Did Mister Rogers swim every day? Was he a vegetarian? Did he play the piano with his wife? Did fans sing to him on the subway? Was there really a journalist won over by his kindly nature? I’m breaking down what was fact vs. fiction in the new Mister Rogers movie. What is the true story of the trip down memory lane for so many of us?
A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood True Story
Only a short time after we all wept our way through the touching documentary celebrating Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, comes a biopic starring another legend, Tom Hanks, as Mister Rogers.
The film is inspired by a 1998 Esquire cover feature about Mister Rogers by Tom Junod entitled, “Can You Say…Hero?” The biopic splits the narrative between glimpses of Mister Rogers and the life and journey of the journalist begrudgingly tasked with profiling him.
Biopics are often tasked with adding drama to a film and therefore often fabricate or embellish real-life facts. But in a more subdued drama such as A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood, it wasn’t as necessary to sensationalize facets of Rogers’ life. Additionally, much of his day-to-day is well-documented and readily available to find.
Did fans sing to Mister Rogers on the subway?
This one actually wasn’t too hard to research. The anecdote is featured in Junod’s Esquire piece as seen here:
Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.
Apparently children of all backgrounds and races were inspired to serenade Mister Rogers and our choked up reactions were well worth it.
The real life journalist
Lloyd Vogel (played by Matthew Rhys) was loosely based on Junod and some of his story was pulled from his own life and what was included in the Esquire feature. In the film, Vogel is an award-winning magazine journalist, a husband, and a new father, who struggles with his relationship with his own estranged father. He’s given the task of writing a short profile on Mister Rogers for a piece on heroes. He protests but eventually accepts, begins the assignment, and his relationship with Rogers begins.
Junod was indeed an award-winning magazine journalist who was assigned to profile Rogers, and potentially in a less than idealized light. He even had a childhood toy named “Old Rabbit.” There was, however, no wedding and no fight with his father. While Junod says his father was a “boozy philanderer,” it didn’t ruin their relationship as it was portrayed in the film.
He was initially not interested in doing a “puff piece” on the children’s television host but saw it as an opportunity to help his reputation which had been damaged due to criticism of some of his previous, more mean-spirited coverage, including an effort to out actor Kevin Spacey.
Most of the dramatic narrative of Vogel’s life was fictional, including the scene where he faints on the set of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Also of note, Junod’s real-life wife Janet never met Fred Rogers and they didn’t have a son. They adopted a daughter some time after the publication of the feature in Esquire.
The real Mister Rogers
At one point in the movie, Vogel implies to Rogers that he is playing a character different than his real-life persona. Rogers looks merely confused by the notion. This mirrors the tale fairly well: the real Rogers was actually pretty close to his fictional counterpart.
Joanne Rogers is featured in a small cameo in the movie (look for her in the restaurant scene!) and sanctioned much of the film’s depiction of her late husband. It’s easy to see Hanks’ mannerisms and dress as uncannily similar, but many of his traits were also accurately depicted.
Was Mister Rogers a vegetarian?
During the restaurant scene, Rogers says of his vegetarianism that he wouldn’t “eat anything that had a mother,” which he was known to have said. He became a vegetarian in the 1970s and a co-owner of Vegetarian Times in the mid-1980s. According to Rogers’ biographer Maxwell King, Rogers also signed his name to a statement protesting wearing animal fur.
Did Mister Rogers pray every day?
Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was ordained a minister of the United Presbyterian Church in 1963. His faith informed much of what he taught to children, in addition to his focus on child psychology with Margaret McFarland, his key advisor on childhood issues. Though he was never explicit about his faith on air, many of his messages were inspired by Christian teachings. According to King, Rogers swam every morning after waking early to pray and to read the Bible and prepare himself for the day.
Near the end of the film, Rogers is seen whispering to Vogel’s dying father. He says, “Someone who is suffering that much must be very close to God.” It is true that he’s known to have said this about a boy with cerebral palsy saying, “I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.”
Was Mister Rogers a pianist?
Rogers played the piano from the age of five and earned a bachelor’s degree in music from Rollins College in 1951. While filming his shows, he wrote and performed hundreds of pieces of music. His wife Joanne was also an accomplished pianist who earned a bachelor’s from Rollins and went on to earn a master’s degree in music from Florida State University. It was easy to imagine they played together often throughout their lives.
Did Mister Rogers like taking photos?
Rogers was shown taking pictures of all his new friends at various points in the film. In real life, he had always loved photography and was a visual person, looking to share his photos with others including his wife. Junod wrote in the Esquire feature, “And it was just about then, when I was spilling the beans about my special friend, that Mister Rogers rose from his corner of the couch and stood suddenly in front of me with a small black camera in hand.”
It was smaller details like this that made the A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood true story elements that much more impactful.
Mister Rogers’ “loved us into being” game
During a pivotal scene in the film, Rogers asks Vogel to be silent for 10 seconds “to think of the people who have loved us into being.” Many of the restaurant patrons also fell into silence. Hanks as Rogers stares meaningfully into the camera for a full ten seconds which was also poignant for many of us in the theater (I’m not crying, you’re crying!). Though we don’t have proof he did this in private, we do have evidence he did this on-air when accepting his Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997. He says to the audience, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are.” Here’s the clip if you’re interested…
Mister Rogers’ kindness
An aspect of the A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood true story that was accurately depicted was evidence of Rogers’ daily practice to be kind. His childhood was challening and he was bullied for being overweight and shy. He was able to channel his anger in productive ways and endeavored to pass along this practice to children with his show. Junod said, “He practiced [kindness] like he practiced a musical instrument. I think he did the scales every day.” Nobody is inherently as kind, frugal, and gentle as Rogers without a sincere commitment to overcoming all of the hurdles to doing so.
His legacy of acceptance, inherent self-worth, and generosity of spirit emanated from the screen. But even the kindest among us can struggle with familial relationships. Mentioned in the film was Rogers’ strained relationships with his two sons, James and John. He admits it must not have been easy to have Mister Rogers as a father, despite all of his training with children. This was a reflection of his real-life relationship with his sons early in their lives.
What about those military tattoos?
One of the most enduring myths about Mister Rogers was his rumored time as a Navy SEAL and his tattooed arms, both of which are merely urban legend, as explained in the movie.
What elements of the A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood true story did I miss? Let me know in the comments!