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It’s Turbo Time: An Oral History of ‘Jingle All the Way’

Derided by critics but beloved by families and fans, the Arnold Schwarzenegger comedy has since become a Christmas classic. Here’s how it all came together

Twenty-five years ago, during the holiday season of 1996, an Arnold Schwarzenegger classic hit the big screen. But Arnold wasn’t a cyborg in this one, nor was he slaying Predators or blowing away bad guys — instead, he was playing an overworked dad who failed to get his son the Turbo Man action figure he wanted for Christmas. Thus, on Christmas Eve, Arnold must set out to find Turbo Man, which just so happens to be the hottest toy of the year. Along the way, he tangles with the disgruntled mailman Myron Larabee — played by Sinbad — as well as his asshole neighbor Ted (played by the late, great Phil Hartman). 

Jingle All the Way did fine, if not great, at the box office, but critics roasted the film as failing in its critique of a materialistic Christmas. Others thought Schwarzenegger — who did have a handful of comedies under his belt — was miscast. So while it made its money back, Jingle All the Way was mostly regarded as a failure for Schwarzenegger, as well as the film’s director, Brian Levant (who was responsible for previous family hits like Beethoven and The Flintstones movie). 

But in the decades since its debut, Jingle All the Way hasn’t faded into obscurity. On the contrary, its popularity has grown every year, and it’s now widely regarded as a holiday classic. This year alone, Turbo Man toys are back on store shelves as companies like Funko have released a slew of popular merchandise to celebrate the film. 

In honor of the film’s enduring legacy, here are some of the people who helped make Jingle All the Way happen, from Levant to the guys who operated the reindeer puppet that Schwarzenegger punched. Without further ado, it’s turbo time!

Turbo Man’s Origin Story

Randy Kornfield, screenwriter of Jingle All the Way: Back in the mid-1990s, my kid was really into the Power Rangers and we, like a lot of parents, were going crazy trying to find Red Ranger and Green Ranger. There were lines everywhere. The toys were selling out, and people were going to great lengths to get them. That’s what sparked the idea for Jingle All the Way.

The story, from its original draft, didn’t change that much from what you see in the movie, though the original script was a bit darker, and Turbo Man was originally named “Turbo Tom” (I think there was some copyright issue and we had to change it). The biggest change to the script was that the third act originally took place at the Turbo Man factory and the main character had to go up against a full-size robotic Turbo Man. But when Chris Columbus got on board to produce the movie, he really liked the Christmas parade instead. Also, the son in the movie, Jamie, is named after my son.

I tried to pitch the movie to a couple of places before I wrote it, but I was turned down, so I wrote it on spec. When I completed it, I showed it to a few people who responded positively, and they passed it onto a couple of agents. One was named Warren Zide, who started shopping it around.

Jingle All the Way was always the title of the script. Song titles for movies weren’t quite as common back then, but it just seemed appropriate, especially for a holiday movie where a guy is on a journey. I used a pseudonym for the script because my name was known around town as a story analyst, and I was afraid that might hurt my chances. When it got to Fox, which is where I worked, I avoided reading it because that wouldn’t be right. At some point, Chris Columbus got ahold of it, and he got Fox to buy it. I didn’t tell them who I was until after the deal closed.

Originally, I imagined someone like Steve Martin or Chevy Chase for the role, but apparently Arnold Schwarzenegger was looking for a comedy. He loved the script and came onboard. 

Arnold Schwarzenegger, Howard Langston in Jingle All the Way, excerpt from 2019 GQ interview: I was very heavily into the idea of doing one action movie — where we use the biggest guns and the biggest action and the biggest amount of killings and stuff like that — but then to come back with something totally opposite… The Christmas movie, Jingle All the Way, was one of those great scripts that was offered to me. I thought the world of it.

Brian Levant, author of the upcoming memoir My Life and Toys and director of Jingle All the Way: After I directed The Flintstones, it was the only time in my life where I’ve ever been hot as a director, so I was trying to decide what I wanted to do next. When I was sent the script for Jingle All the Way, the first page opened with manufacturing this toy, and right away, I was sucked into it. See, I’m a big toy collector, and the first thing I thought of when I read Jingle All the Way was that, if I did this movie, I could have a whole shelf of Turbo Man toys in my office — and indeed, today, I do! 

