Mr. Rogers movie: Want him as your neighbor?

By Rusty Wright

Ever feel lonely?  Underappreciated?  Frightened?  Need a friend who’s kind?  Respectful?  Wise?  You might like Mr. Rogers.

Fred Rogers’ Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood television program aired nationally in the US between 1968 and 2001.  Sony/TriStar’s new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, depicts Fred’s friendship transforming a cynical journalist’s life.  It’s based on writer Tom Junod’s true story in his 1998 Esquire magazine article

Stars include Oscar winners Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump; as Rogers) and Christine Lahti (Chicago Hope), plus Matthew Rhys (The Americans), and Susan Kelechi Watson (NCIS).

This movie is fun, funny, and moving.  It skillfully explores dealing with common painful emotions in healthy ways, using stories designed for kids but that reach adults’ hearts.

Unlikely TV phenom

Rogers (1928-2003) was an unlikely TV phenom.  He made kids in his audience feel special and wanted, using puppets, music, and folksy affirmation to create safe spaces.  

Each show, he traded his coat and loafers for a cardigan and sneakers, warmly welcoming viewers to his neighborhood.  Parents extol his influence on their own childhood and on their children.

Emotional impact

Stories of his emotional impact abound.  One autistic boy’s first words were of “X the Owl,” a Rogers puppet.  He never looked his father in the eye until his dad invited him to “go to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.” 

Love Boat actress Lauren Tewes struggled with cocaine addiction.  Once she felt the opening to Fred’s show was “God speaking to me through the instrument of Mister Rogers,” and remained sober for several decades.

A child abuse victim gained hope and respect through Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood and phoned an abuse hotline.  The hotline operator adopted the boy.

Urban legends; faith stories

Urban legends also abound about Fred:  He was a Navy SEAL or a Vietnam War sniper.  His trademark cardigan hid arm tattoos.  All false.

But the Smithsonian really does have one of his cardigan sweaters; a young (and later Oscar-nominated) actor Michael Keaton performed on Fred’s show as the Black and White Panda; and Fred was a Presbyterian minister.

He once wrote to a young viewer, “You told me that you have accepted Jesus as your Savior. It means a lot to me to know that. …Jesus is important to me, too. I hope that God’s love and peace come through my work on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

Who is my neighbor?

Given his faith roots, it’s not hard to guess one possible influence on Rogers’ “Neighbor” motif.

A first-century Jewish lawyer asked Jesus of Nazareth, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus, who as a Jew surprised people by freely mixing with the despised Samaritans, told a now famous story: The Good Samaritan aided a badly injured Jewish traveler who had been ignored by two passers-by, Jewish religious leaders. Which of the three was the “neighbor”? Obviously, the one who showed mercy.

Some note that Rogers apparently struggled with the biblical concept that Jesus is humanity’s unique bridge to God.  I can identify – as can many – with his skepticism, which I shared for many years.  Then evidence and logic – summarized elsewhere – convinced me of his uniqueness.

Lost and found

In any case, Rogers’ life and words pointed people toward divine goodness and belief.  Esquire writer Tom Junod ended his Rogers piece by relating an impromptu prayer meeting in Rogers’ office that touched him deeply: 

“What is grace? I’m not certain; all I know is that my heart felt like a spike, and then, in that room, it opened and felt like an umbrella. I had never prayed like that before, ever. I had always been a great prayer, a powerful one, but only fitfully, only out of guilt, only when fear and desperation drove me to it….” 

“Once upon a time, you see, I lost something, and prayed to get it back, but when I lost it the second time, I didn’t, and now this was it, the missing word, the unuttered promise, the prayer I’d been waiting to say a very long time.”

“‘Thank you, God….'”

A Beautiful Day might get you thinking about ways to mend relationships.  Hope so.

Rated PG (USA) for “some strong thematic material, a brief fight, and some mild language.”   Opens November 22 (USA, Canada)   International release dates

Rusty Wright is an author and lecturer who has spoken on six continents.  He holds Bachelor of Science (psychology) and Master of Theology degrees from Duke and Oxford universities, respectively.

Copyright © 2019 Rusty Wright

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Editors:  Note pictures below.  For access to these images and more, check here, here, here, here, here and here.

A Beautiful Day poster
Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by Lacey Terrell.
Mister Rogers (Tom Hanks) meets journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by Lacey Terrell.
Mr. Rogers (Tom Hanks) and friend. ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by Lacey Terrell.
Maryann Plunkett (left) plays Joanne Rogers (right). ©2019 CTMG, Inc. All rights reserved. Photo by Lacey Terrell.