As the embodiment of kindness, generosity, and Yuletide beneficence, Santa Claus presents some mighty big black boots, much less a red suit, for any actor to fill. But jolly old Saint Nicholas has appeared in the movies for as long as the movies have existed, and here are some of our favorite actors who’ve steered the sleigh (not counting Billy Bob Thornton and anyone else who has played a guy who is pretending to be Santa):
Edmund Gwenn, “Miracle on 34th Street” (1947)
The only actor to win an Oscar for playing Santa Claus, and it’s definitely a case where the Academy got it right. Gwenn’s Kris Kringle saves the Macy’s parade from a drunken impostor, generates publicity for the department store by alerting customers about better deals being offered by competitors, enchants a young Natalie Wood into believing in magic, and even proves his sanity at a court hearing. With a performance like this, who wouldn’t believe in Santa? (Honorable mention: Sir Richard Attenborough in the 1994 remake, who’s lovely but can’t hold a candle to the OG.)
José Elías Moreno, “Santa Claus” (1959)
Unless you grew up watching Mexican television or going to kiddie matinees in the Southwest in the 1960s and early ’70s, you were probably exposed to this trippy import via “Mystery Science Theater 3000.” And while this film earned the mockery it received from Mike and the bots, it’s one of those bad movies that’s so utterly enthralling that you can’t stop watching it. Even though this Santa teams up with Merlin to fight the devil (long story), Moreno gives us a memorable Saint Nick, even when the actor dubbing him into English makes his laugh sound sinister.
John Call, “Santa Claus Conquers the Martians” (1964)
A kiddie adventure so terrible that “Mystery Science Theater 3000,” Cinematic Titanic and Rifftrax could all goof on it without repeating any jokes, this infamous Christmas turkey nonetheless features Broadway veteran Call (before making this movie, he appeared in the original cast of “Oliver!”) giving us a twinkly-eyed, rosy-cheeked Santa who seems to have stepped out of a Norman Rockwell lithograph. His “Ho ho ho!” always sounds genuine, even when he’s facing off with antenna-sporting green aliens bearing Wham-O Air Blasters.
David Huddleston, “Santa Claus: The Movie” (1985)
You’d think the guy playing the title role would be the star, but poor Huddleston (“The Big Lebowski”) had to settle for billing beneath Dudley Moore (as an inventive elf) and John Lithgow (devouring the scenery as a corrupt toy magnate). Still, as overblown (and filled with product placement) as this shrill Christmas epic can be, Huddleston brings genuine warmth to the proceedings, whether he’s a 14th-century woodcutter determined to deliver toys to local children or the man with the bag spanning the globe every December 24.
Douglas Seale, “Ernest Saves Christmas” (1988)
Another comedy about the Santa title changing hands features veteran British character actor Seale as a Kringle on the verge of retirement, traveling to Florida to transfer the gig to a kind-hearted kids’ TV host. For all the wacky slapstick afoot, Seale maintains his dignity, presenting a Santa who’s both capable of genuine magic while also very much a part of the real world — a tricky balance in any movie, much less one built around Jim Varney’s rubber-faced (and, admittedly, hilarious) antics.
Tim Allen, “The Santa Clause” (1994)
Transforming from a divorced businessman to the Big Red Cheese himself, Allen is funny and relatable as a regular guy who finds himself literally expanding to fit the iconic red suit. So often in Santa movies, the audience must go on the “oh wow, he’s really real after all” journey, and Allen makes the perfect guide, with his character evolving from cynical to sweet as he completes his metamorphosis into the North Pole’s most famous resident.
Ed Asner, “Elf” (2003)
There’s not an ounce of cynicism or irony to this modern classic. Asner, whose Lou Grant character once famously growled that he “hate[d] spunk,” must now rely upon the good will and Christmas spirit of New Yorkers when his sleigh gets stranded in Central Park — thankfully, the actor generates enough holiday cheer to ensure a happy outcome.
Paul Giamatti, “Fred Claus” (2007)
Vince Vaughn has the title role of the main man’s ne’er-do-well brother, but this spotty comedy is stolen outright by Giamatti, who displays a level of kindness and joy that he rarely gets to exercise in front of the camera. The fatsuit and white beard fit the veteran character actor like a fur-trimmed glove.
Jim Broadbent, “Arthur Christmas” (2011)
In this delightful animated adventure from Aardman, Broadbent plays the current Santa in a long lineage: He assumed the reins from his father (voiced by Bill Nighy), and is about to pass them along to son Steve (Hugh Laurie), who has modernized the toy delivery system, reducing Santa to a dotty figurehead. As voiced by Broadbent, he’s a bit of a dodderer, but still very much in love with the job.
Kurt Russell in “The Christmas Chronicles” (2018) and “The Christmas Chronicles 2” (2020)
There’s more than a little bit of Russell’s trucker character from “Big Trouble in Little China” in his take on Father Christmas, but that blue-collar bravado and dad-bod energy make this character, in the words of critic Nathan Rabin, “a Santa who f—s.”