A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a film about legendary children’s television host Fred Rogers, comes to theaters next week. We’ll publish our full review next Thursday, of course, but for starters it’s not a biopic: We don’t see Rogers (who died in 2003) grow up or his formative years in television. For that, you can always watch last year’s extraordinary documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?. Rather, this film (which stars Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers and is loosely based on a true story) examines the impact he has on a cynical journalist—and by extension, the impact he’s had on so many other people, too.
Mister Rogers has become something of a secular saint in pop culture today since his death, a man whose kindness and intentionality feel simultaneously out of step and yet so needed. Everyone who came in contact with him—even if it was just a little boy like me watching television—felt like they knew him.
And that was perhaps, on some level, true. A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood suggests that the “character” we all saw was consistent with the character of the man. But obviously, no one knew that man better than Joanne Rogers, who was married to Fred for more than 50 years.
I had a chance to talk with Joanne (pictured above with Maryann Plunkett, the woman who plays her in the new movie) about her husband, their relationship and his tireless commitment to his work. Bill Isner, President of the Fred Rogers Company and longtime friend of both Mister and Mrs. Rogers, offered some insight to the man, too. Here’s a bit of our conversation (edited lightly for length and clarity).
Paul Asay: I’ve seen A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, and a lot of people have been talking about how Tom Hanks really slipped into the role of Fred Rogers. But no one would know how he did better than you, of course. What did you think of the movie, especially of Hanks’ portrayal of your husband?
Joanne Rogers: I thought they did a wonderful job. Just wonderful. I heard someone say that Tom Hanks just kind of disappears into his characters. And it’s true. He’s very, very good at it. The first time I saw a picture of him dressed like that—he was sitting down [by his] trailer. And I had to look twice. I knew that they had done hair and eyebrows for him. And that’s it. Even the size of him. Even though it’s different, he knows how to disappear into a person. He just did a fabulous job, I thought.
Asay: We sometimes think of heroes today, especially in my line of work, as people in capes. But Fred really redefined what it means to be a hero, didn’t he?
Rogers: Yes he did. Did you see the documentary?
Asay: I did.
Rogers: They talked about that a good deal in the documentary. They used that material a lot. Fred was unhappy about flying heroes … I guess there were some newspaper articles about kids who were [jumping out of windows thinking they could fly]. So anyway. So he was talking about very different heroes. Fred had a lot of heroes.
Asay: Who were they?
Rogers: Teachers. Mostly teachers. And also people who just knew what they loved doing, and doing it in front of others. They were heroes. That’s what he thought a good teacher was. To say teachers, it’s a generalization a little bit, [but he] was very, very impressed by teachers.
This doesn’t mean he thought of himself as a hero, but he considered himself an educator. I don’t think he really thought of himself as an entertainer nearly so much. [But he still tried to entertain, too.] One psychologist told him … “Don’t forget the fun, Fred.” In that way, he tried to have a lot of entertainment, I think. And did. In a different way than most children think of being entertained, I think.
Asay: That’s an interesting point. In the documentary, Margy Whitmer (Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s longtime producer) said, “If you take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” But for the kids that the show was aimed at, all the techniques that Fred incorporated–the longer cuts and the silences—there was kind of comforting the way he interacted with them, wasn’t it?
Rogers: Yes. Yes, there was. I know how hard he worked to learn what he did, from people who did know about young children. And what was good for them and not good for them.
Asay: There’s a point in the new movie where you—your character—say that being Mister Rogers didn’t necessarily come completely naturally. Fred had to work at it every day. Can you unpack that a little?
Rogers: I want Bill to answer that one for you, because I agree with him on this.
Bill Isler: Fred worked—Joanne and I have talked about this a lot—Fred worked very, very hard every day. And he had high expectations for himself and high expectations for others, especially those who were working with him. And he really did surround himself with very creative and talented people [like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’s Musical Director] Johnny Costa.
Rogers: One of a kind.
Isler: One of a kind. Very different personalities, but boy, did they ever come together and do beautiful work together. But Fred worked literally from the time he got up in the morning, and he had a really heavy schedule every day until he went to bed at night, he was always thinking about what he was working on, always preparing. Even with his speeches, he would do many, many drafts including up until the time he delivered the speech. If you ever have the opportunity to come to the archives, you can see how that worked. Literally, the final speech would be typed after he gave it.
Asay: The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? talks about how Fred believed that the space between the camera and the child watching on the other end was “sacred space.” It really speaks to Fred’s deep faith, but I wondered if you could unpack that for me a little.
Rogers: You know I think that really stands on its own almost. It really was his feeling. And it’s interesting that when he was in [Washington] D.C., in the very beginning of his television work, he was over at NBC and … he was a floor manager for a show that had a cowboy, The Gabby Hayes Show. And he asked Gabby Hayes, “What do you think of when you’re talking to the kids out there?” And Gabby Hayes said to him something that he really found useful later on. “Freddy, I just think of one little buckaroo.” And you know, that was what Fred thought about. One little buckaroo.
Asay: We live in a pretty angry, fractious time, and I think that one of the reason we’re seeing so much of your husband now—the movie, the documentary—is that there’s a sense that we could use someone like Mister Rogers now more than ever. What advice do you think he’d give us?
Rogers: In his own life, reconciliation was the most important thing. And I think that’s what he would care about the most. That’s what he would step in and try to do. We are so hardened and messed up … friends are no longer friends, there are family [members] who don’t get along, all because of this [time we live in]. And I just think that reconciliation would be the thing that he’d be wanting for us. He wanted it always for his friends and the people he knew.