Sunday, November 24, 2019

Mr. Rogers

If the truth be told, I never really got Fred Rogers.

I guess I was simply too old. When Mister Rogers' Neighborhood first appeared on television in 1968 (and continued on for an astounding 33 years), I was already 17 years old. I wasn't part of his target audience. To me, Mister Rogers was just another hokey, talking-down-to-children TV personality on public television primarily geared to the Tinkertoy and Raggedy Ann crowd, and I could have cared less.

I was more into Sergeant Saunders and Adam West's Batman, if you really want to know.

And yet...

Oddly enough, I didn't come to appreciate what Fred Rogers' career was about until after his death in 2003. My respect for him skyrocketed when I saw a now-famous clip of him testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, where he changed minds and virtually single-handedly saved funding for public television in an era when Congress was inches away from cutting the funding in half.

And Rogers did this in 1969, when he was still relatively unknown outside of Pittsburgh.


So you know I just had to see the new movie, It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, starring Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers (it turns out that just before the movie was released, it was discovered through Ancestry that Hanks and Rogers are actually sixth cousins. Can you say Karma?)

Be forewarned. The movie is not a biopic about Fred Rogers. Rather, the story actually outlines the relationship that develops between cynical Esquire magazine writer Tom Junod (played by Matthew Rhys) and Rogers. In the end, Rogers made a sincere impact on Junod's life, which he detailed in an Esquire cover story titled "Can You Say...Hero?" (Here is the piece. It's 10,000 words long and peppered with F-bombs, but it might help to illustrate the essence of the movie for you. See here.)

I don't know what else we can say about Tom Hanks as an actor. I consider him to be the Jimmy Stewart of our era who can play just about any character. Witness Philadelphia. Or Forrest Gump. Or Saving Private Ryan. Or Big. Or Apollo 13. Or so many more. His talent is wide and encompassing, dedicated and sincere, and apparently limitless.

In this flick, he gives an appropriately understated performance, perhaps because the storyline really centers around Junod (whose name is changed to Lloyd Vogel in the movie). Hanks is really in a supporting role, and to my mind, it's worthy enough for his third Oscar. But that remains to be seen in what is turning out to be an incredibly worthy movie season.

My one complaint about the flick is technical. Most of it is filmed in muted lighting. I don't know if it was done that way to set mood (most likely), but the effect is to make the viewer work a little bit harder. It's already a thinking man's movie, layered as it is with ponderings and observations. So be it.

Two spoiler alerts, but I don't think they'll reveal too much:

There's a scene in the movie where Fred Rogers takes the subway home. The train is filled with a diversity of children coming home from school, and when they recognize Mister Rogers is a passenger in their midst, they spontaneously break out singing the Neighborhood theme song. I thought it was a little much.

But then I read Junod's Esquire piece, and guess what? It actually happened. Goose bumps.

Then there's the scene in the movie where Rogers and Vogel are in a restaurant, and Rogers asks the writer for a moment of silence to reflect on the people who loved him into being. Uh huh. But Rogers actually did that in accepting his Lifetime Achievement Emmy in 1997.

Watch. And weep.

That's Fred Rogers for you. I think I get him now.


  1. Personally I like Eddie Murphy's Mr.Robinson's Neighborhood on SNL better, but then I was way too old for Fred, but I thought his show was great for kids (Mr. Robinson was not), but I appreciate that he spoke to kids (and sometimes to adults) about being kind and loving. We all need that especially now.