Alright parents, I’ve got some homework for you to do before you see this movie…
If you are a regular here at GeekDad and GeekMom then there is a good chance you are parent just like we are. But even if you are not, I’m sure you have heard of Mister Rogers and his children’s television series. It has been all over the news this past week or so about Tom Hanks taking on the role of Mister Rogers and I have to admit I had to do a double-take and look closely to verify it was Tom Hanks in the red sweater and not Fred Rogers.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a movie starring Tom Hanks as Mister Rogers and will be out in theaters starting November 22, 2019. But unlike the long running children’s television series Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, this movie is meant for us adults (and especially those of us lucky enough to grow up watching him on television). You might think that there isn’t too much you need to know to appreciate just how special Fred Rogers really was, but you would be wrong. So here is a little homework to help you get caught up.
Fred Was Everyone’s Friend
Your first assignment involves a bit of reading. When I first saw the news stories about the A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood movie, I got pretty excited. I thought to myself, wow, they are making a movie out of the book I just finished reading! I had just finished an excellent book titled I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan. Tim Madigan was a reporter for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram when he got the assignment in 1995 to interview Fred Rogers, and that kicked off an unlikely but very powerful relationship. So you can see why after hearing about the upcoming Mister Rogers movie that was about the friendship between a reporter and Mister Rogers that I naturally assumed the movie was about Tim Madigan. But it turns out Fred Rogers had a lot of friends. In fact, it is probably more accurate to say that Fred Rogers made a friend out of each and every person he ever met. That is just the way he was.
I can’t even remember from where I got the book recommendation to read I’m Proud Of You, but I devoured the book in just a couple of days. The book itself really wasn’t so much about Fred Rogers, but moreso about his approach to relationships and how that approach rubbed off on Tim Madigan and ended up having a huge impact on Tim’s life. I’m Proud Of You gets into a bit of philosophy and religion, but at its heart it really is about friendship and the things in life that truly matter (which was really the big picture behind all of the lessons that Mister Rogers gave children with his television series). There were many quotes in I’m Proud Of You that stuck with me, but one in particular really made me stop and think:
“Do you know the most important thing in the world to me right now?” Fred asked me that day. No, I said. “Talking to Mr. Tim Madigan on the telephone.” I’m sure I blushed, incredulous and skeptical. But somehow, in the way he said it, in that famous, gentle, oh-so-slow voice, I knew that the famous man was speaking the truth.
—I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan
This quote reminded me of one of my engineering mentors early in my career. He had a super power and I really do mean it was a super power. The man was beyond brilliant, but even when you were talking with him about his area of expertise he always had a way of making you feel like you were the smartest person in the conversation and that your input mattered. In today’s hyper-connected world where we carry around smartphones in our pockets that have the ability to communicate with anyone in the world instantly, while at at the same time isolating you from the person right in front of you… I think we could learn a lot from Fred Rogers and his approach to friendship.
So your first homework assignment is to check out the book entitled I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan.
I will warn you that towards the middle of the book it does venture quite a bit into religion and philosophy, but that was a huge part of Fred Rogers’ life. Most people don’t know that Fred was an ordained Presbyterian minister. In fact, he delayed going to the seminary because he was was seeing the type of “children’s programming” on TV and felt compelled to try and do something a little more meaningful with the still-budding industry of television programming (but eventually did go to seminary and became a minister). So even though I’m Proud Of You ventures into religion, it does so in a way that helps explained Fred Roger’s approach to relationships with others… another message all of us parents could use.
After reading up a bit more about the upcoming movie, I realized A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood wasn’t about Tim Madigan’s friendship with Fred Rogers, but instead is about his friendship with another journalist, Tom Junod. Turns out Tom met Fred Rogers in much the same way Tim Madigan did, by interviewing him for a profile story he was writing for Esquire magazine called “Can You Say… Hero?” So I immediately read Tim’s Esquire article and it hit on a lot of the same points that were brought out in Tim’s I’m Proud Of You book. So your second homework assignment is to read Tom Junod’s Esquire article about Fred Rogers published back in November 1998.
Fred Helped Change the World
After reading Tom Junod’s Esquire article I also became aware of a documentary released in 2018 entitled Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The film premiered at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival and then later released to theaters and video and went on to gross more than $22 million, making it the highest-grossing biographical documentary to date.
I just finished watching this documentary and I loved it. It brought back so many memories watching some of the scenes from Mister Rogers Neighborhood and then learning about just how many episodes there were in total and all the various difficult themes and topics that Fred Rogers introduced to children through those episodes. The most surprising thing I learned from watching Won’t You Be My Neighbor was that Fred Rogers probably saved public television (and not in the way you are thinking). No, he actually went and sat in front of John Pastore (the chairman of the subcommittee responsible for recommending future funding for public television) and explained why public television was so important. At the time President Nixon was in search of funding and public television was one of the sources he was looking to raid. Going into the subcommittee meeting it was all but certain that funding for public television was coming to an end. Fred Rogers’ short speech (which he made up on the fly because he read the committee and he knew his prepared statement wasn’t going to cut it) ended up changing the mind of John Pastore and PBS got their funding. Most of Fred’s speech was shown in the Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary, but you can also see it on YouTube.
Fred Rogers was a life-long Republican, so you can probably see why his role in saving public television was an interesting twist (one I was not aware of until I watched the documentary). But even more striking to me than learning this was the statement from Fred’s wife Joanne. When asked in an interview about what Fred Rogers would say about the political divide we see today (this was asked over a decade ago and the divide has only grown more severe since then), she said that Fred would have continued to mend that gap. After reading everything I mentioned above and watching the Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary, I do believe that is exactly what he would be doing right now… one friendship and one child at a time. And it is exactly Fred Rogers’ approach to friendship that makes his message so important to us as parents and adults.
So you final homework assignment is to check out the Won’t You Be My Neighbor documentary and of course the officially trailer for the A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood movie coming out this November.
Turns out my first instinct about A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood being about Tim Madigan wasn’t so far off base after all. The original script for the movie was based on Tim’s book I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers. So your extra credit is to read Tim Madigan’s blog post about the original script for the movie and the change in direction. You may notice the name of Tim’s blog is “Anything Mentionable.” I will leave you with one last quote from Tim’s book that explains the genesis of that name:
“Anything mentionable is manageable,” he would say, inviting me to share further. Or he would paraphrase his good friend, the Roman Catholic priest and celebrated author Henri Nouwen, by saying, “That which is most personal is most universal.”
—I’m Proud Of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers by Tim Madigan
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