Don't Be a Cotton-Headed Ninnymuggins: Check Out 19 Secrets About Elf

Did you know that Jim Carrey almost played Buddy the Elf and that Will Ferrell turned down a massive payday to do a sequel? Unwrap more tidbits from Elf below.

By Tierney Bricker Dec 25, 2022 8:00 AMTags
Watch: "Elf" Brings Xmas Cheer 16 Years Later: E! News Rewind

The best way to spread Christmas cheer is by spilling secrets about Elf for all to hear.

In 2003, Will Ferrell stole our hearts and reinvigorated our love for maple syrup and smiling when Elf debuted in theaters. Made for just $33 million, the Jon Favreau-directed feel-good comedy went on to gross over $220 million and, more importantly, has endured as a holiday classic for all these years. 

Ferrell's turn as Buddy the Elf was his first film after leaving Saturday Night Live and found the actor interacting with animated whales and snowmen in the North Pole then hopping around New York City in yellow tights. And yet, somehow, it all worked.

But did you know that the role almost went to another actor? Or that one of Ferrell's co-stars was concerned that his performance was "too over-the-top"? Talk about a cotton-headed ninnymuggins.

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So take a journey with us through the seven levels of the candy cane forest, through the sea of swirly-twirly gum drops and then through the Lincoln Tunnel to check out these behind-the-scenes secrets about Elf...

1. The first script for Elf was actually written in 1993, with Jim Carrey in mind to play the titular Santa's helper. Because it took over a decade for the film to finally be made, the Ace Ventura: Pet Detective star never ended up taking on the role. 

2. Elf was also initially intended to be a bit more sinister, with director Jon Favreau revealing to Rolling Stone, "He was a darker character."

3. Before he was asked to come in to rewrite the script and transform the movie into a PG friendly-family affair, Favreau initially turned down the job.

"I took a look at the script, and I wasn't particularly interested," he told Rolling Stone. "It was a much darker version of the film. I liked the notion of being involved with Will in his first solo movie after SNL, but it wasn't quite there."

4. Buddy's iconic costume was modeled off of the elves from the 1964 Rankin/Bass film Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

"The costume was important," Favreau told ABC News. "It looks almost like he's a puppet and the tights and the boots and the hat and he was extremely brave wearing that costume." 

5. Costume designer Laura Jean Shannon, tasked with finding the perfect look, revealed it wasn't accommodating Ferrell's 6-foot-3 frame that was the hardest part of her job. 

"It was less a challenge dressing Will due to his size and more a challenge to make sure nothing seemed off-putting or in bad taste." she explained to Feel Christmassy. "After all, I had to dress a grown man in tights and a cutaway coat. Needless to say, we did have a fair amount of fittings to be sure we struck the right balance between absurd and adorable."

6. Ferrell's Buddy costume was so captivating that the actor actually caused a few traffic incidents while filming in New York City.

"When we had Will in the Lincoln Tunnel, the tunnel was open. Same thing with the 59th Street Bridge," Favreau told Rolling Stone. "Whenever he was out there in his suit, we'd hear screeches and fender-benders and lights smashing. People would be looking at him walking on the side and that would cause a few minor traffic accidents."

7. Buddy's infamous 12-second long burp wasn't actually performed by Ferrell. Voice actor Maurice LaMarche, best known for giving life to The Brain on Pinky and the Brain, provided the dinner table belch. And yes, we heard that. 

8. The cotton balls Buddy can't stop eating in the doctor's office were actually pieces of cotton candy that had yet to be dyed. 

9. Buddy's all-sugar diet also became Ferrell's daily food intake while filming as he actually scarfed down all of that maple syrup-coated spaghetti and candy during scenes. 

"I ingested a lot of sugar in this movie and I didn't get a lot of sleep," Ferrell told The Sun. "I constantly stayed up. But anything for the movie, I'm there. If it takes eating a lot of maple syrup, then I will, if that's what the job calls for."

10. Before his big break on Saturday Night Live, Ferrell once worked as a mall Santa Claus in Pasadena, Calif., with his SNL co-star Chris Kattan serving as one of his elves.

11. Ferrell's brother Patrick Ferrell played one of the security guards that drags Buddy out of the Empire State Building.

12. Known for his turn in dramas like The Godfather and Misery, James Caan was concerned early on that Ferrell's performance was, um, a little too much. 

"[Caan's] like, 'Hey, I've gotta tell you something. Every day on set, I thought you were way too over-the-top. But now I see what you're doing. Great job,'" Ferrell recalled during an appearance on The Late Late Show with James Corden in 2018. "I just love the thought that there we were, working every day and he was going back to his hotel room going, 'Please get me outta this one.'"

13. A natural brunette, Zooey Deschanel sported light blonde locks as Jovie, Buddy's fellow Gimbels elf and love interest. But she didn't dye her hair for this role. 

"I had to dye my hair blonde for a screen test for a movie that never happened before I did Elf. And I went in for the meeting for Elf, and then I asked them, 'Could I dye my hair back to my natural color?'" the New Girl star told Stylecaster. "And they said, 'No, you have to keep your hair what it was in the meeting.' So I had to wait until I was done with that movie. But as soon as I was done with that movie, I pretty much dyed it back."

14. Ming Ming the elf is played by A Christmas Story star Peter Billingsley in a cameo role, a casting move Favreau made for a specific reason.

"I wanted some of the Christmas Story, that good mojo, that was our goal," he told Billingsley on ABC News. "We were half-joking, saying, ‘Maybe someday this will be like Christmas Story where every year they'll watch it.'" 

15. Some of Buddy's most iconic lines—"You smell like beef and cheese!" and "You sit on a throne of lies!"—were improvised by Ferrell in the moment. 

16. The big fight scene between Buddy and the fake Santa, played by comedian Artie Lange, was filmed in one take because it took the art department weeks to decorate Gimbels. "We had one take to destroy it," Lange told ABC News, "So Favreau said, 'Just go nuts!'"

17. While most people know Favreau had a small role as the pediatrician who examines Buddy and confirms he's Walter's son, the director also had another part: He voiced the Narwhal who infamously said, "Bye Buddy, hope you find your dad!"

18. Ferrell turned down a reported $29 million paycheck to reprise the role of Buddy for a sequel, telling The Guardian in 2006 that it "wasn't difficult at all" to pass on the opportunity.

"I remember asking myself: could I withstand the criticism when it's bad and they say, 'He did the sequel for the money?'" he explained. "I decided I wouldn't be able to. I didn't want to wander into an area that could erase all the good work I've done—but you watch, I'll do some sequel in the future that's crap."

19. But Caan alleged it was tension between Ferrell and Favreau that possibly squashed any plans for a follow-up.

"We were gonna do it, and I thought, 'Oh my God, I finally have a franchise movie. I can make some money, let my kids do what the hell they want to do,'" he said on 92.3 The Fan in Cleveland. "The director and Will didn't get along very well. Will wanted to do it, and he didn't want the director. He had it in his contract. It was one of those things."

This story was originally published on Saturday, Nov. 7, 2020 at 3 a.m. PT.