This story first appeared in NEXTpittsburgh, which publishes Kidsburgh.
“Please don’t ruin my childhood,” pleads Andrea Vogel (Susan Kelechi Watson), to her husband Lloyd (Matthew Rhys), a tough investigative journalist assigned to profile Mister Rogers, to his dismay.
We’re all asking the same thing.
Well, you can rest assured: “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” won’t ruin your childhood. Despite Tom Hanks’ uncanny resemblance to Tom Hanks (and not Fred Rogers), his performance is remarkable, bordering on complete transformation.
This may even be one of the greatest films ever made in Pittsburgh, which is quite a feat.
Strangely, though, Mister Rogers is almost a supporting character in this film, which revolves around Matthew Rhys, who plays a broken man navigating new fatherhood while (poorly) handling the reappearance of his estranged father —when he receives this peculiar new assignment.
Lloyd Vogel is based on the writer Tom Junod, whose famous profile of Mister Rogers for Esquire provided the framework for this fictionalized Mister Rogers story.
Junod was in town on Thursday afternoon, talking about his experience with Fred Rogers at the Heinz History Center. Joanne Rogers, Fred’s wife, and Bill Isler, former president and CEO of The Fred Rogers Company, were also there, discussing Fred and the film.
“Fred and I, we remained friends from the time that we met, until the time that he died,” said Junod. “So it was about a four-year relationship. My last time talking to Fred was Christmas Day, 2002. There was a fracas in my family. I had a cousin call my family — me and my wife — who was really drunk and ticked off. My wife had a lot of trouble sleeping that night. In order to sleep, she asked, ‘What would Mr. Rogers do?’
“She told me that story in the morning, and I went to my office and called Fred. He said, ‘How like you to call me on Christmas Day, and tell me that story.’ I didn’t know that he was sick. That was about two months before he passed away.”
Though remembered especially for his gentleness with children, Fred Rogers wasn’t one to shy away from difficult subjects — even death.
“I can remember Fred saying to me, ‘You never forget.” Somebody dies, you never forget,” said Isler. “There’s a great scene in the movie when Jerry’s (Lloyd’s father) dying. He (Fred) says, ‘Anything that is mentionable is manageable.’ It’s part of life.”
Joanne Rogers — who has a quick cameo in the film, in a scene shot at Mandarin Gourmet in Downtown Pittsburgh — was played by Maryann Plunkett.
Fred may be gone, but his legacy is very much alive, especially in his hometown of Pittsburgh. “I truly feel that I’m like the luckiest widow there is,” says Rogers. “Because I don’t have to give up all of him. Thank goodness.”
There’s a great temptation to make Fred Rogers into a saint but his life wasn’t free from struggle.
“I never considered Fred religious; I considered him spiritual,” said Isler, who also appears in the film in the same scene as Joanne Rogers. “He worked at it every single day.”
“I think he got a little disappointed with the church as he got older,” said Joanne. “He saw so many churches that weren’t inclusive. He was open to anything and everything. He loved the Dalai Lama. It was fun to see the two of them together.”
Junod thinks that Fred’s faith was closely related to his deep connection with people.
“To draw a gross generalization, I think some believers find expressions of faith looking up into the sky, and some people find an expression of faith looking at human beings,” said Junod.
“I think that finding God in human beings is hard because we’re such a mixed bunch. But I think that’s where he saw God — in the pain, vulnerability and hope and beauty of people.”