Over the years, particularly when it first came out and got such a poor reaction, I’ve thought that maybe I should have paid more attention to other things, like story and character. But at the time, all I saw was this shelf of Turbo Man toys in my office, and I was sold.

Casting ‘Jingle All the Way’ 

Tim Flattery, concept artist and character designer on Jingle All the Way: I got to know Arnold pretty well over the course of the movie and I asked him once why he wanted to do this. He told me that he needed to do this movie. He’d just done two or three really serious action movies in a row, and he told me that he didn’t want people to take him so seriously. It was important to him to have people see this side of him as well. He was just super smart and strategic about what he wanted to do with his career. 

Levant: Arnold was attached to the picture before I was, but I was excited to work with him, and he’s better at comedy than he’s given credit for. In this movie, he’s not just the stoic reactor as he’d been in other comedies. In Jingle All the Way, he’s mugging and doing all sorts of funny stuff.

Schwarzenegger, excerpt from 2019 GQ interview: I remember standing there and screaming, “Put that cookie down, now!” and people just loved it. A lot of times people have me repeat the line.

Levant: Also, there’s another reason why Arnold works so well. At the end of the movie, the dad has to transform into Turbo Man, and for Arnold, the transformation from suburban dad to superhero wasn’t such a great leap. At one point, I think they were considering Daniel Stern — [Marv from Home Alone] — for the role, but for Daniel Stern, that’s a much bigger transformation.

This was before I was on board, but from what I understand, they wanted this movie to be another Arnold and Danny DeVito movie. But, they couldn’t convince DeVito to come onboard in the Sinbad role — apparently, DeVito read the script more carefully than Arnold and I. I’ve also heard Joe Pesci was considered, but I don’t believe that was the case. I think Chris Columbus’ connection with Pesci from Home Alone is where that comes from. 

When I began casting for Myron, we considered Jim Belushi, who was a friend of mine, but it was very important to me that this wasn’t a purely lily-white film. When Sinbad came in to read, I loved his energy — he’s hilarious and fast on his feet. He’s also a big man, and I liked the idea that this was someone Arnold could tussle around with. Sure, DeVito versus Arnold is funny, but they’re not evenly matched in any way. 

Sinbad, unsurprisingly, wasn’t always a guy who would stick to the script, but I’d worked with Robin Williams and Jonathan Winters, so I’d gotten very adept at helping take what came out and tying it to what we needed in the moment. That rant he has when we first meet Myron — it was very heavily constructed, taking out one line and keeping another. There was a lot of that.

Sinbad, Myron Larabee in Jingle All the Way, excerpt from Blerd Empire podcast, Episode 11, 2019: I was shooting First Kid, and I get a call from Lou [Pitt], Arnold’s agent, and he was a big fan of mine. He told Arnold about me, and he pushed the director and Chris Columbus’ company to look at me.

It was weird, I just felt a vibe like they didn’t want me [and] I was tired of auditioning for stuff. [But] I went out and got a mailman’s outfit, [and] when I get there, everyone is wearing the same mailman outfit. [So] when I was in the room, I was kind of agitated, so it fit Myron. [Then] I went to read the script and — I still say this was God — it fell out of my hands. The papers went everywhere. I lost it, and then jumped on the table and started going off on Arnold. He freaked. I was doing the lines, becoming Myron. [Then] I said, “Thank you!” and I was out. [Then] I was walking through the lot and got a phone call, “Hey man, they loved you, come back.” It was one of the strangest auditions I ever had. 

Levant: Fortunately, Jim Belushi was open to taking the Mall Santa role and he was great in that alongside Danny Woodburn, who was really funny. Robert Conrad was really great as the cop too. 

For Arnold’s wife, I had worked with Rita Wilson on Happy Days, so I knew her and I always liked her. We had a lot of choices, but given Rita’s relationship with her husband, I figured she’d be the strongest at chastising an A-list actor. As for the son, Jake Lloyd was a really good kid, and I’m really sorry for what’s happened in his life. He was raw, but he was sweet and nice and he understood the part. I got him a dialogue coach and he ended up doing really well. 

