Bad Santa Courted James Gandolfini, Bill Murray, And Jack Nicholson Before Landing Billy Bob Thornton

With the holiday season fast approaching, it's that time of year when movie journalists and film critics start wheeling out their lists of alternative and anti-Christmas classics. If ever there was a film tailor-made for such picks, it is "Bad Santa."

In the true spirit of seasonal generosity, screenwriters Glenn Ficarra and John Requa created a script gleefully intended to offer offense to all comers, and everyone involved looks like they're having plenty of fun working their way onto Santa's naughty list. Yet the key to the film's longevity is that it remains firmly on the side of clever-offensive; if it was simply another bland gross-out comedy, it probably wouldn't have become an instant cult classic that, despite its potty mouth and all-round vulgarity, still warms our cockles after repeat viewings.

As the instantly forgettable sequel proved, you can be crass, foul-mouthed, and gross, but to pull it off and still be genuinely funny and heartwarming requires a great script, a good director, and a terrific lead actor. "Bad Santa 2" only had the last one. The original had a deceptively literate screenplay that celebrated the musicality of inventive cussing, with director Terry Zwigoff once again showing the same natural empathy for loners and outsiders that he displayed in his previous film, "Ghost World."

Then, of course, you have the star, Billy Bob Thornton. "Sling Blade" may have put him on the map and "Armageddon" gave him significant exposure in a major Hollywood blockbuster, but "Bad Santa" is Thornton's defining performance to date. Thornton owns the role so completely that it is difficult to imagine anyone else in the part, although some big names were considered first.

So what happens in Bad Santa again?

Willie T. Soke (Billy Bob Thornton) is an alcoholic, sex-obsessed safecracker whose life is terminally on the skids. He uses his seasonal gig as a department store Santa as cover so he and his partner-in-crime Marcus (Tony Cox) can rob the joint at night, but Willie is getting sloppy. He wants to quit, give up drinking, and open his own bar, but come the most wonderful time of year again, he's flat broke and agrees to one last job at a shopping mall in Phoenix, Arizona.

Willie's drunken and vulgar behavior instantly attracts the attention of the mall's awkward manager, Bob Chipeska (John Ritter), and his intense head of security, Gin (Bernie Mac), much to Marcus's anger and annoyance. Willie's life changes when he meets Thurman Murman (Brett Kelly), the bullied, neglected son of a jailbird embezzler, and Sue (Lauren Graham), a bartender with a Santa fetish. When the cops raid Willie's motel room he decides to move into Thurman's luxury house, where he lives with his senile granny.

Willie is surprised to find some murmurings of self-worth rekindled as he gets involved in Thurman's sad life. When the boy returns home with fresh bruises from the bullies and interrupts Willie's suicide attempt, the cynical criminal finds something worth living for as he teaches the kid some dirty tricks to defend himself. Sue even joins their home, forming a peculiar surrogate family with Willie, Thurman, and Granny.

As Willie heads out for the heist with Gin demanding a cut of the action and Marcus's murderously greedy wife Lois (Lauren Tom) also expecting her share of the loot, will he manage to crack the safe and make it home for Christmas?

James Gandolfini was the first pick for Bad Santa

Alternative castings for any movie are always good fun, and it gets especially juicy when it comes to "Bad Santa." The Coen Brothers, acting as executive producers, wanted the screenplay specifically written with James Gandolfini in mind for the lead role. The actor was racking up awards for "The Sopranos" and worked previously with the Coens on "The Man Who Wasn't There," so Willie's dialogue was tailored to his speech rhythms.

Gandolfini fell through and the names just got bigger after that (via New York Times). Bill Murray was attached at one point, during a time when he was entering a new phase of his career as the elder statesman of indie comedy thanks to his terrific partnership with Wes Anderson. But then Murray stopped returning calls; maybe it had something to do with a little project with Sofia Coppola called "Lost in Translation."

I can imagine both actors bringing something very different to the role. As he showed playing Tony Soprano, Gandolfini could switch from charismatic to furious in the blink of an eye, and the mobster's rampant sex drive meant he could have handled Willie's frequent bonking quite easily. With his looming physique, however, he may have made the character too domineering to elicit our true sympathy.

Murray obviously has the comedy chops for the part, but I think he'd falter as Willie because he rarely plays anyone other than Bill Murray. Even when playing manic, angry, or depressed, there is always a sense of aloof self-awareness in his performances. I don't know if his carefully cultivated air of ironic detachment would allow him to immerse himself in the role the way Billy Bob Thornton does.

Some Oscar winners were also considered

A whole bunch of Oscar-winning heavyweights were also considered for the role of Willie in "Bad Santa;" Robert De Niro, Jack Nicholson, Nicolas Cage, and Sean Penn were all mentioned in the casting process. How would they have worked out?

I think we dodged a bullet on both counts when it comes to De Niro and Nicholson. De Niro could definitely do dark comedy earlier in his career, as he showed with his brilliantly cringe-worthy performance in "The King of Comedy." Come the early 2000s, however, he was mugging for the audience in "Analyze This" and "Meet the Parents." We may have got an indication of how "Bad Santa" would have gone with him in the role when "Dirty Grandpa" stank out theaters in 2016.

As for Nicholson, he had been playing a caricature of himself since at least "The Witches of Eastwick," but at the turn of the new century he also gave the last two great (and remarkably restrained) performances of his career in "The Pledge" and "About Schmidt." Something tells me a Jack Nicholson "Bad Santa" would have been more like his cartoonish turn in "The Departed" than those two.

As for Nicolas Cage, anything is possible. He can do comedy and he can definitely do alcoholism, winning his only Oscar so far for "Leaving Las Vegas." He had yet to reach the full levels of zaniness that made him a cult hero, but he was certainly heading that way. Penn, on the other hand, is an intriguing possibility. He's not usually associated with comedy because he always seems so intensely self-serious, but his quirky performance in "This Must Be the Place" makes me think he could have done something really interesting with the role.

Why Billy Bob Thornton is perfect for Bad Santa

"Bad Santa" opens with Willie talking about his abusive father, a childhood trauma that Billy Bob Thornton shared with the character (via New York Post). Maybe this is why Thornton knew it was a film he had to make (via New York Times):

"My manager called and said: 'Wait until you read this script. I've never seen anything like this.' I'd read maybe a third of it, and I called him and said, 'We've gotta do this.' It was kind of a no-brainer."

Thornton's performance is amazingly ego-less; while some of the bigger names mentioned above may have overpowered the part with their well-defined screen personae, he quietly uses his significant abilities to serve the role. Thanks to that period in the spotlight from "Sling Blade" to his high-profile marriage to Angelina Jolie, it's easy to forget that for much of his lengthy career he has been a hard-working character actor, and as such he takes Willie completely seriously. He never winks at the audience and beneath all the uproarious boozing, sex, and vulgarity, there is a clear sense that he understands the safecracker's pain.

In a part that could have gone incredibly broad and big, Thornton imbues Willie with a deep feeling of world-weariness, an exhausted man fading out with only his self-loathing spiking into bursts of impotent fury. 20 years on, it increasingly looks like the role he will be remembered for. Willie may be a very bad Santa, but the sincerity of Thornton's performance makes him one that we want to share our Christmases with.