I first met him 21 years ago, and now our relationship is the subject of a new movie. He’s never been more revered—or more misunderstood.
A long time ago, a man of resourceful and relentless kindness saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He trusted me when I thought I was untrustworthy and took an interest in me that went beyond my initial interest in him. He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died. Now a movie has been made from the story I wrote about him, which is to say “inspired by” the story I wrote about him, which is to say that in the movie my name is Lloyd Vogel and I get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding.
I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding. And yet the movie, called A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, seems like a culmination of the gifts that Fred Rogers gave me and all of us, gifts that fit the definition of grace because they feel, at least in my case, undeserved. I still don’t know what he saw in me, why he decided to trust me, or what, to this day, he wanted from me, if anything at all. He puzzles me now as much as he did when I first met him at the door of the apartment he kept in New York City, dressed, as he’d warned me when we spoke on the phone and he invited me over, in a shabby blue bathrobe and a pair of slippers. Fred was, let’s not forget, a rather peculiar man, and it is not just his goodness but rather the peculiarity of his goodness that has made him, 16 years after his death, triumphant as a symbol of human possibility, although just about everything he stood for has been lost.
I met Fred Rogers in 1998. I last spoke with him on Christmas Day 2002, when I called him to talk about an argument I’d had with my cousin; he died two months later, on February 27, 2003. In late 2014, I heard from two screenwriters, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, who were interested in using my Esquire story as the basis of a movie, and in January 2018, I received a call from the movie’s producer with the news that Tom Hanks had been cast as Fred Rogers, which meant, emphatically, that the movie would be made. A few months after that, I visited the set in Pittsburgh, where I met Matthew Rhys, the actor who had agreed to play … well, me, or some variant of me, a cynical journalist who in the end proves amenable to Fred’s life lessons—his ministry.
I had been thinking of starting this story at one of those points of departure, at one of those beginnings or one of those endings. But stories don’t only speak; they are spoken to, by the circumstances under which they are written. And so I have to start by mentioning that I have begun writing a story about Mister Rogers the day after two young men armed with assault rifles killed a total of 31 people in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio.
What would Fred Rogers—Mister Rogers—have made of El Paso and Dayton, of mass murder committed to fulfill the dictates of an 8chan manifesto?
I am often asked what Fred would have made of our time—what he would have made of Donald Trump, what he would have made of Twitter, what he would have made of what is generally called our “polarization” but is in fact the discovery that we don’t like our neighbors very much once we encounter them proclaiming their political opinions on social media. I often hear people say that they wish Fred were still around to offer his guidance and also that they are thankful he is gone, because at least he has been spared from seeing what we have become. In all of this, there is something plaintive and a little desperate, an unspoken lament that he has left us when we need him most, as though instead of dying of stomach cancer he was assumed by rapture, abandoning us to our own devices and the judgment implicit in his absence.
What, for that matter, would he have made of the anti-Semitic massacre that took place last fall in his real-life Pittsburgh neighborhood of Squirrel Hill? The easy answer is that it is impossible to know, because he was from a different world, one almost as alien to us now as our mob-driven world of performative slaughters would be to him. But actually, I think I do know, because when I met him, one of the early school shootings had just taken place, in West Paducah, Kentucky—eight students shot while they gathered in prayer. Though an indefatigably devout man, he did not attempt to characterize the shootings as an attack on the faithful; instead, he seized on the news that the 14-year-old shooter had gone to school telling his classmates that he was about to do something “really big,” and he asked, “Oh, wouldn’t the world be a different place if he had said, ‘I’m going to do something really little tomorrow’?” Fred decided to devote a whole week of his television show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to the theme of “little and big,” encouraging children to embrace the diminutive nature of their bodies and their endeavors—to understand that big has to start little.
Fred Rogers was a children’s-TV host, but he was not Captain Kangaroo or Officer Joe Bolton. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister who was so appalled by what he saw on 1950s television—adults trying to entertain children by throwing pies in each other’s faces—that he joined the medium as a reformer. He considered the space between the television set and the eyes of his audience sacred, and from 1966 to 2000 he taped nearly 1,000 episodes of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, trying to make that space less profane. And although he made his living speaking to children, his message and example endure because he found a way to speak to all of us—to speak to children as respectfully as he spoke to adults and to speak to adults as simply as he spoke to children. Such fluency was the result not of spontaneous enthusiasm but rather of the rigorous editing he brought to bear on himself and everyone around him. When I first visited the Neighborhood 21 years ago, one of his in-house writers, Hedda Sharapan, told me what had happened when he’d enlisted her to write a manual intended to teach doctors how to talk to children. She worked hard on it, using all her education and experience in the field of child development, but when she handed him her opening, he crossed out what she’d written and replaced it with six words: “You were a child once too.”