Then there was Phil Hartman, who was spectacular. Originally he came in to read for Sinbad’s part. I knew he was wrong for it, but I still wanted to see him. By the end of the audition, it was obvious that he wasn’t the guy, so I said, “You know, there’s this other part, if you wouldn’t mind reading it.” He probably sensed it was a smaller part, but Chris was in the room, so it was probably bad politics to say no. He read for the neighbor cold, didn’t even look it over, he just dove in and he was hysterical. He was so smarmy — he had the character instantly.

One of the best lines in the movie was actually an improv from Phil Hartman right off the top of his head. It was when he said to Arnold, “You can’t bench press your way out of this one.”

Designing Turbo Man

Levant: Designing Turbo Man — and an entire toy line — was very exciting to me. We had to design the hottest toy in America, which was so much more difficult than I could have anticipated. When you get down to it, even back then, virtually every color combination and style had already been done. Eventually, myself, storyboard artist Darryl Henley and concept designer Tim Flattery figured it out, but it was tough.

Flattery: Brian gave really good direction on the character. He explained that Turbo Man was a Saturday morning TV show that had spawned a toy line for kids, so it’s not really a superhero. He didn’t want it campy, but wanted it a bit tongue-in-cheek.

Levant: After a lot of back and forth, we finally came up with Turbo Man, which we kind of saw like a 1959 Cadillac mixed with the Michael Keaton Batman suit. Yet, somehow, even after all that, it still came out looking a lot like Iron Man

Production Begins

Schwarzenegger, excerpt from The Making of ‘Jingle All the Way,’ HBO, 1996: I think that Brian Levant, as a director, has been really so much fun, and so inspirational because he always has so much joy when he approaches the scenes. 

Levant: When you do a movie with Arnold, it becomes his movie. Once he was on board, it was all his people and his stunt coordinator and things like that. They do their thing for a few months, then they take their show to the next town for Arnold’s next project. He really sets the tone, which is great. He’s a consummate professional — he knows not just his lines, but everyone’s lines. He’s a sweet guy and a very happy guy. But, I mean, what’s he not got to be happy about?

Sinbad, excerpt from Blerd Empire podcast: First day of shooting, we shoot [a fight] scene. It’s funny, they yell, “Cut,” [and] I said, “Arnold, you want to take this to another level? Ask for another take.” He asks for another take, I do my Sinbad thing [and] he’s laughing so hard they couldn’t use it. He said, “Wait, I get one!” We became friends trying to one-up each other.

Halfway through Jingle All the Way, [I] threw a 1970s party at Prince’s club. Arnold, he threw a party toward the end — cigar party. Great place! I ain’t never smoked cigars [and], these were Cubans! I almost went through three of them, [then] I went up to go pee and the room starts spinning. They had to send me back to the hotel.

Levant: We had fun, but it was really challenging, too. Last night, perhaps in anticipation of this interview, I had a nightmare about working with Chris Columbus’ production team again. See, when I met Chris and got the job, it was like I made a new best friend. Our sensibilities really aligned — John Hughes wrote Home Alone, which Chris did and Hughes also wrote Beethoven, which I did. We really are from the same school of filmmaking, but our processes were very different. His process was slower and more intellectualized, and he wanted Jingle All the Way to be a big movie. I, however, came from TV, where you’re always very cognizant of time and money. 

For one thing, I never figured out why we had to film in Minneapolis. Shooting on location is much, much more expensive, but that’s what they wanted. The house, for example — we could have found a house in Studio City, and that would have been fine, but they wanted Minneapolis. Granted, the Mall of America was in Minneapolis, but even a lot of that could have been done in Los Angeles. It’s all the same stores anyway. With what they wanted to do, it always seemed like we were flirting with disaster.

The Mall of America

Peter Kent, stunt double for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Jingle All the Way: I started working with Arnold on the first Terminator, and spent 14 years with him. For the comedies we did, like Twins and Jingle All the Way, there wasn’t a lot of stunt work, but it was me in shots where you see Arnold thrown into boxes and things like that. 

