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I Was the First Killer Santa

The star of the notorious ‘Silent Night, Deadly Night’ never planned on being an actor. He ended up becoming the centerpiece of a cult classic

Robert Brian Wilson doesn’t get recognized much when he’s walking around Burbank. “I’ve lost my hair, I’m a bald guy,” he tells me over the phone, laughing. “I’ve stayed in shape, but I don’t really look the same.” Occasionally, though, someone will make the connection. Wait, aren’t you…? And he’ll say, yes, you’re right: I was the guy in Silent Night, Deadly Night.

Yep, the disturbed 18-year-old Billy Chapman who, on Christmas Eve, gets triggered by his dark memories of a homicidal Santa Claus murdering his parents when he was just a boy. In the notorious 1984 slasher film, Billy exorcises those demons by staging his own bloody rampage, laying waste to several coworkers and other innocent locals using an ax and whatever else he can find.

Wilson’s still not sure he can explain how it all happened — or what’s happened to the film in recent years, as it’s evolved into a cult classic that’s become a twisted seasonal favorite. Laughing again, he says, “More and more people find out about the film because of social media.”

Wilson didn’t expect to have his legacy be defined by his starring role in a polarizing Christmas horror movie. Truth is, he didn’t even expect to be an actor. Growing up in Cerritos, California, in a sports-loving family, he played baseball and football all through high school. “I could’ve played [football] through college,” he says, “but I had a handful of concussions and didn’t want to bang my head anymore.” His father, Bill Wilson, played baseball for the Chicago White Sox and the Athletics when they moved from Philadelphia to Kansas City. Wilson’s brother was drafted by the Red Sox in the late 1970s. And his nephew is Justin Wilson, who was the closer for the Detroit Tigers last season before they traded him to the Chicago Cubs. “I played soccer and swam, and I’m also a golfer and a water-skier,” says Wilson. “I just love being active and being outdoors. I love the competition of sports.”

He was discovered in Palm Springs while on spring break with his girlfriend — who’s now been married to him for 28 years, he happily points out. A guy approached him, asking if he was an actor. “I told him I wasn’t, and I kind of wanted to push on with the evening because we’d just finished dinner, you know? But he was persistent. He convinced me that he was legitimate and gave me his business card. Within a short period of time, I had pictures and a résumé, and I was going on auditions.”

“I really loved it,” Wilson continues. “I just didn’t know how to do it in the beginning.”

Not long afterward, he was approached about playing Billy — his first film role. He doesn’t remember being told much about the part before his audition. “I recall that it was for a horror film,” Wilson says simply.

Written by Michael Hickey and directed by Charles E. Sellier Jr. — who was best known for developing the wholesome, iconic outdoorsman Grizzly Adams — Silent Night, Deadly Night traced the tragic journey of Billy at five years old (when he sees his parents killed by a robber dressed like St. Nick); at eight (when he’s living in an orphanage, traumatized by the belief that Santa Claus is a murderer); and then at 18 (when he acts out his own violent tendencies while dressed as Santa).

The movie was an attempt to capitalize on the then-vibrant slasher-film craze. As Silent Night, Deadly Night producer Scott Schneid explained in a 2013 interview, “The concept was very commercial, coming off of the first Halloween and Friday the 13th. There were just an incredible number of teenage horror films being made, and no one had made a movie like Silent Night, Deadly Night at that point. We thought there was a tremendous commercial potential for it, as well as for it to be a franchise that would spawn multiple sequels.”

Wilson, however, was just worried about nailing the audition. “I hadn’t done many auditions — definitely nothing like that,” he says. Plus, he wasn’t a horror buff. “I’m still not up to speed with what’s cool,” he admits with a sheepish laugh. “People ask me if I’ve seen certain movies and I’m embarrassed. I love sports. I record games. When it comes to films and TV and horror, I’m the dumb guy in the room.”

Ironically, that naiveté may have helped Wilson land the role of Billy. “One of the things that my manager mentioned was to always ask the casting director if they were looking for anything special or anything in particular,” he says about his fateful Silent Night, Deadly Night audition. “I asked [casting director] Stanzi [Stokes], and she said, ‘Just be natural and don’t try to do anything crazy. I’ll tell you the truth: A lot of the actors that come in to read for this film behave in a strange, kind of menacing manner. Just be you.’ I didn’t have any ability to do some of the techniques that allow you to go deeper into different characters. I was just being me and being as honest as I could be.”

