The best on-screen Santas… ever!

We’ve made a list, we’ve checked it twice…

There’s nothing worse than a bad Santa. Unless, of course, you’re talking about Billy Bob Thornton in Bad Santa – who might have ranked pretty highly on this list if he wasn’t actually playing someone else dressed up as Santa Claus. That also means there’s no place here for Dan Aykroyd’s St Nick portrayal in Trading Places, no Jack Skellington and no monster from Rare Exports: A Christmas Tale (who is actually an ancient horned Joulupukki demon).

This, then, is the countdown of the best real on-screen Santa Claus: the Father Christmases who have done the suit proud on film and TV, and the festive icons that made all the old beardy men we’ve ever met in shopping mall grottos seem even worse.

So hang up your stockings, lay out the cookies and settle down for NME‘s league of legendary on-screen Kris Kringles.

Tom Hanks – The Polar Express (2004)

If Santa really exists, then he might actually be Tom Hanks. The loveliest actor in Hollywood played his motion-capture Father Christmas as a stoic, mysterious folk God – a silent rock star who only walks on to his own theme song and bathes in magic light whenever he’s on screen. Hanks (who also plays the conductor, the Dad, the hobo and the evil puppet) gives The Polar Express an end-of-the-line Santa that feels suitably awe-inspiring – even if his scenes are completely ruined by a horde of dead-eyed “elves”.

Must be real because…

Anyone else would feed that annoying know-it-all kid to the elf monsters.

Paul Giamatti – Fred Claus (2007)

The best thing about Paul Giamatti’s “Nick” Claus is, well, Paul Giamatti – a sad, sarcastic neurotic who really isn’t that different to most of the other comedy roles he’s played. Take away the fat suit and the red braces, stick a glass of pinot noir in his hand and he’s basically just Miles from Sideways. Most of the film is actually about Nick’s younger brother Fred (Vince Vaughn, also mostly just playing himself), but everyone knows who the real deal is.

Must be real because…

It’s hard to think of anyone who puts less effort into his “ho ho ho”. After all these years, it’s pretty understandable.

Mel Smith – Father Christmas (1991)

Fun fact: in the American version of the beloved Raymond Briggs animation, all 76 uses of the word “blooming” were replaced with the word “merry”. Funner fact: the American actor they used for that dub was most famous for starring in the porn version of Flash Gordon. While the Yanks got “Emperor Wang”, we got Mel Smith – redeeming his festive record after that awful ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ duet with Kim Wilde. Smith’s loveably grumpy old cockney Santa is just looking for somewhere to spend his ’olidays.

Must be real because…

He’s got a foul mouth. Squeezing down 526 million chimneys a day would make anyone lose their temper.


Tim Allen – The Santa Clause (1994)

Given its premise of “whoever kills Santa gets to be Santa”, it’s amazing this 1994 classic was billed as a family-friendly flick (there’s a great Squid Game-style horror waiting to be remade there). Bloating and ageing overnight, Tim Allen’s terrified sales executive only has a year to get used to his new destiny, but it’s a journey that helps his final transformation feel all the more believable (best not to carry on with The Santa Clause 2 and 3, though).

Must be real because…

Allen spends most of the film playing someone who really, really doesn’t want the job.

Ed Ivory – The Nightmare Before Christmas (1993)

Jack Skellington might be a Christmas icon but, as the film very clearly shows, he makes a terrible “Sandy Claws”. Stood next to the real thing, it’s not hard to see why. One is a loveable little fat gnome with a curly white beard so dense that it’s stuck through with lollipops and candy canes, and the other is a giant spider with a skull for a head. Jack had good intentions, but there’s only room for one Santa in Christmas Town.

Must be real because…

A scene where he gets flipped upside-down shows that he’s wearing lovely Christmas underwear. The devil is in the details.

Ed Asner – Elf (2003)

Asner carried the kind of heavyweight on-screen presence that typically lent itself to playing ex-firefighters and grizzled cops. This made it all the weirder, then, that he managed to play Santa on screen eight different times: from great voice work on Olive, The Other Reindeer, to a less-great starring role in a ropey TV movie called Christmas On The Bayou. By far the best, though, was his fatherly turn in Elf, giving Santa a tough-but-loveable New York edge through a squint of half-moon glasses.

Must be real because…

He has the same voice as the old man in Up. Anyone who can make us cry that quickly must be the real deal.

Kurt Russell – The Christmas Chronicles (2018-2020)

Anyone who saw The Hateful Eight would have noticed the resemblance already (just look at that beard), but it still feels like genius casting to have Snake Plissken himself play Father Christmas. Looking like a retired action hero with a rascally glint in his eye, Russell’s Santa was the kind of guy who could deliver all his presents with one hand and still pull off a decent roundhouse with the other. If that’s not enough, he even takes on Elvis with a great jailhouse version of ‘Santa Claus Is Back In Town’.

Must be real because…

Russell is in a relationship with Goldie Hawn in real life, who was even better casting as Mrs Claus than he was as Santa himself.


J.K. Simmons – Klaus (2019) 

First seen in silhouette wielding a monogrammed axe, Klaus gave us a Viking Santa with the voice (and kid appeal) of the bandleader from Whiplash. As big as his own sleigh and twice as wide, Klaus’ scariness comes from sadness as well as brawn, making his final transformation into the very first Santa all the more magical. Jason Schwartzman’s pampered postman gets a bigger share of the origin story, but it’s Simmons’ sweetly stoic brute who steals the film.

Must be real because…

He can split open a tree trunk with his bare hands. Who else could eat an estimated 150 billion calories in milk and cookies every Christmas Eve?

Edmund Gwenn – Miracle On 34th Street (1947)

For older generations, there was only ever one true Santa Claus: veteran stage and screen star Edmund Gwenn. Charming post-war audiences in 1947 with heart, humour and just a little bit of twinkly-eyed mischief, Gwenn was the definitive Father Christmas for decades – seeing his face copied on a million cards, posters and cake toppers throughout the ’50s and ’60s. He’s basically the one to beat for anyone too old for (spoiler alert) Dickie Attenborough.

Must be real because…

He apparently managed to convince then-8-year-old actor Natalie Wood that he was actually Santa Claus. And she saw him driving to set every day.

Richard Attenborough – Miracle On 34th Street (1994)

Of course: it’s Richard Attenborough. He might have had a long and storied career before Miracle On 34th Street (directing classics, winning Oscars, opening Jurassic Park), but as soon as his hair started going white, it was really only a matter of time before he got to play the ultimate Father Christmas. Glowing with warmth and magic behind the best Santa suit on film, Attenborough finally gave us a Kris Kringle worth believing in.

Must be real because…

His younger brother is David Attenborough. Who else but Santa would be able to compete around that family dinner table?