We had a great time in the Mall of America — the size of that mall was just mind-blowing. I remember we had to do a lot of crowd control because it was a big mall and everyone knew Arnold was in there. Also, the scene with the balls, that was me running down the stairs and down the escalator and jumping over shit. I was also the one who jumped into the ball pit. Overall though, there weren’t a lot of stunts in the comedies we did — it wasn’t like Terminator 2 where I got my ass kicked every single day. 

Levant: The scene where Arnold chases the bouncy balls: In the script, that was the scene where I decided I really wanted to make this movie and not just have a Turbo Man toy. I was looking forward to that scene, but when we got to set, there were no numbers on the balls. That was the whole point of the scene, but the prop department said, “We couldn’t number all of them,” so it became meaningless.

We did have that one, beautiful slow-motion shot with Arnold jumping for the balls, and then it turned into a melee on the floor. But then, when Arnold was chasing the ball, I had this picture in my head of the ball bouncing around as he’s chasing it. But the ball didn’t really bounce that much. After that scene, Arnold came to me and said, “I thought the ball would bounce more,” and I told him, “So did we.”

The Santa Fight

Levant: We didn’t have any time for rehearsal, so the fight scene in the warehouse with all the Santas was put together on our feet. Joel Kramer, Arnold’s stunt coordinator, figured it out and he knew what Arnold would be good at and what he wouldn’t be good at. We had something like 80 Santas in that scene and we had fun with Verne Troyer, who we put on a wire and then there was professional wrestler Paul Wight who was 7-feet tall and 400 pounds. You weren’t used to seeing Arnold manhandled like that, it was fun.

Arnold Punches a Reindeer

Levant: When Arnold takes that swing at the reindeer and the reindeer gets hit and goes down, it’s one of the most convincing pieces of puppetry I’ve ever seen. It’s very difficult to get something that specific to look right, but we had really good puppeteers on the reindeer

Mecki Heussen, reindeer puppeteer in Jingle All the Way: There was a real reindeer on set, so any time you see a full-bodied reindeer, that was the real thing — reindeer are very docile. For scenes where the reindeer had to interact with an actor, we built an animatronic reindeer — head, neck and shoulders. 

Dave Nelson, reindeer puppeteer in Jingle All the Way: My arm was up the neck, holding the reindeer, and I was sitting on a dolly on a track. We just charged into the room and chased Arnold around. When he punched it, Arnold told me just how he was going to hit it, and then I had the reindeer fall down. 

Levant: Then, of course, there’s fire in the scene, and there’s the carolers outside. I think it’s Arnold’s funniest scene ever because you never see Arnold losing control like that. 

The Christmas Parade

Levant: They also wanted me to shoot the parade in Minneapolis, but fortunately, I won out on that one and we did it on the lot. Even with that, it took 19 days to shoot the parade. In that sequence you’ve got 1,200 extras, you’ve got a parade, you’ve got two marching bands, you’ve got floats and special effects and visual effects. It was 102 degrees, and we were all dressed for Christmas, and people in costumes were passing out. It was really all about making things work under the most extreme pressure you could possibly have. 

Sinbad, excerpt from Blerd Empire podcast: The parade, that was shot at Universal — 115 degrees. The water in my head started boiling in the Dementor helmet. Arnold’s like this, “I think your head’s going to blow up.”

Schwarzenegger, excerpt from junket interview, 1996: During this Christmas parade, I then become Turbo Man. It’s in the middle of July at the studio in the Valley where it’s 110 degrees, and it’s pounding down the sun and [I’m] in this thick, huge outfit. [I was also] suspended on wires and flying around. It [was] very torturous.

Levant: Arnold had a cooling system in there, but there’s a reason why the suit performers at Disneyland take a break every 15 minutes — wearing a suit like that isn’t comfortable!

Flattery: Arnold never complained though, he still managed to crack jokes while in the suit. Even if there was an issue, he’d pull me aside and whisper to me that it was picking him somewhere or something like that. He never did that kind of thing in front of people.

