REVEALED: The traumatic story behind the making of CBS’ “Rudolph”

Despite what you’ve always thought, “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer” was not made using stop-motion photography

THE TERRIBLE TRUTH: It is a little known outside the halls of CBS and bed-chambers of Les Moonves, that the 1964 children’s holiday classic was actually filmed using live actors, wearing cumbersome, then-state-of-the-art prosthetics, to create the enduring characters of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer”.

This rare production still taken on the set of the 1964 Rankin/Bass production of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” shows actor Rip Torn being made up for his role.

To film what would become a cornerstone of the CBS’ holiday programming – alongside reruns of “Manimal” – a team of Rankin/Bass artists applied between 40-100 pounds of modeling clay each day to actor’s faces and toros to sculpt them into the “Rudolph” characters loved, and celebrated by retailers, for the last sixty years.

Actor Rip Torn, was one of the actors who struggled tp perform wearing heavy clay makeup and nose for the 1964 production of “Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.” Torn, a storied Hollywood outsider, portrayed the “Head Bitchy Elf,”

The film’s production company, Rankin/Bass, wanted to try an experimental technique for “Rudolph.” Always adventurous and stoned, and, thus, thematically fixated on elves and dwarves, Rankin/Bass would nine years later experiment again, bringing Tolkien’s “The Hobbit” to the screen as a garish, half-live action, over-wrought 70s cartoon. Forty years later, director Peter Jackson would once more bring “The Hobbit” to the screen, as garish, half-live action, over-wrought cartoon.

Rankin/Bass hoped to bring a new “Living-dimension” to “Rudolph” making a stop-motion film with real actors, instead puppets. CBS advertising executives, drunk on highballs, were intrigued and okay’d the experiment. But resulting test footage sent children screaming onto the ice at 30 Rock, and the production history of “Rudolph” keep shrouded… until now.

When Bumbles Don’t Bounce

But the production was brutal. “Rudolph” was soon facing 12-hour shoots, and the actors performing under a hundred pounds of clay, being asked to move an inch at a time by stoned hippies, took its toll. Especially on portly, established-redneck actor Burl Ives. Ives, who throughout his career had always cut a stout, Colonel Sanders figure, was a perfect physical match for Sam the Snowman, But Burls labored under his rotund Snowman belly prosthetic. Under the heat of CBS Studios soap-opera lighting, Ives frequently passed out while singing “Silver and Gold,” much to the relief of the crew.

Actor Burl Ives, right, is seen with the mock-up of his Sam the Snowman make-up for “Rudolph the Red-Nose Reindeer,” shortly before eating the model. The arduous production was reportedly so stressful on the actor, Ives took to nibbling on parts of himself like a snow cone and eating any Christmas toys left lying around the set.

As the production dragged on, things only seemed to get worse. Actor Rip Torn – perhaps best known as cantankerous MIB leader, Zed, in “Men in Black” – also broke down trying to focus his intense personality on his performance as Head Bitchy Elf. An on-set meltdown caused Torn to punch out (either) Rankin or Bass, and then attack the Bumble (not an trained actor, but a newcomer from Central America) with a hammer, as he later would do to his good friend Norman Mailer in the film “Maidenstone.”

An on-set hammer attack by actor Rip Torn left his co-star, the Bumble, missing two rows of teeth. Luckily, the Bumble was able to continue with the film and “Rudolph’s” writers were able to incorporate the terrible method-acting mishap into the story.

Another actor driven to near-exhaustion bringing the strange merger of Tex Ritter’s hokey song and the creepier parts of “Pinnochio” to life, was actor Wilfred Brimley, then a young, New York thespian working toward becoming a star as a grizzled old thesbian. The stress of filming “Rudolph” put the normally rotund Brimley into a weight-loss tailspin, and the result was his part needed to be written to explain away the neurotic “Skinny Santa” that predominates the film.

Given the suffering men go through for the happiness of children at Christmas, this was a Terrible Liar story that needed to be set straight!


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