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Son of a Nutcracker — ‘Elf’ Just Turned 20 — See the Cast of the Hilarious Holiday Comedy Then and Now

Learn who became a musical prodigy!


It’s hard to believe, but the Christmas classic Elf recently celebrated its 20th anniversary. Released during the 2003 holiday season, the adorable fish-out-of-water tale starred the 6’3” Will Ferrell as Buddy Hobbs, (more commonly known as “Buddy the Elf”), an eccentric human raised by Santa’s elves. When Buddy sets off for New York City on a mission to meet his biological father, holiday hilarity ensues. Elf cast has joined the ranks of It’s a Wonderful Life, Miracle on 34th Street and A Christmas Story in the must-watch Christmas movie pantheon, and its even inspired a Broadway musical adaptation, a video game and an animated TV special.

Elf provided an excellent showcase for Ferrell’s comedic talents, and the rest of the cast was equally delightful. Buddy’s real dad, a curmudgeonly children’s book publisher who works in the Empire State Building, was played by the late, great James Caan, while Mary Steenburgen played his wife. The charmingly quirky Zooey Deschanel played Jovie, a Gimbels worker who would rather be doing anything else than working retail and being forced to dress up in a elf costume. The romance that blossoms between them is adorable, and the mix of whimsy, humor and heartfelt emotion in Elf gets us every time.

Will Ferrel as Buddy and Zooey Deschanel as Jovie in Elf, 2003
Will Ferrell as Buddy and Zooey Deschanel as Jovie in Elf (2003)New Line Cinema/Warner Bros./Guy Walks into a Bar Productions/Mosaic Media Group, Inc./Gold/MillerProdcutions/ShawnDanielle Production Services/MoviestillsDB

The cast of Elf then and now

In honor of Elf‘s big anniversary, we’re taking a look at the stars of the holiday classic and seeing what they’ve been up to recently.

Cast of Elf: Will Ferrell as Buddy the Elf

Will Ferrell from the cast of Elf. Left: 2003; Right: 2023
Left: 2003; Right: 2023Getty

Will Ferrell got his start as a member of the Groundlings, an improv comedy troupe in Los Angeles that served as a training ground for many of the most beloved comedians around. One fateful night, Saturday Night Live creator and producer Lorne Michaels was in the audience, and the rest is history.

Ferrell joined the cast of SNL in 1995, and soon became a breakout star. Whether he was playing a cheerleader, a ’70s cowbell player or then-president George W. Bush (to name just a few of his comic creations), Ferrell was consistently hilarious. While a cast member, he appeared in movies like Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, A Night at the Roxbury, Superstar and Zoolander. In 2002, Ferrell left the show after seven years, and it didn’t take him long to become a movie star, with roles in raucous comedies like Old School, Anchorman: The Legend of Ron Burgundy and Step Brothers.

Will Ferrell pours syrup on spaghetti in Elf, 2003
Will Ferrell pours syrup on spaghetti in a scene from Elf (2003)New Line Cinema/Warner Bros./Guy Walks into a Bar Productions/Mosaic Media Group, Inc./Gold/MillerProdcutions/ShawnDanielle Production Services/MoviestillsDB

Elf was one of Ferrell’s very first post-SNL movies, and given its success it’s hard to picture anyone else in the role. Surprisingly, the script was first written 10 years earlier, in 1993, and originally Jim Carrey was supposed to play Buddy.

Since Elf, Ferrell has starred in comedies like Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby, Blades of Glory, Daddy’s Home and more. He’s also shown off his dramatic abilities in more serious fare like Stranger Than Fiction and Downhill

Now 56, Ferrell remains one of Hollywood’s most beloved comic stars. In 2011, he was honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor — one of the most prestigious awards a comedian can win. In recent years, Ferrell has made a return to the world of Christmas movies in Spirited and starred as a devious CEO in Barbie.

Zooey Deschanel as Jovie

Zooey Deschanel Left: 2003; Right: 2023
Left: 2003; Right: 2023Getty

Zooey Deschanel switched her signature brunette bangs for blonde waves to play Jovie in Elf. Born into a showbiz family (her older sister, Emily, is also an actress, best-known for starring in Bones, while her dad, Caleb, is a cinematographer, and her mom, Mary Jo, is also an actress), she started her career with roles in Almost Famous, The Good Girl and All the Real Girls. Following Elf, Deschanel’s star was on the rise, and she became an it-girl of the ’00s, starring in movies like The Happening, Yes Man, 500 Days of Summer and Our Idiot Brother.

