“I think it’s clear by the way that everybody is reacting to anything about Mister Rogers right now, that we are thirsty and starving for guidance in this world.”
– Marielle Heller, Director, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood
It has been more than 16 years since beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers passed from this earth. But with each passing day people seem to be more hungry for the Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood host’s simple lessons of kindness, compassion, and forgiveness.
Rogers, who hosted the aforementioned television program for 33 years, is the subject of a new movie called aptly enough, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. A biopic it is not, the film instead focuses on a relationship he forged with a troubled journalist in the late 1990s.
Based on all the warm memories that so many people have of him, Fred Rogers is a person not to be taken lightly when depicting on the big screen. Respected far and wide as a voice of truth and reason, Rogers was unwavering in his commitment to be a friend to all mankind while preaching the Golden Rule. This made the casting process a delicate and painstaking exercise, one that left director Marielle Heller resolute in her search. She could think of only one person capable of playing the part.
“There are very few movie stars and actors as accomplished as Tom Hanks,” Heller shares. “There’s something about him. He almost holds a similar space in our heart as Fred Rogers does. It had to be him.”
In the end, her first choice was the obvious choice. Hanks, an American icon in his own right, accepted the role but only after initially rejecting the idea. The two-time Oscar winner had read the script many times but passed on it believing it would be nearly an impossible task to get Mister Rogers “right” for audiences. But in the end, he was drawn back to the role because it was more than just a biographical profile.
Rogers’ widow, Joanne, was certain that Hanks was ideally suited for the role too. She noted that her late husband loved Hanks and had seen Forrest Gump at least 40 times. She felt that her soulmate of 49 years related to the Forrest character on some level.
“I couldn’t see anyone else in this role but him (Tom)”, shares Joanne Rogers, who makes a cameo appearance in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. “I’m sure there are a lot of wonderful actors out there but I do know that Tom was Fred’s favorite actor. And I didn’t realize they were sixth cousins.”
“The movie that I like to equate to Fred’s love for Tom is Big,” adds Bill Isler, former president and CEO of The Fred Rogers Company. “Fred said the reason Tom was such a great actor in that movie is because he never forgot his own childhood. He knew Tom’s body of work and the environment in which he developed his craft.”
Quick to dismiss skeptics who believed Hanks portrayal would be nothing more than an impersonation, Heller spent a great deal of time working with the iconic actor to tap into Rogers cadence and rhythms and to slow him down. This was not an easy process as Hanks is known for his quick wit and naturally energetic personality as compared to the slower more deliberate pace of Fred Rogers. In essence, Hanks needed to find and fill the quiet spaces of his subject matter.
“We wanted to create a place on set where we had enough time and relaxed space where I could say, all right, you need to slow this way down,” Heller explains. “I want you to talk like there is one child on the other side of that camera, just like Fred did. Picture your grandchild on the other side of that camera. We’re going to do this as many times as it takes. Let’s be present. We’re not going to rush. Through that we were able to create a controlled sort of energy on the set.”
Finding those aforementioned quiet spaces was a key to unlocking the person of Fred Rogers. First and foremost, the ordained Presbyterian minister was a great man of faith who was very consistent in how he conducted his life. Rising each morning at 5am, he would spend the first two hours of his day praying for and writing to those people who he felt he needed to check in on. In essence, he practiced what he preached.
“He was ordained as an evangelist to continue in his work that he was doing with family,” Joanne Rogers points out. “There was never a time that he ever forgot that. That’s something that we really need to understand. Fred was very proud that his charge was to serve children and families via the media. He was a good preacher.
Fred felt so strongly that the space between the television and the viewer is sacred ground or Holy ground.”
Realizing the importance of Fred Rogers’ religious beliefs quite early in the production process, Heller and the writing team of Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster determined that his faith needed to almost represent an additional character. Due to the significance of these foundational principles, to their credit, the screenwriters did not shy away from this idea.
“Fred’s faith was no secret,” says Noah Harpster, who also played Lloyd Vogel’s brother-in-law in the movie. “He never really proselytized and was never openly trying to convert people, but in his daily actions, he was very much living in his faith. We saw no reason to hide or change that in any way. That’s just who he was. And that became a really important part of our interpretation for him. Fred was that guy. That was part of the way he changed all of these people’s lives for the better. And that is a beautiful thing.”
Paramount to this philosophy are two critical scenes from A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood which bring Fred Rogers’ faith to the forefront. In one, he literally takes a one-minute moment of silence in the film to allow viewers to reflect upon all the people who love them and made them what they are. In the other, he kneels beside his bed and prays for every single person that he has ever met, asking that God would help them to become kinder, more forgiving people.
“There’s always an instinct when making a movie to speed it up,” shares co-screenwriter Fitzerman-Blue. “However, we thought it would be doing Fred an enormous disservice if we did not try to capture his slow, deliberate, careful ways. We thought it was highly critical to show the ways he communicated with people and to create those secret moments he had thinking and praying for other people. If we didn’t reproduce those than we weren’t making the right kind of Fred Rogers movie.”
Serving as a critical case study in unpacking the overarching message of Fred Rogers was the relationship he developed onscreen with the character of Lloyd Vogel. Vogel is loosely based on Tom Junod, a hard-hitting yet once bitter journalist who wrote the Esquire article on Fred Rogers from which the movie is based. The relationship the pair forge on screen is compelling in that it demonstrates how Rogers could quickly diagnose a person’s emotional issues but more importantly minister to and guide that person to a better place.
“He prayed for hundreds of people every morning,” echoes Junod, who has written several award winning articles over the years in addition to “Can You Say … Hero?”. “I was one of those people. Everything was personal with him. The thing about him was that he just gave me trust when I needed trust. I stayed friends with Fred for many years after the movie. He didn’t have to do that. But he genuinely cared about me. The emails he used to send to me were just remarkable. Shortly before he died, he wrote to me and said that even though he was nearing God’s eternal shore, he was praying that God would never give up on me. This was remarkable of him to do that.”
Interest in Fred Rogers and his message seems to be increasing. With the world becoming a darker and darker place each and every day, the Pittsburgh native’s message of kindness and compassion is seen more than ever as a breath of fresh air. The simple lessons of forgiveness and grace he so graciously taught are vital to anyone who wants to make the world a little brighter. And there is nothing fancy or complex about what Fred Rogers wanted for mankind. He built his life on two simple truths: 1) Be nice to each other. 2) Treat your neighbor as you would treat yourself.
If this sounds Biblical that’s because it is.
Watch a trailer for A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: