Playing Santa carries with it a responsibility like no other. Get it right, and you become an icon. Get it wrong, and you run the risk of ruining Christmas says.
Who would ever want to play Santa Claus? Seriously, the big-screen Santa gig is one of the toughest there is.
You might argue it’s as simple as growing a beard, donning the red suit, and ‘ho-ho-ho-ing’ your way to an easy pay cheque. But it requires more than that.
In fact, playing Santa — as straightforward a role as it may seem — carries with it a responsibility like no other.
Get it right, and you become an icon. Get it wrong, and you run the risk of ruining Christmas, and ending up on a list of Worst Screen Santas Ever (we’ll come back to those another year).
Whatever the case, the number of actors that have portrayed the jolly, red dude on screen, is astonishing.
Since the 1940s, there have been dozens of cinematic depictions of St Nick.
Some have succeeded; others have stumbled. But who is the greatest screen Santa of them all? Let’s see if we can find out, shall we?
Edmund Gwenn (Miracle on 34th Street, 1947)
When a New York department store Santa (Edmund Gwenn), insists he’s the real deal, everyone raises an eyebrow, not least, his concerned boss, Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara).
Later, the affable Kris Kringle lands himself in court, and it falls to a heroic attorney, Fred Gailey (John Payne), to set things right. Edmund Gwenn — who gained nearly two stone for the role — delivers a spirited, note- perfect turn, as everyone’s favourite magical postman.
Plus, here’s one for the pub quiz enthusiasts: Gwenn remains the only actor to win an Oscar for playing Santa.
“Now I know there is a Santa Claus," he remarked, picking up the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. Nicely done.
Tim Allen (The Santa Clause, 1994)
There’s more than a touch of Dickensian magic in this flawed yet wholesome, Disney hit, about a grumpy toy manufacturer, Scott Calvin (Tim Allen), who reluctantly assumes the role of Santa Claus, after the real SC falls off his roof.
Always a divisive figure, Allen brings an endearing combination of cynical wit and cuddly enthusiasm to the role of an ordinary man who finds himself in the most extraordinary of circumstances.
Ignore the sequels.
David Huddleston (Santa Clause: The Movie, 1985)
‘Bonkers’ is, perhaps, too limited a term to describe this fabulously disorganised caper, that tries — and fails — to give the Big Red Guy a superhero origins story.
John Lithgow hams it up as the capitalist baddie; Dudley Moore keeps the head down as a gullible elf.
There’s not enough eggnog in the world to mask its flaws, but the delightful David Huddleston makes for a decent Father Christmas, with the acclaimed British character actor adding warmth, charm and purity to the weirdest festive movie ever.
Jim Broadbent (Get Santa, 2014)
An underappreciated oddity, Christopher Smith’s chaotic, yuletide adventure stars Rafe Spall as a former getaway driver, who, after being released from prison, is startled to discover that his son, Tom, has just found Santa Claus (Jim Broadbent) hiding in their garden shed.
Later, poor Saint Nick ends up behind bars, and it’s up to Rafe and his boy to literally save Christmas.
It’s every bit as strange as it sounds, but the glue holding this enjoyable offering together is Broadbent’s loveable, locked-up Santa, with the venerable British performer going above and beyond as a jolly red saviour, determined to bring some Christmas magic to his fellow inmates.
Paul Giamatti (Fred Claus, 2007)
Wait, come back! Forget about Vince Vaughn! Forget that this is a truly horrible film! Paul Giamatti made for a genuinely terrific Santa here, and that’s a fact.
Seriously, Giamatti’s jovial and comical turn is the only decent thing about this car-crash of a display. Good Santa, bad movie.
Kurt Russell (The Christmas Chronicles, 2018)
The inimitable Kurt Russell certainly looked the part in this ropey, yet not entirely useless, Netflix special. True, The Christmas Chronicles is a tonal disaster of a film (the killer elves sequence kept us awake for weeks).
But Russell — who’s clearly in on the joke of an old-school action star, playing a brawny, tough-guy Santa — appears to be having a blast. Plus, Goldie Hawn is Mrs Claus. That’s clever.
Billy Bob Thornton (Bad Santa, 2003)
We kindly ask that you allow us to break the family-friendly pattern here, with a reminder that Billy Bob Thornton’s crude, callous and conniving take on Mr Claus — or, at least, a thieving, shopping centre version of him — is an absolute hoot.
You’ll never look at Santa the same way again.
Bill Nighy and Jim Broadbent (Arthur Christmas, 2011)
Broadbent shines again, in this brilliant, Aardman and Sony animation, that shines a light on Santa’s dysfunctional lineage. James McAvoy lends his voice to the eponymous Arthur, Santa’s youngest son.
Broadbent assumes the role of Father Christmas.
But the real star of the show is Bill Nighy’s ‘Grandsanta’, the ageing patriarch of the Claus clan, and a cantankerous yet loveable old fart, whose expertise comes in handy when the lads forget to deliver a present.
The one-liners are as good as anything in Only Fools and Horses.
Alec Baldwin (Rise of the Guardians, 2012)
DreamWorks’ ambitious, animated fantasy, in which Santa joins forces with the Easter Bunny, the Tooth Fairy and the Sandman, to save the world, may have bombed at the box office, but we truly believe that this bold and inventive offering deserves a second chance.
Alec Baldwin works hard, in the voice department, as a muscular, sword-wielding, Russian Santa, with the words ‘naughty’ and ‘nice’ tattooed on each of his forearms.
That’s a bad-ass Kris Kringle, if ever we saw one.
Richard Attenborough (Miracle on 34th Street, 1994)
We wouldn’t dream of skipping over this reasonably sturdy remake.
Earnestly rearranged by John Hughes, this cuddly cover version would be nothing were it not for the presence of the late, great Richard Attenborough in the Santa role.
The great thing about Attenborough was that he already looked — and sounded — like Father Christmas. But there’s real magic in the performance, too. It’s in the eyes. It’s in the way he walks.
It’s up there with the best of them.