“My mom was a big Christmas nut,” says Daytime Emmy-nominated writer, director and producer Ron Oliver, reminiscing about his youth in the tiny town of Dundalk, Ontario, a two-hour drive north of Toronto. “All year, we’d build up to it. To this day, I have childhood memories of our main street — the stores, the snow, the trees, the twinkling lights. The whole classic Currier and Ives Christmas. Every time I make these movies, I strive to have those moments.”
It would take more than four decades for Oliver to carve a candy-cane-colored career out of the passion for all things Noel he inherited from his mother. First, he’d have to relocate to Southern California — as much to escape his native country’s biting winters as to work in Hollywood. Oliver and his husband of 10 years, Eric Bowes, have lived in Palm Springs since 2001, and at his request, we’ve met at the Reef, a Tiki bar housed at Caliente Tropics, a resort hotel on the south end of town. The funny, friendly 61-year-old is in Bermudas and a short-sleeved shirt, sipping neither eggnog nor mulled wine but a margarita.
“I’ve made all kinds of stuff — thrillers, horror, kids, comedies,” maintains the man whose first taste of show business came when he performed as a teen magician in high school, and who’s been a card-carrying member of L.A.’s Magic Castle for more than a quarter-century. “None of it has had the resonance with audiences that my Christmas movies have.”
Here's just a sampling of the holiday titles he has written and/or directed since 2005: “A Dennis the Menace Christmas,” “Angel of Christmas,” “Romance at Reindeer Lodge,” “Love at the Thanksgiving Day Parade” and an untitled Lindsay Lohan project shot in Utah and coming to Netflix next year.
One of Oliver’s more recent favorites began as a joke. In April 2019, he posted on social media an image of himself sipping champagne at the bar of a famed New York City landmark, commenting that he was researching a trinket titled “Christmas at the Plaza.”
“Monday morning,” recalls Oliver, “I get a phone call from my executive at Hallmark saying, ‘If you’re serious, and you can make it happen, we’ll make that movie. Here’s your budget.’” It aired to great fanfare seven months later.
Next up for Oliver is the just-completed “Housewives of the North Pole,” streaming Dec. 9, Peacock’s first foray into the genre. “It’s the story of two best friends who live across the street from each other,” he says of the film, which is set not in the North Pole but in the fictional hamlet of North Pole, Vt. “Their friendship is tested and collapses, so they decide to compete against each other in the annual holiday decorating contest. In doing so, they learn a little bit about what the nature of friendship really is and how much they truly need each other.”
The tip of the hat to the insanely successful reality TV franchise is no accident, and in a stroke of casting genius, actor Kyle Richards of “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” is pitted against “Breaking Bad” breakout Betsy Brandt. A smattering of other “Real Housewives” doyennes make merry cameo appearances.
“Kyle’s a terrific actor, but what amazed me is her off-the-charts comic timing,” notes Oliver. “Betsy brought her usual brilliance, of course. The yin and yang of their on-screen relationship created this perfect comic and dramatic chemistry.”
The genesis of this “Housewives” goes back to a dinner producer Brad Krevoy — CEO and chairman of Motion Picture Corporation of America, maker of more than 50 such confections for various networks, cablers and streamers since 2013 — had with veteran holiday picture scribes Neal H. Dobrofsky, Tippi Dobrofsky and their son, Spyder, all of whom share a writing credit on the new film.
“It was a no-brainer,” Krevoy says of the team’s pitch. Having worked previously with Oliver on “A Christmas Detour” and “Every Christmas Has a Story” — two titles that were No. 1s for Hallmark — he knew he had the perfect helmer for the project. “Ron was my first call because he loves these movies, understands them,” says Krevoy. “Every day, he comes to set dressed to the nines in Christmas attire, which sets the mood.”
“My husband’s a huge ‘Real Housewives’ fan,” adds Oliver, who admits he instantly found the concept brilliant. “When I told him this was in the offing, the very first words out of his mouth were ‘Yes,’ ‘Yes’ and ‘Yes.’”
Knowing the entire package was tailor-made for NBCUniversal — owner of the Bravo network (home to “The Real Housewives”) and of Peacock — Krevoy took it there first. The rest is holiday history.
“Peacock didn’t give me any mandate,” maintains Oliver. “They were terrific. They just wanted a good-looking movie that was funny and had heart. If anything, the rules were a little bit looser. For instance, here we have Santa Claus doing something you’d never expect him to do at Hallmark. Peacock wasn’t so beholden to tradition. Irreverence is the perfect word for it. They had an irreverence for Christmas movie tropes.”
No matter which outlet his work will air on, Oliver remains steadfast in his yuletide TV philosophy: “Make it beautiful, make it nostalgic, make it romantic, and give ’em a little love at the end.”
Speaking of love, one would think a man who’s been out his entire career — and whose wedding anniversary quite purposely falls on Dec. 25 — would want to make the same-sex holiday film to end all same-sex holiday films. One would be wrong.
“Honestly, I don’t,” Oliver confesses. “I wish I did. Part of me feels bad about it, but I can’t speak for every gay man, and sometimes, when you’re making a movie like that, you’re charged with that idea. You’re suddenly responsible for being the spokesmodel for all LGBTQ people.”
That said, Oliver’s next project does prominently feature a queer couple as the male protagonist’s best friends. “I prefer the notion — and we’re seeing more and more of it — that gay people are just part of the mix,” he says. “What’s interesting with this one is that, as I was writing it, I was thinking, ‘I need the friend at work and the friend’s significant other.’ My first reaction was not husband and wife. It was two husbands, because that’s exactly how it would be.”
As the sun starts to set over the desert, I ask Oliver why he’s so good at this genre. “I think it’s because I understand that, underneath all of the ridiculously commercialized nonsense, the bright colors and the sparkling lights we wrap the holidays in, it’s always about heart. Every Christmas story boils down to somebody telling somebody else they love them.”
If MPCA’s Krevoy is correct in his reading of the mistletoe leaves, Oliver can keep crafting his enchanting season’s greetings for the foreseeable future. “We’re in this cycle for at least the next five years,” opines Krevoy. “With the explosion of streamers, opportunities are here because everybody wants to be in this space. It’s a very good time for content creators.”
“I’m just a kid from a small Canadian village,” concludes Oliver, polishing off his cocktail. “The very fact I get to make anything at all in Hollywood is still a Christmas miracle to me.”
For the record:
11:08 a.m. Dec. 6, 2021: An earlier version of this article misstated the title of “The Housewives of the North Pole” as “The Real Housewives of the North Pole.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.