Fred Rogers died in 2003, at 74. He was already beloved, but his death seemed to accelerate a kind of secular canonization. In Pittsburgh, his hometown, he even got his own bronze statue. Erected in 2009, it stands 11 feet tall, overlooking the rivers near another civic shrine, Heinz Field.
The impulse to sanctify the children’s-TV host really took off in 2018, with the release of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” the Oscar-nominated documentary about his life and work. (Last year, the 90th anniversary of Rogers’ birth, also yielded several books about him.) Admittedly, certain emanations of Rogers’ celebrity, like that “sexy Mr. Rogers” Halloween costume, suggest that some see him as more meme than icon. But the coarser our civic discourse and popular culture get, the more our attitude toward Fred Rogers leans hagiographic, casting him as a patron saint of kindness. As people like to say, “We need him more than ever.”
The latest homage to Rogers is “It’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” starring no less than Tom Hanks as Rogers. The film, shot largely in Pittsburgh last year and directed by Marielle Heller, certainly won’t leave audiences feeling any worse about the man who told his TV viewers that each of them was special. But it does take pains to remind us that Rogers, exceptional though he might have been, was still human.
“Beautiful Day,” which opens nationally today, is inspired by Tom Junod’s 1998 Esquire article “Can You Say … Hero?” The film tells the story of a hard-bitten investigative journalist – a fictionalized version of Junod – who takes an assignment to profile Rogers skeptically but ends up transformed.
While “Beautiful Day” provides snatches of Rogers’ own story – anecdotes about his childhood in Latrobe, and his early days in television – it’s not really the biopic audiences might expect. Rather, like Junod’s acclaimed article, the film, scripted by Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, depicts Rogers through his effect on others.
“You can't actually make Mr. Rogers the protagonist of a narrative film,” said “Beautiful Day” director Marielle Heller, who came to Pittsburgh for the film’s local premiere, this past Thursday, at SouthSide Works Cinemas. “He’s too far in his emotional evolution … But he makes a great antagonist. He had the ability to meet people at this point in their life where something needed to shift. And he could be that catalyst for that change.”
The film’s protagonist is New York City-based journalist Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys), who has anger issues traceable to his relationship with his father (Chris Cooper). Junod, also in Pittsburgh for the premiere screening, acknowledged that while he had his own personal demons, unlike Lloyd, to take just one example, he never punched out his father at his sister’s wedding, as Vogel does in the film.
The film, in other words, isn't for kids. It's framed instead to tell us what the world’s most renowned children’s-TV host can teach adults.
Heller, whose earlier films include “Can You Ever Forgive Me?,” said she was especially interested in the alternative that Rogers embodied to our culture’s conventional conception of masculinity.
“I feel like I don't see a lot of versions of masculinity that are … varied. I don't see versions of men and masculinity that include things like caring for a child, crying, hugging, you know, these things that are values that we just don't tend to put into movie versions of what we see when it comes to men,” she said. “We don't allow for one that's comfortable with emotion, one that says you can cry. I don't feel like it should be radical to see these versions of masculinity, but somehow it feels radical.”
Junod, likewise, said it was Rogers’ gentleness and empathy that drew him. “I grew up with it with a dad who had really, really specific ideas of what manhood entailed and really, really specific, you know, sort of beliefs about the power of his own machismo,” said Junod. “Meeting Fred, I mean, it turned my world and my expectations upside down.”
The film has plenty of treats, especially for local audiences. It’s framed, cleverly, as a special episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” complete with appearances by Daniel Striped Tiger and King Friday, and a visit from Mr. McFeely. (The program’s sets were lovingly recreated at WQED TV’s studios, in Oakland.) Exteriors of the apartment inhabited in New York by Vogel and his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), were shot in the alleys near 9th Street and Penn Avenue, Downtown. There are even non-speaking cameos by Joanne Rogers – Fred’s widow – and an out-of-costume David Newell, the original Mr. McFeely.
The film catches Rogers at age 70, near the end of his career; Heller shows him clutching his back after a day on set. Rogers did have a temper, and he struggled at times to raise his own kids, as the film acknowledges, though without portraying either foible. (For a lovely first-hand portrait of Rogers on-set and off-, see the recent New York Times Magazine article by Jeanne Marie Laskas, a Pittsburgh-based writer who worked on the show in the 1980s and remained close with Fred and Joanne Rogers.)
A key reveal of both Junod’s 1998 article and Heller’s film is that Rogers was essentially the same off-camera as on-. But just because “Mr. Rogers” wasn’t an act doesn’t mean it wasn’t also a carefully crafted persona.
Fred Rogers, in other words, was no ordinary kids’ TV host. He was an ordained (if nonpracticing) Presbyterian minister who – as Heller points out – kept himself carefully up-to-date on child-development research. And, Junod emphasizes, he worked really hard at being Mr. Rogers.
“Fred said the simplest things and he behaved in the simplest ways. And yet all of those things are incredibly complex,” said Junod, who is now a senior writer for ESPN based in Georgia.
“The most famous thing that he said is, you know, ‘You are special.’ “He was doing something as complex as coming up with a secular bit of language for what for him was a sacred concept, which is that we are all loved and been loved into being,” said Junod. “But he didn’t say that. He said, ‘You are special.’ And that's who Fred was. I mean, he was as simple as that. And he was as deep as that.”
That paradox paints Rogers, too, as something of an enigma. Here was a man who – in the early 1950s, at the dawn of the TV era – decided to take on as his life’s work the task of making people kinder through television. On “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” for 34 years, through nearly 900 episodes, he kept at it, knowing well that failure was likely. (“[J]ust about everything he stood for has been lost,” Junod writes in his recent Atlantic article that’s a post-script to his earlier piece.)
While some aspects of “Beautiful Day” suggest that Rogers has an almost omniscient grasp of Lloyd Vogel’s soul (and even his whereabouts), Heller is also careful to show – as in the film’s potent final sequence -- that he experiences emotions like anyone else. Junod said that just this week – nearly 17 years after Rogers’ death – he learned more in this vein.
Junod said that Bill Isler – former president and CEO of the Fred Rogers Company, and Rogers’ longtime right-hand man – told him how Junod had effected Rogers. Isler told him “that Fred grew from me, and I had never heard that,” Junod said. “I considered myself, you know, a protege. I knew that he was ministering to me. I didn't really know that the relationship in that sense was reciprocal.”
It was one more way, Fred Rogers was always busy becoming Fred Rogers.
“For Fred, kindness itself was a practice,” said Junod. “It was something that you work at. It took discipline. It took strength.
“A lot of people think that kindness is sort of almost like a passive thing. Like it's like an apple that drops from a tree. Whereas, if you watch the movie, you realize that kindness is at a very high branch. And that, Fred reached for that, and worked to reach for it. You know, like every day of his life.”
And if Fred Rogers still doesn't seem quite mortal, maybe it's because the rest of us understand how much work it really took. Heller, who never met Rogers, said it's still a goal worth aspiring to.
"I believe what Fred would have wanted," she said, "was for all of us to aspire to be a little bit more like Fred, for us to take his lessons about ... the work that it takes to do to be kind, the choices that we have to make every day, and that we can all try to be a little bit more like Fred. "