Our children grew up watching Mr. Rogers’ Neighbored on Public Broadcasting. He passed some years back. Before he died, Tom Junod interviewed and published his article in a magazine.
It now appears that his article inspired a movie called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood: Tom Hanks plays Mr. Rogers. I copied language from the December issue of The Atlantic containing Mr. Junod’s article that is presented below.
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy, and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.
I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all. He puzzles me now as much as he did when I first met him at the door of the apartment he kept in New York City, dressed, as he’d warned me when we spoke on the phone and he invited me over, in a shabby blue bathrobe and a pair of slippers. Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.
I met Fred Rogers in 1998, when Esquire assigned me a story about him for a special issue on American heroes. I last spoke with him on Christmas Day 2002, when I called him to talk about an argument I’d had with my cousin; he died two months later, on February 27, 2003. In late 2014, I heard from two screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who were interested in using my Esquire story as the basis of a movie, and in January 2018, I received a call from the movie’s producer with the news that Tom Hanks had been cast as Fred Rogers, which meant, emphatically, that the movie would be made. A few months after that, I visited the set in Pittsburgh, where I met Matthew Rhys, the actor who had agreed to play … well, me, or some variant of me, a cynical journalist who in the end proves amenable to Fred’s life lessons—his ministry.
I had been thinking of starting this story at one of those points of departure, at one of those beginnings or one of those endings. But stories don’t only speak; they are spoken to, by the circumstances under which they are written. And so I have to start by mentioning that I have begun writing a story about Mister Rogers the day after two young men armed with assault rifles killed a total of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
What would Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—have made of El Paso and Dayton, of mass murder committed to fulfill the dictates of an 8chan manifesto?
I am often asked what Fred would have made of our time—what he would have made of Donald Trump, what he would have made of Twitter, what he would have made of what is generally called our “polarization” but is in fact the discovery that we don’t like our neighbors very much once we encounter them proclaiming their political opinions on social media. I often hear people say that they wish Fred were still around to offer his guidance and also that they are thankful he is gone, because at least he has been spared from seeing what we have become. In all of this, there is something plaintive and a little desperate, an unspoken lament that he has left us when we need him most, as though instead of dying of stomach cancer he was assumed by rapture, abandoning us to our own devices and the judgment implicit in his absence.
What would Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—have made of El Paso and Dayton, of mass murder committed to fulfill the dictates of an 8chan manifesto? What, for that matter, would he have made of the anti-Semitic massacre that took place last fall in his real-life Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill? The easy answer is that it is impossible to know, because he was from a different world, one almost as alien to us now as our mob-driven world of performative slaughters would be to him. But actually, I think I do know, because when I met him, one of the early school shootings had just taken place, in West Paducah, Kentucky—eight students shot while they gathered in prayer. Though an indefatigably devout man, he did not attempt to characterize the shootings as an attack on the faithful; instead, he seized on the news that the 14-year-old shooter had gone to school telling his classmates that he was about to do something “really big,” and he asked, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really littletomorrow’?” Fred decided to devote a whole week of his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the theme of “little and big,” encouraging children to embrace the diminutive nature of their bodies and their endeavors—to understand that big has to start little.
Fred Rogers was a children’s-TV host, but he was not Captain Kangaroo or Officer Joe Bolton. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was so appalled by what he saw on 1950s television—adults trying to entertain children by throwing pies in each other’s faces—that he joined the medium as a reformer. He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred, and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane. And although he made his living speaking to children, his message and example endure because he found a way to speak to all of us—to speak to children as respectfully as he spoke to adults and to speak to adults as simply as he spoke to children. Such fluency was the result not of spontaneous enthusiasm but rather of the rigorous editing he brought to bear on himself and everyone around him. When I first visited the Neighborhood 21 years ago, one of his in-house writers, Hedda Sharapan, told me what had happened when he’d enlisted her to write a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.”
And that’s it, really—his message to doctors was his message to politicians, CEOs, celebrities, educators, writers, students, everyone. It was also the basis of his strange superpowers. He wanted us to remember what it was like to be a child so that he could talk to us; he wanted to talk to us so that we could remember what it was like to be a child. And he could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.
The question, then, isn’t what Fred would do, what Fred would say, in the face of outrage and horror, because Fred was the most stubbornly consistent of men. He would say that Donald Trump was a child once too. He would say that the latest Twitter victim or villain was a child once too. He would even say that the mass murderers of El Paso and Dayton were children once too—that, in fact, they were very nearly still children, at 21 and 24 years old, respectively—and he would be heartbroken that children have become both the source and the target of so much animus. He would pray for the shooters as well as for their victims, and he would continue to urge us, in what has become one of his most oft quoted lines, to “look for the helpers.”
There is no doubt that he would try to be one of the helpers. The question is whether a man who saw evil in terms of big and little would be able to help.