Kasei Nakaguchi, founder of the Turbo Man Fan Club: The parade climax is a classic part of Jingle All the Way and, of course, the movie is a comedy, but the parade shows the other side of the movie, where it’s a nice story about a father and a son. The scene right at the end of the parade is actually my favorite of the whole movie, where Jamie tells his dad he doesn’t need the Turbo Man doll anymore because his dad is the real Turbo Man. It’s a very heartwarming moment.

Sinbad, excerpt from Blerd Empire podcast: There was [an alternate] ending that would have been cool too. They probably should have shot both of them. [In it], you see the police bringing me to [Arnold’s] house for Christmas dinner. I’m locked up, but they let me eat dinner with them, so I’m sitting with his family, and I try to steal the doll. 

The Reaction to ‘Jingle All the Way’ 

Levant: I don’t expect good reviews. I just don’t. It’s nice when it happens, but the audience I was trying to please wasn’t the critics. My greatest joy as a parent was taking my kids to see entertainment and watching their enjoyment, and my work has always been for families, especially young families. Still, it was tough when Jingle All the Way didn’t do well. I won’t say that it crashed and burned, but it never really took flight. I also didn’t expect for Arnold to be sandpapered the way he was. 

Shortly afterwards, someone asked me what I thought of the movie and I very cautiously defended it, kind of backing away from it. To this day though, I wish I’d said, “I think the movie is everything it could have been and I’m damn proud of it,” but I didn’t say that. 

In reality, I was so disappointed by the failure and the effect it had on my career that it made me very hesitant and unsure of my taste for a long time. Like someone who has a bullet graze their head, you get a little worried about getting back in the line of fire. I doubted myself and my ability to communicate with an audience for a long time, and that’s why it’s become such a relief and a point of pride to see this resurgence the film has enjoyed in recent years. 

Sinbad, excerpt from Blerd Empire podcast: The people fell in love with it. 

The Legacy of ‘Jingle All the Way’ 

Schwarzenegger, excerpt from 2019 GQ interview: It’s still today the favorite Christmas movie that people are playing every single December. This movie’s being played on television, and overseas, it also did extremely well.

Kornfield: Every time I’ve seen Schwarzenegger over the years, he’d tell me “Write a sequel! It’s the biggest movie in Japan!” or something like that.

The movie’s developed sort of a cult following over the years, especially from the people who grew up with it. I didn’t expect it, but I was very pleasantly surprised. I love it when I hear that it’s people’s favorite Christmas movie. 

Flattery: I like when Arnold doesn’t take himself seriously, and Jingle All the Way is the best example of that. Every year when I see the movie on TV, I end up watching it, not because I’m admiring my own work, but because I just really love the movie.

Kent: I really enjoy Jingle All the Way; it’s a Christmas classic. Even today, I have two 12-year-old twin boys, and they grew up watching it and it’s a staple in our house. Also, for every shot that was done, I’m just behind the lens, and sometimes in front of the lens, so it brings back a lot of memories for me. I also think any parent can relate to trying to find that one particular toy that your kid has to have. 

Levant: Over the years, the love for the movie has just grown and grown. I started noticing it on college campuses, when I’d be a guest lecturer, and then kids would come up to me with tattered VHS tapes asking me to sign them. In the last few years, I’ve seen more and more fan art and cosplayers — this year has been especially exciting with the 25th anniversary. I’ve gone to screenings for it and held Q&As, and Funko has come out with all these amazing toys for the movie. It’s been very vindicating. 

Really, I view Jingle All the Way as a story of redemption in my life, and it’s summed up pretty perfectly by the oversized, 24-inch Turbo Man toy I got from the set of the movie. Like I said, that toy was the reason I took the job in the first place, and I’d always pictured putting that Turbo Man doll in a big plexiglass case in my office so he could watch me work and remind me of this triumph in my career. Instead, for over 20 years, it sat in a box in my garage. 

A few years ago, once I realized that Jingle All the Way had gone through this reckoning, I finally put that doll up in a beautiful plexiglass box in a place of honor in my office and that’s where he’ll stay. Turbo Man and I, we have a lot of catching up to do.