In 2011, Deschanel starred in New Girl, a sitcom about a woman living in an apartment with three single men. The popular show ran for seven seasons, wrapping up in 2018. Now 43, Deschanel has recently appeared in the ’80s-set show Physical and the indie movie Dreamin’ Wild. Outside of acting, she’s also an accomplished musician who’s released seven albums as part of the duo She & Him.

Mary Steenburgen as Emily Hobbs

Mary Steenburgen from the cast of Elf. Left: 2003; Right: 2023
Left: 2003; Right: 2023 Getty

Mary Steenburgen has been acting since the late ’70s. She was discovered by none other than Jack Nicholson, who picked her out of Paramount’s office and cast her as a high-spirited adventuress in a Western he directed and starred in, Goin’ South in 1978. Not bad for a film debut! She had her first starring role the next year, in Time After Time, and she won the Best Supporting Actress for her role in the 1980 movie Melvin and Howard.

In the ’90s, Steenburgen acted in popular movies like Back to the Future Part III, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape and Philadelphia. As a veteran actress in the ’00s, she became known for playing moms in Elf, Step Brothers (in which she acted opposite Will Ferrell once again), Four Christmases, The Proposal, Did You Hear About the Morgans?, The Help and Happiest Season.

She’s also made many TV appearances, in shows like The Last Man on Earth. Zoey’s Extraordinary Playlist and Curb Your Enthusiasm. Now 70, Steenburgen has recently appeared in Nightmare Alley and Book Club: The Next Chapter. In addition to her career as an actress, Steenburgen is also something of a prodigy — in 2007, when she woke up from a minor surgery, she found herself miraculously endowed with musical abilities and became a songwriter. She’s truly multitalented!

James Caan as Walter Hobbs

James Caan Left: 2003; Right: 2022
Left: 2003; Right: 2022Getty

Throughout his long career, James Caan symbolized masculinity and tough-guy cool thanks to iconic roles in The Godfather, The Gambler and Thief, but he also made an excellent counterpart to Will Ferrell’s zaniness.

Caan began acting in the ’60s, and had roles in movies like El Dorado and The Rain People. The director of the latter, Francis Ford Coppola, would then cast him as the hot-tempered gangster Santino “Sonny” Corleone in the mob epic The Godfather and its sequel, The Godfather Part II, elevating Caan to superstar status.

After his iconic role as Sonny, Caan paired with Barbra Streisand in Funny Lady, surprising audiences in a role that featured singing and dancing. He then turned in a memorable performance as a futuristic sports star who questioned the moral fiber of a sterile society in Rollerball and teamed up with his Godfather co-star Robert Duvall in The Killer Elite.

MUST-READ: Robert Duvall: Read All About the Accomplished Actor — From ‘The Godfather’ to ‘Lonesome Dove’

Caan’s career slowed down a bit in the ’80s, but in the ’90s and ’00s he began serving up powerful performances in movies like Misery, City of Ghosts and Dogville. Caan kept working steadily up until his death at 82 in 2022.

Bob Newhart as Papa Elf

Side-by-side of Bob Newhart in 2003 and 2019
Left: 2003; Right: 2019 Cast of ElfGetty

Given Buddy the Elf’s good humor, it’s only fitting that Papa Elf, the guy who raised him, would be played by a comedy icon. Bob Newhart has been making audiences laugh for over 60 years.

Newhart started out as a stand-up comedian in the early ’60s, and became known for his acerbic delivery. In 1961, he had a variety show, and he was a frequent talk show guest. In 1972, he got his own sitcom, The Bob Newhart Show, which ran until 1978. The show was highly influential, and from 1982 to 1990 he’d star in another popular sitcom, Newhart. He then had two short-lived shows in the ’90s, Bob and George & Leo. He’s also made a number of guest appearances in shows like ER, Desperate Housewives and The Big Bang Theory and acted in movies like Catch-22, In & Out and Legally Blonde 2: Red, White & Blonde.

Now 94, Newhart remains a living legend of comedy.

Related: Bob Newhart: A Look at the Comedy Legend’s Life, Love and Legacy of Laughter

Daniel Tay as Michael Hobbs

Side-by-side of Daniel Tay in 2003 and 2009
Left: 2003; Right: 2009 Cast of ElfGetty

Daniel Tay played Michael, Walter and Emily’s son and Buddy’s half-brother. At age 11, it was his acting debut — not a bad place to start! That same year, he played a young version of comic book artist Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. He went on to do voiceover work in the animated family film Doogal and the video games Bully and Grand Theft Auto IV. He also appeared in the movies Beer League and Brooklyn Rules.

Now 31, Tay studied at Yale and reportedly worked as an SAT instructor. He stopped acting in 2009 and keeps a low profile.

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