Friendship With Fred

Fred Rogers and Frank Farley, Pittsburgh, PA

Fred Rogers and Frank Farley, Pittsburgh, PA

Frank Farley
Temple University

A Review of the film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Director: Marielle Heller

This is the ultimate feel-good film, which of course makes sense as it involves that ultimate feel-good TV figure Fred Rogers, of TV’s Mister Rogers’s Neighborhood. With Rogers played brilliantly by Tom Hanks, it traces the evolution of Fred Rogers’ actual friendship with a writer (film name Lloyd Vogel), played effectively by Matthew Rhys, who has been assigned by Esquire Magazine to write a profile of Rogers. Lloyd has a troubled relationship with his father, has a new baby, and serious career concerns that his writing is being downgraded to assignments that are trivial. He carries a generally negative outlook on life, though this seems not to extend much to his wife and newborn son. In a sense, the film pits the sweetness, caring, empathy and acceptance of others characteristic of Fred Rogers against the brooding, unforgiving, angry and self-absorbed features of Lloyd. When Lloyd enters the world of Fred Rogers to write the magazine piece which he initially did not want to do, he finds his subject to be exceptionally personal, warm, much interested in him and his life, and with a view of life that is relentlessly positive, but who also understands that sometimes there are negatives in life such as extreme (unnecessary?) anger (which Rogers illustrates metaphorically via forceful pounding on the lower register keys of a piano!). As the story unfolds and the lives of Fred and Lloyd become more intertwined, the emotional life of Lloyd moves closer to the positive qualities engendered by Fred, who has become a friend but also somewhat of a personal counselor! The direction of influence in their relationship is mostly Fred to Lloyd. Along this journey we see many operational features of the Mister Rogers TV program backstage and in production that repeatedly illustrate the genius Fred Rogers had for childrens’ programming and his multiple puppet voices, musical talent and his legendary relaxed behavior on camera. He was a singular and memorable figure in childrens’ programming. But the film doesn’t get into such basic questions of exactly why this slow motion adult guy changing slippers and sweaters and speaking in a low key style and doing repetitive things attracted such a following! My guess is the biggest factors were the ever-supportive messages he delivered to kids–encouragement, understanding their problems, considering the full range of a child’s emotions, emphasizing the positive, focusing on activities they could relate to, and always inviting them in and placing them at the center of the show.

I knew Fred Rogers and served with him on the invitational Board of Visitors of the University of Pittsburgh School of Education. It was a warm and friendly experience where among other things he and I talked much of child development and psychology! He told me he might liked to have become a psychologist—but of course, in reality, he WAS a brilliant child psychologist! Fred in his Board contribution focused, as you might expect, on children, asking Pitt administrators—what are you doing for children?

I personally felt that his appeal on TV missed a significant segment of American kids, the Type T kids as I have described them, the thrill (T)seekers/risk-takers for which America counts many. He and I talked about this. My feeling was the slow pace and structured style of the show was perfect for many kids but missed those innovative edge-pushing risk-engaging T Types who ultimately shape so much of American life for good and bad. Of course, I was sharing ideas with a genius, clearly, even if he probably had impact on but one, yet a large, segment of American kids. He was a lovely man, and the instant movie sweetly captures that. Like his TV program the key is low, and the pace sorta slow! As noted, the movie is primarily about two interesting adult males and the evolution of their friendship. It’s a nice evolution to watch, however, and to see the emergence in Lloyd of some of the fine qualities represented by the “Neighborhood” ethos and the person of Fred Rogers. Tom Hanks does a superb job as Fred with much of his voice and general gestures spot-on for Mister Rogers. I can’t imagine another actor who could do it better.

I have attached a picture of Fred and me clowning around at a Board meeting break. I might note another highlight of my friendship with the master of friendships was my arms resting on a grand piano next to Fred at Pitt after the evening dinner and singing “Its a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” and other Mister Rogers’ songs with Fred and a handful of Board members! That and the photo are my sweetest memories of this sweet and good man, a man who gave millions of children important truths and lasting lessons of life.

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