- The Washington Times - Monday, October 12, 2009

Peter Billingsley didn’t feel pressure directing his first feature film, the new comedy “Couples Retreat.”

After all, he spent the last 30-odd years either in front of the camera as a child actor (“The Dirt Bike Kid”) or, later, ensconced in the producer’s chair (“Iron Man,” “The Break Up”).

Directing the child actors on the set of “Retreat” was another matter.

“It was a surreal experience to be completely on the other side,” says the man who once was Ralphie, the boy warned that he’d shoot his eye out in the yuletide classic “A Christmas Story.” “I had flashbacks about what that journey was like as a kid.”

“Couples Retreat” follows four friendly couples who travel to Bora Bora to help one of the couples heal their fractured marriage. The film co-stars Vince Vaughn, Jon Favreau, Kristin Davis, Jason Bateman and Malin Akerman.

Mr. Billingsley, now 38, recalls the disappointment of missing out on juicy child roles.

“You don’t get the majority of things you go up for,” he says. And even when he landed can’t-miss projects like 1981’s “Paternity,” they occasionally missed. Sometimes badly.

Yet Mr. Billingsley survived the tabloid temptations that come along with child stardom.

“I had as normal an upbringing as you can have. I had chores and responsibilities,” he says. “The acting came second to life, so I didn’t have that big crash [when film roles dried up]. It didn’t define me.”

He credits growing up in Phoenix, not Hollywood, for an extra layer of insulation during his formative years. He understands some child actors aren’t so fortunate.

“It’s hard enough to navigate your teen years with acne and girls and driving,” he says. “Then, you put on top of it the fame that goes away.”

Mr. Billingsley gradually shifted from acting to producing features, a transition he calls “organic.” Directing wasn’t part of the plan, but when “Retreat” co-writer and co-star Jon Favreau stepped away from directing the film to helm “Iron Man 2,” Mr. Billingsley decided to take the reigns himself.

Mr. Billingsley still gets residual checks from “A Christmas Story,” but the bigger recurring benefit was working with director Bob Clark. Mr. Clark, who died two years ago in a traffic accident, slaved over “A Christmas Story,” nursing the project along for 12 years, Mr. Billingsley says.

“I never saw a filmmaker more prepared,” he says.

To direct “Retreat,” he followed his former director’s work ethic. He set up multiple cameras for each shot and made sure the script was structurally sound before any improv could begin.

It helped that one of Mr. Billingsley’s best pals off-screen, Mr. Vaughn, played a major role in his first directorial effort. The pair met while shooting a “CBS Schoolbreak Special” in 1990.

Mr. Billingsley still acts on occasion, small roles that scratch the itch enough for now.

Today, the parents of child actors tend to gravitate toward him when he’s on a movie set. They’ve heard the horror stories of child actors gone wild, and they’re eager to hear something less depressing.

He tells parents not to force their children into acting and that if they provide a nurturing, well-balanced environment, their children can have a grand time in the arts.

“If I can be a positive example, then they can see both sides of the coin,” he says.

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