'He wanted me to see that I was a good person': How a writer's friendship with Mr. Rogers inspired a movie
A Beautiful Day in the Neighbourhood is inspired by Tom Junod's writing about Fred Rogers
Originally published on Nov. 22, 2019.
When journalist Tom Junod first profiled Fred Rogers more than two decades ago, it came at a crossroads in his career.
The middle-aged writer was struggling with whether he could continue writing the "dark," boundary-breaking stories he was famous for.
But with his 1998 Esquire article about Rogers came something more: a friendship. The new film, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, is inspired by Junod's profile and their years-long relationship.
Junod spoke with Day 6 guest host Saroja Coelho about his relationship with Mr. Rogers and why the beloved television host has taken on a new life in 2019.
Here is part of that conversation.
I want to go back in time to 21 years ago when your editor at Esquire asked you to profile Fred Rogers.
In the film, your character isn't exactly excited about it. How did you react to the assignment in real life?
I was more puzzled by it. I didn't grow up with Fred Rogers. I was 12 years old by the time he became a national television figure — and a 12-year-old boy is not the perfect audience for Fred's message.
And then, later on, I became one of the legions of people in the United States who saw Fred through the prism of parody. So Fred was Eddie Murphy in Saturday Night Live to me.
But we had a guy on the staff, a younger editor, who had grown up with Fred and was convinced of something I was not convinced of, which is that Fred was [an] American hero. And I didn't really quite get it, but he made a really, kind of passionate pitch for it and I accepted it.
I do think that there was a part of me that was looking to take a respite from, and to take on the challenge of not writing such dark stories as I was in the habit of writing.
So you go off to meet Mr. Rogers. What was your first impression when you met him in person?
I continued to be befuddled. I continued to be puzzled. When I first called him ... he happened to be around the corner from the Esquire offices at his apartment in New York City.
Our offices were on 55th Street, his apartment was on 56th Street, and I said, "Can I come over?" And he said ... "Tom, I have to tell you: I'm taking a nap so I'm in my robe and my slippers." And he goes, "But you can come over anytime."
So I dutifully trudged over there and he opened the door and, sure enough, he's in his robe and slippers. And within 20 minutes, he's asking me about the bunny rabbit I had as a boy. He's asking me about old rabbit. And, he's taking a picture of me with an old-fashioned, Instamatic flash camera so that he could send it to his wife.
This was not a dragged-out process of him responding to me in a very, very Fred-like way. It happened immediately.
You were hardly the first journalist to ever interview Fred Rogers, but he seemed to take a particular interest in you. What do you think it was that he saw?
I've been trying to figure out that for a long time.
This summer, I found a trove of emails that Fred had written to me. I found an old computer — a 20-year-old computer — that was up in my attic, and I went to a data recovery place and found these emails.
They're remarkable ... for that same unashamed insistence on intimacy, but also how deep he goes.
I am asking him what I regard as big questions: I'm asking about the nature of goodness and of God, and he is devoting long, long answers to me. He is certainly willing to meet me there.
And the thing about it, the thing that's most remarkable, is not just that he did this with me. It's that he did it with so many people. I am not the only person that he had this kind of relationship with, and I'm not the only person that he even had this kind of email correspondence with.
If we look at what's happening right now, there's been this renewed interest in Mr. Rogers. This new film is part of that. There was a documentary about him.
Where do you think that's coming from?
I think it's coming out of need.
I think that we look at virtually all of our authority figures — and all of our icons and all of our superstars — and very few of them are marked by kindness.
The most powerful man in America is marked by the opposite of that. He is roaring with anger every day, and I think that we are thinking of Fred as a way of trying to put on the brakes. Are we that kind of person or are we this kind of person?
I think that that's why it's an opportune time — a necessary time — for the movie, because ... the movie is now the story of a country and what kind of people we want to be.
In that search for kindness, it seems that you're telling us his message may have gotten lost over the years.
You've written that remembering Fred Rogers as a nice man is easier than remembering him as a demanding one. What did you mean by that?
When you see the movie, you'll see that the character played by Tom Hanks — who really, I do think, distills this particular essence of Fred extraordinarily well — he's kind, but challengingly so. He is kind and good-hearted, but confrontationally so.
When I look at my relationship with Fred, I do think ultimately that he wanted something from me. I don't think he was just looking to be nice to me and then let me go.
I think that he engaged with me with a sort of purpose, and I think that ultimately he wanted me to see that I was OK, you know?
He wanted me to see that I was a good person, and he gave me that from the start, from the very first moment I met him to the very end.
This Q&A has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full interview, download our podcast.
To hear an extended version of Tom Junod's interview with Day 6, click Listen above.