In the early eighties, I used to sit on the burgundy plaid armchair in the family room of my childhood home and gaze at our box-shaped television set, waiting to hear the familiar sound of soft piano music speeding up to a crescendo. The song would start, my face would light up, and a door would swiftly open to reveal the welcoming smile of my very own television friend: Mister Rogers.
As I got older, I came to learn that I was not, in fact, Mister Rogers’ only television friend. Millions of others like me grew up with him, and perhaps it was so natural because it truly felt like we were growing up with Mister Rogers — side by side as he too asked questions, made mistakes, and wore his heart on his sleeve. I now wonder if much of his magnetic appeal was his ability to think and feel like a child alongside of us.
You were a child once, too.
— Mister Rogers
Mister Rogers and his groundbreaking television show are some of the most vivid memories of my childhood. As I write this, I can hear in my mind the nearly sedating sound of his voice narrating those blissful crayon factory tours he brought us on through “Picture Picture.”
The universal love for Mister Rogers spans generations, race, class, and gender. He was able to do what few in the industry could — to touch and relate to viewers from every background from 1 to 101. My mother still fondly tells the story of the time when I — at about age 4 — was watching Mister Rogers and she turned to see my grandparents and my teenage brother looking almost hypnotized as they stared in silence at the calming force speaking directly to them from the TV.
And that was, of course, his legacy. Mister Rogers was captivating by creating comforting memories for millions, and showed us all that feelings are what make us perfectly imperfect human beings.
Hollywood is no exception to the Rogers fandom. On November 22, the highly anticipated biographical drama A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers, was released. The film was inspired by the 1998 Esquire article Can You Say Hero? written by journalist Tom Junod.
Junod’s story of his unlikely friendship with Mister Rogers in the late nineties was a screenwriter’s dream. A cynic with a tough past and far-from-cheery personality, Junod was notorious for being harsh on his interview subjects. (His 1997 cover story about Kevin Spacey drew infamous attention to the then-celebrated actor.)
When Junod’s editor assigned him the task of covering Fred Rogers for Esquire’s feature story, the writer was less than enthusiastic . . . while Mister Rogers’ “people” were concerned.
The movie follows the story of this assignment and the resulting friendship between the jaded reporter and the King of Kindness. While certain aspects of the real story were slightly fictionalized — like the reporter’s name which was Lloyd Vogel in the film — most of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is true to the facts, and incorporates memorable moments and trivia from Mister Rogers’ real life.
The movie has been doing well, especially considering the competitive time of year it was released. Critics love it (it received a 96% rating on Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers are waxing poetic about it on social media. It had fairly decent box office earnings during its Thanksgiving weekend premiere. (But whoever had the bright idea to release it on the same day as Frozen II should probably reconsider their career choice.) There is already Oscar buzz surrounding the film and rightfully so.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is marvelously artistic without overdoing it. The epitome of a frame story, it alternates scenes of Vogel’s tale between familiar scenes of Mister Rogers’ iconic show, connected by miniature model cityscapes like those from the show, which made my son (who saw the film with me) think he was actually watching an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. In fact, the movie starts with my favorite piano music and the classic opening scene of the show in that warmly old-fashioned living room set we all know and love. The attention to detail in this film is unsurpassed. Some props were borrowed from the Fred Rogers Center and even the home of Fred’s wife, Joanne Rogers, who made a cameo in the Chinese restaurant scene (look for the woman eating broccoli!)
Perhaps the reason the set instantly brought me back to my childhood was because it was recreated and filmed in none other than Mister Rogers’ original studio! The production design team recreated the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood set in the now-vacant Fred Rogers Studio at WQED-TV in Pittsburgh. From the front porch with that iconic door, to the living room’s 70’s print curtains which are permanently etched in my mind, to the “Neighborhood of Make Believe” and its rainbow-spotted street — every detail was recreated so perfectly that you feel as though you are watching Mister Rogers himself in his original show.
While few actors could do justice to the beloved Mister Rogers, Tom Hanks was a perfect choice. In fact, Mister Rogers’ wife Joanne shared that Fred would have been delighted at the casting as Tom was one of his favorite actors (and astonishingly, his distant cousin, as Hanks recently learned.) Hanks’ portrayal of Rogers was brilliant, and today he was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance. It was wondrous to see this truly versatile actor transform himself into America’s favorite childhood hero.
I sat in the movie theatre and watched Hanks’ every move in awe, imagining the time he spent preparing for this role, undoubtedly analyzing old footage of Mister Rogers and practicing his mannerisms in the mirror. The way Hanks paused and breathed between his words, the way he slouched a bit as he changed from his cardigan to a blazer, his demonstration of banging on a piano to release anger — every move was so distinctly Mister Rogers. I sat there remembering so many of Hanks’ most memorable characters — from Alex P. Keaton’s drunk uncle to the deliverer of the dreamiest lines in my favorite rom-coms like You’ve Got Mail , while wondering if my son knew he was watching Woody the Cowboy in a cardigan — and thoughts of “best actor of our time” flooded my mind.
What Hanks and the screenwriters accomplished best in this film was to portray Rogers in an admirable light that preserved the image we have of our childhood hero while humanizing him and making him less unattainable. Mister Rogers was as real as each one of us, and carried his own wounds like being a chubby child who was teased as “Fat Freddy.” His gentle nature and dedication to unconditional love has almost made him seem Christ-like, but A Beautiful Day depicts him as a flawed human who continuously worked at the lessons he doled out, making it easier for all of us flawed viewers to accept his teachings without feeling disgusted by their impracticality.
As Mister Rogers befriended Lloyd Vogel in the film, their interactions grew into a sort of emotional mentorship. Viewers can find themselves relating to Vogel and benefit from Mister Rogers’ lessons too. The story encompasses everything Mister Rogers taught us in his Neighborhood but in real adult life — kindness, faith, forgiveness, embracing our emotional side — and makes us wish we had his gentle spirit and unwavering faith in mankind.
But perhaps the most important of all the quintessential Mister Rogers lessons was how he drew out of Lloyd, and all he met, the innocence of an inner child. The film shows a struggling Vogel who is so caught up in his own hurt that he has forgotten how to feel, to play, to love, to forgive as a child so easily does. And maybe that’s what Mister Rogers was doing so right. He still played pretend, still lived through his Daniel Tiger puppet, still embraced the purity of his own heart.
In the original article which inspired the movie, Tom Junod shared a story about the critique Mister Rogers was asked to write for a group of opthamologists who wrote a book intended to make their practice less frightening to children. The doctors wanted to know if they would reach children — if their techniques would work with kids. Mister Rogers’ six word written response was, in retrospect, the theme of his whole life and career: “You were a child once, too.”
It’s a mantra we should all live by, and one which I find to be a helpful daily reminder in keeping my patience as the mother of a 5 year old. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood captures this lesson and all that Rogers stood for through the story of a jaded reporter and a perfectly imperfect man who grew from “Fat Freddy” into a role model for empathy and compassion.
I exited the theatre after seeing this film and felt as inspired as I hoped. I can’t help but wonder how the world would be if we all thought like Mister Rogers and saw everything through his youthful eyes. Maybe that’s a long shot, but it’s not so unrealistic to start with ourselves. Because you were a child once, too.