On the heels of last year’s documentary 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' audiences are once again treated to a film about the beloved Mister Rogers, just in time for the holiday season.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood — a television show tailored for preschool children — captivated its audience during its 33 years on the air. The educational series was lauded for its thoughtful and groundbreaking style of teaching kids sensitive topics like losing a pet, accepting one another through differences and the bravery of self-love.
Not only was the PBS program a hit for little ones, but parents and adults became enamored with the charming Rogers, as well. Wearing his distinct sweaters and navy tennis shoes, Fred Rogers became a welcome house guest as millions would tune into his program, singing the iconic theme song along with the host.
In 1998, writer Tom Junod was assigned to profile Rogers for a special issue of Esquire magazine. The theme? American heroes. Surprising to many, Junod and Rogers developed a relationship even after the profile was completed and remained friends until Rogers passed away in 2003.
Sony's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, now in theaters, is loosely based off of the profile Junod wrote and follows the friendship that emerges from it.
In a recent piece for The Atlantic, Junod wrote about the film and its depiction of the bond he shared with Rogers.
"And yet the movie … 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," Junod said.
Read more about the cast and the real-life characters they're playing below.
Fred Rogers was a senior at Rollins College studying music composition when he came home during a break to find a TV sitting in his family’s living room.
It is said that it was in that moment Rogers knew he wanted to go into TV programming. He went to work for NBC in 1951, but soon realized that the current TV landscape wasn’t for him; rather, he wanted to create wholesome and educational content. In 1953 he went on to work with WQED, which would eventually become PBS, and helped develop children’s content, including The Children’s Corner.
Rogers eventually earned a degree in divinity studies and worked as a Presbyterian minister, while also attending the University of Pittsburgh to get an advanced degree in child development. The knowledge and skills he gained from his various educational pursuits equipped him with an adept mixture of abilities that would help him eventually go on to create Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Rogers’ personal experiences also contributed to the warmth he brought to the show. Having a rough childhood — overweight, shy and often bullied — Rogers eventually overcame that stage. But it was this difficult experience that made him well suited to teach children the importance of compassion and empathy for others.
Working behind the scenes in television for so long, it took Rogers some convincing to make the jump to star in his own show. But in an interview, he said he finally felt a “sense of wholeness" once he realized his true passion.
“I was not just a songwriter or a language buff or a student of human development or a telecommunicator but someone who could use every talent that had ever been given to me in the service of children and their families,” Rogers said.
Mister Rogers Neighborhood aired over 800 episodes, with Rogers as the creator, showrunner and host. The last episode of the hit TV show aired in 2001. Just two years later, Rogers died of stomach cancer.
Tom Hanks, who plays Rogers in the film, has been praised for mimicking the children’s host almost perfectly. In an interview with Parade, Hanks said embodying the character took some adjustment, as he had to learn to slow down, diverging from the typically fast-paced process of filmmaking.
“So much of making movies is usually a pressure-filled thing. … That’s totally contrary to what Mister Rogers was about,” Hanks said. “The hardest thing about playing Mister Rogers was being able to find the quiet spaces inside spaces that had to be filled.”
In the film, Lloyd Vogel is the journalist who interviews Rogers for the Esquire profile. In reality, journalist Tom Junod was the mastermind behind the article, but Junod said he asked producers to give him a pseudonym in the film.
In his piece for The Atlantic, the writer states that there were many creative liberties taken with the film, which is why he asked for his name to be changed, as he felt the story was no longer about him. Specifically, the narrative distorts Junod’s relationship with his father. The movie depicts Junod getting into a fistfight with his dad at his sister’s wedding, something the journalist said never happened. Despite his unconventionalities, Junod said he never rejected his father’s principles.
However, the film does get some things about Junod right. Along with writing the Esquire article, Junod really did win two National Magazine Awards and was known to be a bit irritable, something the film captures. Also, Junod said when he sat down to watch the film, he was struck at just how poignant and authentic his relationship with Rogers was portrayed in the film.
Junod even said actor Matthew Rhys' wardrobe, black turtlenecks and Armani blazers, was a staple in his own closet back in the day.
In an interview with PBS News Hour, Rhys said that since he was raised in Wales, he never grew up watching Mr. Rogers, but learned of its value through his young son.
“I dived into YouTube and thought, ‘what is going on? It seemed bizarre to me.’ Rhys said. “What’s been incredible is having a 3-year old son. And for him to be the conduit of what [Mister Rogers] truly is has been eye-opening and truly groundbreaking.”
Actor Chris Cooper plays Jerry Vogel in the film — the fictionalized version of Tom Junod’s father, Lou Junod.
As the younger Junod mentioned in his Atlantic article, almost everything about his father was dramatized for the film. Nonetheless, Cooper said he enjoyed playing the irascible man.
“The character of Jerry that I played was going to be a really fun challenge,” Cooper said in an interview. “He’s pretty multidimensional, pretty off-putting and [a] pretty rude character. And sometimes those are a lot of fun to play.”
Playing Andrea Vogel, (but really Janet Junod, Tom Junod’s wife), is This Is Us breakout star Susan Kelechi Watson.
In the film, Andrea meets Rogers and develops a friendship with the TV host. In reality, however, Janet Junod and Rogers never met, something Junod said he regretted in his obituary of his late friend.
In an interview with CinemaBlend, Watson said she was mesmerized when she first saw Hanks on set in full Mister Rogers regalia.
“[Hanks] embodies Mr. Rogers without trying to be the exact replica,” Watson said. “The essence … the iconic parts of Mister Rogers, he has. It was like, ‘Wow, this is this generation's Mister Rogers.’”
Joanne Rogers is an accomplished musician, and the concert pianist was married to Fred Rogers for fifty years before he passed away.
The couple met at Rollins College and went on to have two sons together. However, in his Atlantic piece, Junod wrote that Fred Rogers could be reticent, rarely disclosing his thoughts even to his wife.
At the Pittsburgh premiere of the film, Joanne Rogers, now 91, spoke to reporters at the Senator John Heinz History Center and discussed her excitement about the movie. Specifically, she said her husband was a huge fan of Tom Hanks.
“I was like, ‘are you kidding?’ when they told me about Tom Hanks,” Rogers said. “Tom Hanks was Fred’s favorite actor. And I didn’t know until recently they were sixth cousins.”
Joanne Rogers actually makes a surprise appearance in the film herself, appearing in a brief cameo scene at a Chinese restaurant that the couple used to frequent. But it’s actress Maryann Plunkett who plays Fred Rogers' wife in the movie.
Plunkett met with Joanne Rogers as part of her research for the film. When asked about Plunkett’s performance, Joanne said the actress did “an amazing job.”
Plunkett has also spoken about the valuable lesson A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood can teach audiences.
“We need this now,” Plunkett said in an interview with The Movie Times. “Kindness. Someone who talks about kindness, about saying, ‘I like you just the way you are.’ It’s not pompous piety; it’s purely human, and that’s what affected me.”