, a department store Santa who insists he’s the real thing. Gwenn’s performance as Kringle was so convincing that he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor – a feat no other cinematic Santa has achieved since. (Hear Gwenn’s touching Oscar speech here. He kicks it off with the joke, “Now I know there’s a Santa Claus.”)
2. John Call in Santa Claus Conquers the Martians (1964)
John Call’s performance is hardly the most interesting thing in the low-budget movie about Santa Claus being abducted by space aliens. “Why?” you may ask. It’s a good question. A whole lot of grown-up people got together and jointly agreed that this premise seemed like a good idea. As a result, Santa Claus Conquers the Martians is today famous for being one of the worst movies ever made, but it at least made possible a Mystery Science Theater 3000 episode about the film, which should be required viewing for anyone needing a break from holiday stress. (The entire original film, sans MST3K commentary, can be viewed here.)
3. Jeff Gillen in A Christmas Story (1983)
Most of the Santas on this list represent the character at his jolliest. This one, however, perfectly captures how many kids perceive Santa: the scariest part of the holiday. A Christmas Story offers one of the most vivid takes on a child’s perspective on Christmas, and this scene is one of the most enduring. Poor Ralphie.
4. Art Carney in The Night They Saved Christmas (1984)
Sure, of all the Honeymooners castmembers, it seems like Jackie Gleason would have been the most obvious choice to play Santa Claus at some point, but as Santa, Carney certainly looks the part. The plot has Jaclyn Smith, of all people, teaming up with Santa to prevent an oil company from destroying Santa’s home at the North Pole, and that sentence alone should tell you whether this is a Christmas adventure you need to watch. (Should you chose to do so, the whole of it is viewable online here.)
5. David Huddleston in Santa Claus: The Movie (1985)
For a lot of ’80s kids, Huddleston was not only a great Santa Claus; he was the Santa Claus – the guy who starred in a holiday mainstay that actually explained a lot of the questions we had about how Santa goes about his whole gift-delivering journey. It helps that few of us would have recognized him from Blazing Saddles when we were kids, and most people would be surprised that Huddleston also acted in The Big Lebowski, in which he played the title character – that is, the actual Lebowski. Who knew?
6. Douglas Seale in Ernest Saves Christmas (1988)
Maybe a minor note in Santa Claus cinema, but Seale delivers all the twinkling jolliness you could ask for in a Santa Claus. (He brought a similar energy to the role of the Sultan in Aladdin.) Ernest Saves Christmas is maybe most notable for introducing the idea that Santa Claus is a job passed down from one person to another. The idea would be expanded upon a few years later in the 1994 movie The Santa Clause.
7. Richard Attenborough in Miracle on 34th Street (1994)
Remakes come and go, and remaking a classic like the original Miracle was no small feat. Given how the original Kris Kringle won an Oscar for his performance, Attenborough had an especially tough job differentiating his take on Santa, but you know what? He did it. He’s everything the character should be: kind, wise, patient and jolly, and more than a few kids who saw this remake think of him as the defining cinematic Santa.
8. Tim Allen in The Santa Clause (1994)
Before Allen found success in the Toy Story movie franchise, he starred in 1994’s The Santa Clause, which spawned two sequels and which makes Allen one of the few big-name actors to play Santa repeatedly. In all three movies, Allen brought a bit of his characteristic gruffness to the role of Scott Calvin, a jaded ad exec who accidentally becomes the new Santa Claus.
9. Nigel Hawthorne in Call Me Claus (2001)
Yet another film about a Santa Claus looking for a worthy successor, this one features venerable British actor Nigel Hawthorne bringing a refined touch to the outgoing guy in red – and Whoopi Goldberg as a TV exec picked to take over the job. Who says Santa always has to be white? Or male? Or especially jolly?
You get a sense that Asner’s inner curmudgeon is coming out a bit, but as far as we’re concerned, Asner should be Hollywood’s go-to guy to play Santa Claus. He’s actually played it a few other times aside from Elf – among them, the spinoff Elf holiday special, on Regular Show and on another Christmas special, Olive, the Other Reindeer – and we’d be happy to see a director’s cut of Elf with a few more moments with Asner as the guy in the red suit.
11. Billy Bob Thronton in Bad Santa (2003)
Thornton offers the antithesis to all the benevolent, grandfatherly Santas on this list – a cockroach on a Christmas cookie, so to speak – but there’s one catch: He’s just playing a Santa, not the Santa. Still, he’s a famous enough Santa wannabe that he gets a shoutout.
12. Tom Hanks in The Polar Express (2004)
Tim Allen’s Toy Story costar also got a turn as St. Nick – as a glassy-eyed CGI version of him, sure, but if any A-list actor could muster the right mix of warmth, humor and paternal concern to play Santa Claus, it’s Hanks.
13. James Cosmo in The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe (2004)
Sure, it’s Father Christmas and not explicitly Santa Claus – because Brits and all – but Cosmo’s turn in the first Narnia movie reminds us that everyone gets excited about Christmas presents, even if they’re weapons used to fight an evil Tilda Swinton. Cosmo’s take on the character skews a little more mystical than most, and it’s a trip encountering a Santa Claus figure in a movie where he’s far from the most fantastical character around.
14. Paul Giamatti in Fred Claus (2007)
The film has Giamatti’s Santa taking a back seat to Vince Vaughn as Santa’s screw-up brother, but Giamatti actually pulls off a decent take on the old guy: A good, hard-working man who’s maybe just a little stressed out by everything involved with delivering gifts to every child in the world. Wouldn’t you be?
15. Alec Baldwin in Rise of the Guardians (2007)
Baldwin lends Santa an inexplicable accent, but that’s not any stranger than Santa teaming up with Jack Frost, the Tooth Fairy and an Easter Bunny that sounds like Hugh Jackman to fight the boogeyman. But who says Santa can only appear in a movie that’s explicitly Christmas-themed? Not the people who made Rise of the Guardians, apparently.