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Elf portrait: Tony Cox returns to phenomenal ‘Bad Santa’ role

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Tony Cox says he enjoyed working with Kathy Bates in “Bad Santa 2” more than with any other actor. (Courtesy Broad Green Pictures)
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It’s only natural that Tony Cox would sign on for the new “Bad Santa 2,” opening just in time for Thanksgiving. The original “Bad Santa” (2003) offered him the role of a lifetime: Marcus, department store elf and criminal mastermind.

“When I first started, all there was was costume parts,” Cox said during a recent phone conversation. “Writers didn’t write for little people. They think they’re funny, but didn’t think they could act. I hadn’t seen a role like this in 23 years.”

Even though local director Terry Zwigoff wanted to cast him, Cox almost didn’t get the role because the producers didn’t want him.

“It wasn’t written for an African American,” he explains. “It was for a Caucasian. But Terry stuck by me, and he was willing to lose the job for me. And Billy Bob came in at the end. They said, ‘Tony Cox is the best man for this role.’ God put those guys there for me.”

Re-teaming with co-stars Billy Bob Thornton and Brett Kelly, in the sequel was “kinda weird, to be honest,” says Cox.

“I remember going out with Brett and everyone,” says Cox. “He was drinking. I was looking at him and thinking that he was still this kid.”

But everything clicked back into place fairly quickly. “We were just a natural,” he says.

Yet Cox also was unexpectedly unprepared for shooting.

“My wife is very spiritual, so she ain’t watching ‘Bad Santa.’ I was getting my dialogue down for ‘Bad Santa 2.’ I can’t really do my dialogue with her, so I say ‘blank blank blankety blank,’” he says. “I got there, and I realized I didn’t know my lines. I went ‘blankety-blank’ so much I couldn’t remember my lines!”

Though Cox has worked with great collaborators from Mel Brooks to Ice Cube, his favorite is Kathy Bates, who’s amazingly good as Thornton’s character’s mother in “Bad Santa 2.”

“I was a fan from afar. But to work with her? I couldn’t believe it!” he says. “We stay in touch now. I told her I was scared of her after I saw ‘Misery.’”

If he could pick a dream project, he’d do a buddy comedy in the vein of Richard Pryor and Gene Wilder’s “Stir Crazy.” He says he likes “having somebody to work off of,” and adds, “I’ve always wanted to do one of those prison scenes!”

But for now, Cox feels blessed that he has been able to play Marcus — twice.

He is recognized the world over now, including in New Zealand. On a recent flight, the pilot discovered that Cox was on board and invited him to visit the cockpit.

“That just made my day. It’s been crazy,” he says. “Who would have thought ‘Bad Santa’ would be what it is today?”

IF YOU GO
Bad Santa 2
Starring Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox, Kathy Bates, Brett Kelly, Christina Hendricks
Written by Johnny Rosenthal, Shauna Cross
Directed by Mark Waters
Rated R
Running time 1 hour, 32 minutes

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