Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

Tom Hanks portrays beloved children’s television host Fred Rogers in the 2019 film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller. Not quite biographical, the film’s story is loosely based on the 1998 Esquire profile “Can You Say…Hero?” by Tom Junod, and recounts the impact of Rogers’ friendship upon the life of a cynical, disaffected journalist named Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys). Lloyd’s anguish stems largely from his troubled relationship with his alcoholic, philandering father (Chris Cooper) and his fears of inheriting his father’s worst traits. Assigned to write a short profile of Rogers, Lloyd is at first suspicious of the man’s essential decency, but over time his deepening friendship with Rogers helps Lloyd to overcome his demons and become a more forgiving son, a more responsive husband, and a more involved father. In short, to become a more complete human being.

Pollock Theater director Matt Ryan invites co-screenwriter/Executive Producer/actor Noah Harpster to Script to Screen to discuss A Beautiful Day’s genesis, its themes, and the process of collaboration. Harpster notes that the screenplay was “ten years in the making” and inspired by observing his toddler’s reaction to Mister Rogers. Harpster and his writing partner, Micah Fitzerman-Blue, knew that Fred Rogers didn’t have the dynamic personality necessary for a conventional movie protagonist. They created the character of Lloyd as a troubled person (and audience surrogate) who could be gently guided by Rogers into finding ways to channel anger – one of the few emotions traditional socialization allows men to express freely – into something more constructive. The film occasionally employs fantasy sequences and techniques such as “breaking the fourth wall” to underscore the effect on Lloyd of the two men’s evolving relationship.

Harpster relates that the only request made by Rogers’ widow, Joanne, was to “not portray Fred as a saint,” since the accomplishments of a saint would seem unattainable by mere mortals. The screenwriters understood that one of the central challenges of portraying such a relentlessly kind and optimistic personality would be avoiding maudlin sentimentality and a sense of phoniness (the very thing Lloyd initially expects of Rogers). Indeed, the filmmakers were repeatedly told, “Don’t make it cheesy.” One path forward was found in one of Rogers’ credos: “Anything mentionable is manageable,” and the film makes it clear that he didn’t shy away from potentially upsetting topics such as illness and death. Ultimately A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is not about Fred Rogers’ work in children’s television but rather an expression of his philosophy that kindness is imperative to achieving understanding, forgiving, and acceptance.

Watch Script to Screen: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.