It worked, and soon Wilson was on his way to Newcastle, Utah, for a month to film his sequences. Those who have seen Silent Night, Deadly Night know what that entailed, including several kill scenes — the most memorable involving Billy impaling a topless woman on the antlers of a deer head mounted on a wall. (“They asked me if I was up to it,” he says of the scene. “I had to pick her up a couple times.”) Wilson, though, didn’t watch dailies — he was too nervous about how he might look on screen — and just focused on the work. And if there was any hint that the movie might be pushing the limits of good taste — depicting lovable Santa as a sociopath — it never crossed his mind. “A lot of the folks that were in the crew had done these types of films,” he explains.

As for developing his character or discussing motivation, Wilson didn’t have much communication with Sellier, who died in 2011. “He set the shots, but he never really had any conversations with me about how to go about it, or about what his idea was for the scene.”

It wasn’t then until Wilson attended the premiere at the Directors Guild of America that he got a sense of the reaction the film would elicit from audiences. “The place was quiet, man,” he says of the crowd’s response to the movie. “The vibe wasn’t cool. We as a society hadn’t seen Santa doing stuff like that.”

This was his first time seeing the movie as well, and he too was shocked at the violence his character inflicts on those around him. (The film reportedly had to be re-submitted to the MPAA ratings board four times before it received an R rating rather than an X.) “I was a little bit taken aback. I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is too much.’”

“Afterward,” he continues, “my dad [who attended the premiere with him] looked at me like, ‘What in the hell have you done?’”

Wilson’s dad wasn’t the only one with that thought. In the days before the film’s release, Milwaukee residents loudly objected to a TV commercial advertising Silent Night, Deadly Night. And on November 6, The Milwaukee Journal ran a front-page story about local calls for a boycott of the slasher film. “[The ad] was absolutely disgusting,” said Kathleen Eberhardt, who formed a group called Citizens Against Movie Madness that picketed Milwaukee theaters showing the movie.

The protests soon caught the attention of Gene Siskel and Roger Ebert, who used their show At the Movies to disparage a film they found tasteless. “There’s no question in my mind,” Siskel said, “that the showing of Santa with an ax on free TV and commercials is sick and sleazy and mean-spirited.”

After delivering a stern “Shame on you” to the studios and companies involved with Silent Night, Deadly Night, Siskel declared that the movie “is worse than the TV ad. … Silent Night, Deadly Night now has the distinction of joining I Spit on Your Grave as one the two most contemptible films I’ve seen.”

The public outcry forced the film’s distributor, TriStar, to pull it from theaters after only a couple weeks.

“It was just a strange time,” Wilson says today. “I didn’t know what direction it was all going in.” He decided to protect his nascent acting career once reporters started asking for interviews. “I said things like, ‘Yeah, perhaps the producers did go too far with this’ and ‘Heck, I’m just an actor trying to get a job like every other actor in Hollywood.’ I was trying to justify it and be cut free of this thing. [My] general tone was, ‘Those producers were despicable, man!’”

Silent Night, Deadly Night is no misunderstood masterpiece. The film is laughably inept, filled with bad dialogue and awkward performances. It’s little more than a collection of crude death scenes, lame scares and cheap titillation that were the coins of the realm of bad 1980s horror flicks. And although he doesn’t come into this 85-minute movie until about halfway through, Wilson is its centerpiece. The kindest thing one can say is that he very much feels like a novice — and that he wasn’t given much help on set. “When I first saw it, I was a little hard on my performance,” he says. “I didn’t know exactly what I could’ve done differently, because I didn’t have those tools.”

The producers tried to capitalize on the controversy with a string of forgotten, straight-to-video sequels. (Remarkably, revered American iconoclast Monte Hellman, responsible for the iconic 1971 road film Two-Lane Blacktop, directed 1989’s Silent Night, Deadly Night 3: Better Watch Out!) Meanwhile, Wilson went about landing other acting gigs and studying the craft with revered acting teacher Sanford Meisner. Asked whether being connected to a loathed holiday horror movie hurt his career, he replies, “The people that sit in the chairs in Hollywood and hand out the scripts, they know that it’s difficult to get work. They really weren’t judgmental. I don’t recall anyone raising an eyebrow or huffing and puffing about this. They understand how difficult it is and what actors have to go through.”

