The Oscar-winning actor channels the children’s television icon in the forthcoming A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.
Tom Hanks was not much of a Mister Rogers fan growing up. “I was too busy watching Rocky and Bullwinkle, and stuff like that,” the Oscar-winning actor explained to press Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival, where his film about the children’s television host, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, had just premiered.
A few years back, though, Hanks received an email from a friend containing a moving clip from Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that immediately converted him. The video, from a 1981 episode, featured Rogers greeting a young boy in a wheelchair named Jeffrey Erlanger.
“Fred is just so wonderfully gentle and present [with] someone who normally would make [most people] feel uncomfortable,” Hanks said. “What do you say to somebody who will spend their life in a wheelchair? He said, ‘Jeff, do you ever have days when you’re feeling sad?’ He says, ‘Well, yeah, sure Mister Rogers. Some days…but not today.’” After a few minutes of conversation—Rogers also commended Erlanger for his ability to discuss his condition and help other people do the same—Rogers and the boy sang “It’s You I Like.”
“It made me bawl my eyes out,” said Hanks, who plays Rogers in the film from Marielle Heller (The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?). “It was just so [amazing]. It’s one of the reasons why I’m in the movie.”
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, from screenwriters Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, is inspired by the real-life relationship Rogers struck up with Esquire reporter Tom Junod. Speaking alongside A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood Heller, Hanks explained why he found Rogers a subject worth reexamining in 2019. “I think cynicism has become the default position for so much of daily structure and daily intercourse,” he said. “Why? Because it’s easy, and there’s good money to be made. It’s a great product to sell—cynicism. It’s the perfect beginning of any examination of anything, as far as conspiracy theories or what have you.”
“But I think that, when Fred Rogers first saw children’s programming, he saw something that was cynical. And why in the world would you put a pipeline of cynicism into the minds of a two or three-year-old-kid? That you are not cool because you don’t have this toy, that it’s funny to see somebody being bopped on the head, that hey, kids be the first in line in order to get blah, blah, blah. That’s a cynical treatment of an audience, and we have become so inured to that that when we are met with as simple a message as hey, you know what, it’s a beautiful day in the neighborhood, [it’s a reminder] that we are allowed…to start off feeling good.”
(If you need a further antidote to cynicism, look no further than the below reunion between Erlanger and Rogers—about 17 years after Erlanger’s Mister Rogers appearance. The reunion took place onstage at the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences Awards. Rogers was in the audience to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award, and was so surprised by his old friend’s appearance that he immediately jumped onto the stage to greet him.)
Heller, meanwhile, told reporters that it took motherhood—and seeing Mister Rogers through the lens of a parent—for her to “realize the profound impact of his message…watching his show, he really has some beautiful, radical ideas about childhood…that everybody deserves love just as they are. But also: We need to come up with ways to allow children to feel their feelings, and their feelings matter and are valid, particularly when raising young boys. That’s actually a message we don’t give little kids. For me, I’m raising a little kid, and I want him to be able to grow up feeling his feelings as much as his female counterparts.”
Heller added, “I think what Mister Rogers did was subtle, and it’s easy to overlook. I think for a long time people thought of him as hokey, or something to be made fun of. And he did get made fun of a lot in his day, but [what he was doing] was really profound. And the impact that he had was very deep. It wasn’t flashy. It was very real.”
The film premieres November 22, but Heller has already heard from Fred Rogers’s widow, Joanne. “She said how happy she was, and how happy she was that I made this movie. But then she also said, ‘I really wish you could have known Fred,’” the filmmaker said, tearing up. “‘I think you and he would have had great conversations, and I think he would have been really proud as well.’”