Even though films like It’s a Wonderful Life and Miracle on 34th Street have become holiday classics, there’s something comforting about a small-screen seasonal special. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer and A Charlie Brown Christmas occupy a coveted place on television during the holiday season.
One special is not quite as well-known as the others, though it wasn’t for lack of star power. In 1984, NBC aired a made-for-television special titled A Christmas Dream. It starred Lawrence Tureaud, better known as Mr. T, and Emmanuel Lewis, the young actor who played the title character in Webster. Unlike many other holiday specials that are repeated for decades, A Christmas Dream aired just once.
The hour-long show was clearly intended to capitalize on the popularity of both Mr. T, then the star of the action series The A-Team, as well as that of Lewis. (Both of their shows aired on NBC.) In the special, which aired on December 16, 1984, Mr. T portrays a man named Santa Benny who dresses as Santa Claus and befriends an itinerant and cheerless young man (Lewis) who needs to learn the true meaning of Christmas. Declaring his young friend as having a “bad attitude,” Santa Benny takes the boy around New York City to visit Radio City Music Hall and Rockefeller Center. Along the way, they encounter luminaries like magician David Copperfield, singer Maureen McGovern, a ventriloquist named Willie Tyler, and the Rockettes.
Speaking with Jay Carman of the "TV Times" column, Mr. T addressed why he opted to make a film intended for children. “Because they love me so much,” he said. “I’ve got an obligation to kids, to be there and guide them whenever I can—especially if their folks are falling down on the job.”
As you can see, the special is a highly concentrated dose of the 1980s.
A Christmas Dream is notable not only for the pairing of Mr. T and Lewis, but for the fact that Mr. T appears without his signature gold chains. In fact, he dons a three-piece suit, which was apparently anathema to the heavily muscled actor at the time.
The special was part of the nation’s preoccupation with Mr. T. The actor also had an autobiography, Mr. T: The Man With the Gold, as well as a videocassette, Mr. T’s Be Somebody… or Be Somebody’s Fool, circulating at the same time.
For Lewis, A Christmas Dream represented a flurry of activity. Then 13 years old, Lewis appeared in several other television specials around the same time, including The World’s Funniest Goofs II and The World’s Funniest Goofs III, Circus of the Stars, and The Love Boat. He also starred in Samurai in New York, a television movie that was released exclusively for Japanese audiences.
A Christmas Dream didn’t fare badly in the ratings that year. Although The Bob Hope Christmas Special cracked the top 10, the Mr. T and Lewis team-up finished in a respectable 17th place. (The top program was the primetime soap Dynasty.) It even beat a repeat of Frosty the Snowman (1969), which came in 34th. If only Mr. T had been around to correct Frosty's bad attitude.