Shelley Long is a self-professed proud pushover for appearing in holiday films. So when she was asked to play Mrs. Santa Claus herself — opposite a certain former costar — in Lifetime’s new original film Merry In-Laws, she considered it a little Christmas miracle.
“I love doing Christmas movies and I’ve easily done half a dozen — probably more,” Long chuckles. “The minute they say it’s a Christmas movie, it approaches my heart. So I read it and I thought it was very cute and fun — and then somebody mentioned that maybe George was going to do it. And I thought, ‘Ohhhh, I’ve got to do it!’ Just on the chance that he would do it. And when I heard that he was, I thought, ‘This was meant to be!’”
The film features the former Cheers costars as the doting mom and dad of Peter (Lucas Bryant, The Vow), a pre-school teacher who must find a way to tell his uber-intellectual fiancée Alex and her young son Max — neither of whom believes in Santa — that his parents are Mr. and Mrs. Claus. In the meantime, Alex’s disapproving folks plot to break up the pair, so the Claus family must use the spirit of the holiday to reunite them before Santa goes to work on Christmas Eve.
Long says she particularly appreciated the willingness of the film’s director, actress Leslie Hope (24, The Mentalist), to allow her cast to improvise — especially given Long’s and Wendt’s collective background with the famed The Second City sketch comedy troupe. Even if that did get Long in a bit of a spot with her costar now and then.
“George was at The Second City in the main company right before I came to The Second City in the main company — he was going out as I was coming in,” Long explains, adding that the amount of time her Cheers character, Diane Chambers, appeared onscreen did not afford her as much opportunity as she would have liked to bond with the rest of the series’ cast. “So working with George in this movie was really quite fascinating — because I was literally on his lap! And what I discovered was — I asked a mutual friend of ours who was at The Second City, too, ‘Ann, is George kind of quiet?!’ And she said ‘Oh yeah!’ And I said, ‘Well, where is this idea that he’s this jolly, gregarious person?!’
“Of course, at times, we can all be that way, depending upon the circumstances,” Long continues.”But I think I embarrassed him more than once. Because before I discovered this — before I thickly realized that maybe George is more shy than we think — looking back on it, I probably wouldn’t have pulled some of the tricks. He was being very quiet and I was thinking, ‘I have to liven things up here!’ — because it was that kind of movie. But I think that he stilled enjoyed what I was doing. Forgive me, George, if this is all wrong. But he’s a sweetie, of course — and I would have been a little more discrete with my antics.”
Someone who did appreciate Long’s festive mood onset was her seven-year-old costar Jacob Thurmeier, with whom she spent hours making up games and songs to pass the time and foster the holiday spirit.
“There is something special about doing a holiday movie — I was thinking to myself that you literally need a twinkle in your eye, but it’s not like you can take a hammer and hammer in the twinkle,” Long says. “You’ve got to let yourself go with the fun, with the spirit of the film. So I would improvise with the little guy, Jacob, who plays my character’s grandson if my son marries this girl. She really loves this little kid — and I fell in love with him because he was so smart and so lovely and so well-mannered. And I’ll tell you, I don’t think I even made up that many games with my own daughter. But he was so receptive and again that feeling — it was just something special that happened.”
When I opine that kids are what makes Christmas Christmasy, and tell her that my own family is stuck in that holiday limbo in which our own kids are a decade-plus too old for Santa, but there are no grandkids on the horizon, Long chuckles sympathetically and offers a solution. “I don’t know if there is an office near you, but there is Rent-A-Child — you have to get there early so you get the good ones,” she says. “There’s also Rent-A-Grandma. I keep running across the information, so I’m going to follow through with that. Because my daughter (dancer/actress Juliana Long Tyson) is 27 and I’ve been working on her for at least seven years. Not necessarily to have children right away, but to at least get married!”
While she waits, Long says she’s content to nurture her family’s holiday traditions — and forge some new ones along the way.
“The thing about the holidays, too, is that you remember other holidays,” she muses. “I used to buy flannel PJs for my daughter and kept buying flannel PJs and she finally said, ‘Mother! I hate the flannel PJs!’ I was just crushed, because I love the flannel PJs. They have those great prints on them! But you have to kind of shift gears. So you find new traditions. I’ll give you an example from my own life. I am not a very good cook. There is a very limited number of dishes that I can handle. But I know what it is: I get bored! You have to stand there and there’s nothing to do — not even a stir — and you just have to stand there and wait for the timer to go off. And inevitably I’ll walk away and then the timer goes off and I don’t hear it. I like baking better, and I’m probably a little bit better at baking because I pay more attention. So I said to my daughter — who just kind of refused to learn how to cook — I said to her, ‘You know, I still feel guilty because I didn’t have the chance to teach you to cook. Why don’t we make a main course and a dessert? They don’t even half to go together — just two things we’ll make in one afternoon?’
“Well we did that,” Long continues. I got one recipe from the “I Hate to Cook Book,” which I think goes back to the ’60s. I’m sure it’s out of print, but I just love that book — and some of the recipes are really good. We used the chili recipe, and then we made some cookies [from] a recipe from a woman who used to be my assistant for a while, who is now my friend. And as I said, they didn’t really go together, but on their own they were great! And we had so much fun. Exactly what I wanted to happened happened, which is that we talked. That’s when I love cooking. I love cooking around the holidays when you’ve got someone else who is chopping celery and you’re making the stuffing or basting the turkey and you have that lovely interaction while you’re working.”
Though Long says she and Juliana are overdue for another session of cooking and camaraderie, the memory brings to mind another longstanding Long family holiday tradition she’s eager to resurrect.
“My father’s mother — my grandmother on my mother’s side — had a wonderful recipe for sugar cookies,” Long recalls. “And the reason I say wonderful is because she had a secret ingredient, and her secret ingredient is cinnamon. Just a very little bit of cinnamon in a sugar cookie brightens it right up. It’s that something special that we’ve been talking about.
“So the holiday tradition was always to make Pudge’s — my grandmother’s name was Pudge and it took me until I was in high school to figure out that that can’t be her real name! She was a little pudgy. But her real name was Leah — and every year we made Pudge’s cookies and it was that something special. Just from a little bit of spice!”
Merry In-Laws premieres Saturday, Dec. 15 at 9/8CT of Lifetime.