Still, he didn’t find much work in the following years aside from the soap opera Santa Barbara and the occasional one-off on series like Dynasty and Thirtysomething. “The roles dried up and things slowed down” is how Wilson puts it. “Life does its thing. I had two young boys, and I wanted to take care of them to the best of my ability. And Hollywood wasn’t fulfilling that. I just made the choice to move on and do the best I could to make money and create a life for my family.”

He turned his attention to working on trade shows. “I’m a union member, and so, basically between all of us union brothers and sisters, we build the events from the ground up and then we take them down. We plan everything. From one show to the next, I can be a guy involved in the structure to a guy that’s dispatching 100 folks to 30 different areas of a convention center. Being a union member, you can be anywhere from the bottom of the barrel to becoming a floor supervisor. I’ve done it all in my 22 years.”

Some recent pieces about Wilson suggested that part of the reason he left Hollywood and denounced the film was because he’d become a born-again Christian — a notion he finds funny. “That comes up often, but it’s not true,” he says. “I’ve been a Christian for a long time — I’ve always believed in God. It wasn’t because of the film that, all of a sudden, my wife and I went on a trip and came back as born-again Christians.”

Whatever the case, while Wilson was toiling as a union worker, Silent Night, Deadly Night was beginning to find an audience and a newfound appreciation. In 2012, B-movie filmmaker Steven C. Miller made Silent Night, a sort-of remake with Malcolm McDowell, Jaime King and Donal Logue. And two years later, a 30th anniversary screening of the original was held at the Egyptian Theatre in Hollywood. Because Wilson always kept a low profile, the organizers assumed there’d be no way they could convince him to show up. But they tried anyway.

“They sent me a letter that said, ‘We know you don’t do these things and that you’ve moved yourself away from this…’” Wilson recalls. “And I said, ‘I’m right here! I live in Burbank! Sure thing, my wife and I will come.’ It was very simple.”

“We went and had some pizza before and a glass of wine,” he continues. “Then we saw the film, and it completely changed my feeling on it.”

What was different?

“I realized that fans see this film much differently than the national media did,” he responds. “The fan base is very different than what you’ll see at a Dodger game. They love films, but particularly they love horror. And truly, it was the fans that changed me. I thought that what I had done was just a silly little B horror film, but the fans…”

He trails off.

“It just changed my life. My wife and I both walked away from that experience changed. We had no idea how much they loved the film, and to see how they saw the film was critical to that change. They saw it as more of a comedy than anything that was scary or disgusting or deplorable. They laughed their butts off all the way through it.”

I ask if the audience was laughing with the movie or at it — or at him, specifically — and Wilson takes a moment before answering.

“There was a little bit of both,” he admits. “But any time that I’ve spoken with a fan, they’re never laughing at you. That’s the way I’ve perceived it, anyway. They’re laughing at the situation and the character. Nobody is really that critical, and nobody has ever said anything hurtful or mean about it. Everybody has been very kind and highly receptive of what we did and of my character.”

That response to Silent Night, Deadly Night has prompted Wilson to embrace the movie’s role in his life. Now he’ll do the occasional horror-convention appearance, and this month he attended another revival screening. Along the way, he’s let go of the harsh feelings he has about his performance in the film. “The last couple of times I watched it, I thought that there were many different things that I could’ve done,” he says. “But you know what? That would ruin whatever it does to the folks who watch it now.” He laughs. “I’ve learned to just let it be.”

It’s also inspired him to kick-start his acting career. “I can’t wait to pursue [acting] full time,” he tells me. At his day job, “I used to want to run everything and be the guy in charge to make as much money as I could to pay for everything that my family needed for college, etc. I’m not in that spot anymore, so I’ve actually asked to be relieved of the higher-level roles and be in the background more so I can step out. I get to retire from my current occupation and get full retirement in four years. I’m creating a path back to Hollywood.”

In the meantime, another holiday season beckons — which means another opportunity to celebrate a movie that once seemed so beyond the pale. In our modern era of torture porn like Saw and sophisticated horror throwbacks such as The Conjuring, the cheap exploitation of Silent Night, Deadly Night now seems almost charmingly anachronistic — just dumb, harmless fun. Says Wilson, “If you asked me before we shot the film, ‘What do you think this will be like in 35 years…?’”

He trails off again.

“This wasn’t the conversation I thought I’d be having about it. I thought it would get burned somewhere.”