Celebrating ‘Prancer’ in Three Oaks

Sam Elliott and Rebecca Harrell in a scene from "Prancer."

THREE OAKS — John D. Hancock sits in the fruit farm that his parents, Ralph and Ella Mae Hancock, purchased in 1939 — the year he was born — just north of LaPorte, Ind.

It’s the place Hancock remembers spending childhood weekends and summers playing among the apple trees. It’s where he and wife and filmmaking partner Dorothy Tristan retreated to after their Malibu, Calif., home was destroyed in a wildfire. And it’s where the director of movies as diverse as “Bang The Drum Slowly” and “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” rekindled his passion for filmmaking.

Hancock, who has since shot four feature films in northern Indiana and Southwest Michigan, says the movie that started it all was the 1989 Christmas classic “Prancer,” which is celebrating its 25th anniversary this weekend with an 11 a.m. parade and family festival on Saturday in downtown Three Oaks, and a free screening of the film followed by a question-and-answer session with the director Sunday at the Vickers Theatre. For the schedule, see the Community Notes section of this website.

“It was such fun to shoot it here,” Hancock says. “For me, it was such a thrill to work where I grew up. The community just embraced us. I haven’t seen it in a while. I’m actually looking forward to seeing it myself.”

The film, shot primarily in LaPorte, Ind., and Three Oaks, centers on plucky 9-year-old Jessica Riggs (Rebecca Harrell), who lives with her tough, no-nonsense father (Sam Elliott) on a small, struggling apple farm. Jessica still believes in Santa Claus. Her logic is simple: If there isn’t a Santa Claus, then maybe there isn’t a God, and if there isn’t a God, then there isn’t a heaven, and, in that case, where did her mother go when she died?

So when Jessica discovers a wounded reindeer in the forest, believing it to be one of Santa’s magical sleigh team, she secretly nurses it back to health aided by an elderly veterinarian (Abe Vigoda). She believes so ferociously that her reindeer is, indeed, Prancer, that she even does housecleaning for the eccentric old lady (Cloris Leachman) who lives in the house on the hill to buy it a bag of oats. Of course, the reindeer is discovered, and other obstacles ensue.

While “Prancer” wasn’t a box office smash, earning $18.5 million, its modest yet enduring success is often traced to the film’s realistic, almost unsentimental depiction of the characters created by Hancock and writer Greg Taylor instead of the typical saccharine Christmas fare.

“It’s not as sugary as most Christmas pictures. That helps,” Hancock says. “It’s certainly a sweet picture but it’s not over the top in that direction. I think the performances are good. I think Sam is good, and the little girl is wonderful. Of course it was made with great joy and love.”

Growing up between Chicago and LaPorte, Ind., it wasn’t until Hancock attended Harvard University that he became interested in directing. He directed a number of plays in college, and then headed to New York City where he directed the Off-Broadway production of Bertolt Brecht’s “A Man’s A Man,” followed by Robert Lowell’s “Endicott and the Red Cross,” and William Shakespeare’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream,” for which he received the Obie Award.

“I saw a lot of wonderful movies as a child, but it didn’t occur to me that this would be something you could do,” Hancock says. “Then I saw ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ and I thought, ‘Man this is what I want to do.’ I worked regularly in the theater for 10 years, but I kept thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to direct movies, too.’”

He got his chance in 1970 with a grant from the American Film Institute. Hancock directed the short film, “Sticky My Fingers, Fleet My Feet,” for which he received an Academy Award nomination. As a feature film director, he is perhaps best known for the 1973 baseball film “Bang the Drum Slowly,” starring Robert De Niro and Michael Moriarty.

“It’s a wonderful book. It was a book I knew and loved, which is why I wanted to make it,” Hancock says. “Bobby was wonderful in it. He was a pleasure and easy to work with. It was also great fun to shoot in Yankee Stadium. What people may not know is that it was an independent picture that we sold to Paramount.”

Hancock’s other film credits include “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death,” “Baby Blue Marine,” California Dreaming” and “Weeds,” before “Prancer” – a film Hancock takes evident pride in – landed on his desk.

“When I read it, I could see it here,” Hancock says. “I think Raffaella De Laurentiis, who produced it, thought that she would get more out of me if she let me shoot it where I grew up. She and I traveled all over. We went to Montreal. We drove down through Vermont. We looked at some place in Pennsylvania, too. And then we came here. I really wanted to shoot it here. She fell in love with the place, too. It just seemed to me to be a wonderful location.”

Hancock wasn’t disappointed by the community response, although he is quick to credit star Sam Elliott for helping break the ice.

“I think it all stems from how good Sam was and how friendly he was,” Hancock says. “Sam was very popular at the bars at night, and was very open and friendly with the community. That was a big help. People got the idea that these are not stuck-up Hollywood people, they are people just like us and how wonderful that is.”

After the success of “Prancer,” and the California wildfire that destroyed their home, Hancock and Tristan made the permanent move to LaPorte, Ind., opening their production company FilmAcres in 1998. In 1999, he produced and directed “A Piece of Eden,” starring Tyne Daly, a semi-autobiographical story about a fruit farm and the relationship between a father and his son. He also directed the suspense thriller “Suspended Animation” in 2001, and in 2013 shot the film “Swan Song,” which stars his wife as a former film star who may be suffering from the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease. Hancock says he is currently shopping that film to distributors and has received several offers.

“You don’t have to be in Hollywood to make films. There’s so many talented people here that we are able to fill some of the roles with local people,” Hancock says. “People are very generous letting me use locations here. It’s not a spoiled area. It wasn’t then, and it still isn’t. People still welcome us, perhaps even more today then when we shot ‘Prancer.’ The community is really behind you. It’s just so satisfying.”

Hancock then pauses before adding, “It’s just home.”

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