Can you imagine a time when saying “Merry Christmas” was something new and exciting? It so happens that it was in the Victorian 1840s that the festive platitude started becoming in vogue—and that was thanks to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.
In 1843, Dickens published his holiday classic, which revolved around the miserly but now-legendary character Ebenezer Scrooge, a man who may now be as deeply seeded in our collective consciousness as the celebratory “Merry Christmas” he so despised (“Bah! Humbug!”).
Ever since then, Dickens’s crotchety character has made his way onto the stage, as well as the big and small screen, through the dramatic interpretations of over 50 actors. To celebrate the legacy of Dickens’s most famous tight-fisted curmudgeon, here are some of the actors who have played the dynamic role of Scrooge.
1. John Carradine
While mostly remembered for his roles in horror films and for his screen- and stage-sharing progeny (eight of his descendants were actors), John Carradine was one of the most prolific character actors in the history of Hollywood. Carradine was born in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village in 1906 and subsequently moved to Kingston, New York, where, as an unruly child, he perfected his powers of diction and recall by being forced to memorize and recite portions of a prayer book as punishment. According to John’s son, David Carradine (of Kung Fu and “accidental asphyxiation” fame), his father John witnessed a production of The Merchant of Venice as a boy and instantly resolved to devote his life to acting. It took a few years, but in 1925, a 19-year-old John Carradine took to the stage in a New Orleans-based production of Camille and never looked back. From then onwards, he appeared in hundreds of stage and film productions, including countless low-budget horror flicks, while occasionally landing a very important role, such as Preacher Casey in The Grapes of Wrath. In 1947, Carradine turned his perfectly long face and effortless scowl to the role of Ebenezer Scrooge in a TV movie adaptation of A Christmas Carol, where he deftly showed Scrooge’s transformation.
2. Albert Finney
If you’ve seen Big Fish, then you know that Albert Finney can make you laugh or move you to tears at the snap of his fingers. The winner of three Golden Globes and two BAFTA awards, Finney is accomplished and talented enough to bounce among genres, although he is not often thought of as a musical actor. However, in 1970, ten years after his first film appearance but long after the public took notice of him, Finney starred and sang in Scrooge—a musical film adaptation of Dickens’s novella—and portrayed the film’s wretched titular character. At the time, Finney was only 34 years old and played both the elderly, grouchy Scrooge and also the youthful Scrooge in flashbacks. The film was nominated for four Oscars and multiple other awards, and both critics and the general public lauded Finney’s dual performance as Scrooge young and old.
3. Bill Murray
Long before his dapper and hushed sophistication in Lost in Translation or his induction in the Wes Anderson entourage or his eccentric grandeur in Hyde Park on Hudson, Bill Murray played Frank Cross in Scrooged, a comedic modernization of A Christmas Carol. In the 1988 film, Murray’s character epitomizes both solipsism and greed and almost makes the original Ebenezer Scrooge seem not so bad by comparison. Murray’s comedic record is golden, with Meatballs, Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, and Groundhog Day often stealing the show from some of his other works. However, Scrooged is an oft-overlooked and extremely funny holiday film that demands repeat viewing.
4. James Earl Jones
In a more interesting twist on the adaptation of Dickens’s original novella, PBS released Bah! Humbug! in 1994. The premise was quite simple. Take the classic tale, which Dickens described as “a sledgehammer against poverty” and give it to two of the 20th century’s most beloved actors—James Earl Jones and Martin Sheen—to read. Assuming the role of Scrooge, Jones stands in formal attire behind a lectern, with Sheen at his side, as he reads excerpts of the classic story and lets his booming voice remind the audience that there are important lessons to be learned from the tale. Jones is as masterful as always, and Bah! Humbug! deserves to be recognized by a wider audience.
5. Vanessa Williams
Once upon a time, there was an advertising tagline for a VH1-original Christmas film that read: “Tis the season to be nasty!” A previous, extremely classy iteration stated: “Christmas can be such a bitch.” One can only wonder how Dickens would feel reading these pithy synopses of his original work. Surprisingly, though, the film in question, A Diva’s Christmas Carol, gets the original novelist’s intentions across quite well. Released in 2000, the film stars Vanessa Williams, who plays Ebony Scrooge. Ebony is one of the world’s most successful pop singers, but she’s emotionally numb and self-indulgent. True to the tale’s fashion, Ebony is visited by a series of spirits (including Kathy Griffin) who help her transform her life. While the film certainly won’t win an award for Best Dickens Adaptation, Vanessa Williams provides a new interpretation for the now timeless character of Ebenezer Scrooge, and, since the role has been filled so often before, that’s an amazing accomplishment.