And that’s it, really—his message to doctors was his message to politicians, CEOs, celebrities, educators, writers, students, everyone. It was also the basis of his strange superpowers. He wanted us to remember what it was like to be a child so that he could talk to us; he wanted to talk to us so that we could remember what it was like to be a child. And he could talk to anyone, believing that if you remembered what it was like to be a child, you would remember that you were a child of God.
The question, then, isn’t what Fred would do, what Fred would say, in the face of outrage and horror, because Fred was the most stubbornly consistent of men. He would say that Donald Trump was a child once too. He would say that the latest Twitter victim or villain was a child once too. He would even say that the mass murderers of El Paso and Dayton were children once too—that, in fact, they were very nearly still children, at 21 and 24 years old, respectively—and he would be heartbroken that children have become both the source and the target of so much animus. He would pray for the shooters as well as for their victims, and he would continue to urge us, in what has become one of his most oft quoted lines, to “look for the helpers.”
There is no doubt that he would try to be one of the helpers. The question is whether a man who saw evil in terms of big and little would be able to help.
“What do you think is going on here?” Bill Isler asked me one morning when we were driving to Fred’s hometown of Latrobe, Pennsylvania. Bill was the president of Fred’s company, Family Communications, and he hadn’t wanted Fred to cooperate with my story, because he had read my stories and knew the cruelty I was capable of. I had not yet emerged from the state of disrepute I’d entered when, in the first cover story I wrote for Esquire, I did an elaborate rhetorical dance around the sexuality of Kevin Spacey, a story of coy ill will that fooled no one. We’d been out to make a splash, and we did, earning national opprobrium and prompting Spacey’s agent to urge a Hollywood boycott of me and the magazine.
Indeed, I was assigned the story about Fred because one of the editors at Esquire thought it would be amusing to have me, with my stated determination to “say the unsayable,” write about the nicest man in the world. I was too old to have grown up watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and knew him primarily as the parodied version of himself. Now Fred was in the passenger seat of the car in front of us, writing scripts for his show, and I was with his brusque protector, who’d had no better luck protecting Fred than I’d had getting Fred to answer my questions.
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m writing a story about Fred and he’s cooperating?”
“Come on,” Bill said. “Do you think this happens all the time?”
“This! Latrobe! The time he’s given you! He’s taking you to his parents’ grave, for God’s sake!”
“He’s Mister Rogers. Isn’t that what he does?”
“Don’t act naive. We have reporters come through here all the time. They come in the morning, they talk to Fred for 20 minutes, they go home at the end of the day and write their stories. You’re different. He’s taken an interest in you.” And here he emitted a mischievous chuckle.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, but there’s nothing you can do about it either,” he said, and an hour later I saw Mister Rogers urinating behind a tree in a cemetery.
To this day, I have no idea why Fred Rogers decided to be my friend, other than the obvious: I got lucky, and I was a child once too. But not only was his friendship enduring; his interest was abiding, and he frequently expressed it in the emails he sent from his AOL account, ZZZ143. Like the choreographed gestures he used every day on his show, his email address was intended to signify, the “ZZZ” attesting to the pacific fact that he slept soundly through the night, the “143” expressing both the number of letters required to say each word in “I love you” and the Planck’s constant of his weight every time he stepped on a scale.
For as long as I knew him, we corresponded, and recently some of that correspondence resurfaced when I did a data recovery on a 21-year-old laptop moldering away in my attic. I found 70 emails in all, each from the first year of our friendship, and each very much in keeping with the man I met, profiled, and eventually asked my deepest and most troubling questions. The emails are revealing in exactly the way Fred was revealing and obfuscatory in exactly the way he was obfuscatory. He disclosed very little about himself, even to his wife, Joanne—“Oh, he never told me anything,” she says now. But as a correspondent he was emotionally forthcoming and intimate, closing often with the assurance that he kept me in his thoughts and his prayers—“And, I guess you know, each morning I pray for you; I really do”—and sometimes with ministerial ardor. “You are loved with a greater love than anyone could ever imagine, Tom. I trust that you’ll never ever forget that.”
His emails were, like so much of what he wrote to so many he wrote to, love letters. Occasionally, he reported on his worldly endeavors—for instance, sharing the question he asked when he met the Dalai Lama: “When you were taken to Lhasa at age 5 were your parents allowed to come along?” But mostly, he wrote about faith, risking “heretical” notions in answer to what he called my “big questions.” Was God good? Was I? Fred’s faith in God was unshakable, and so was his faith in goodness itself. “God’s nature has grown and grown and grown all through the ages,” he wrote on October 25, 1998.
Yet at the heart of the original creation is that Word (call it Love, call it Grace, call it Peace …) that essence which is lodged somewhere within each of us that longs for ultimate expression. If we choose to allow it to grow we’ll be given help. If we choose otherwise we won’t be forced. If there is such a thing as a “dark corner” of God’s nature then I think it’s God’s refusal to go back on the promise of “the creation’s freedom to love or not.”
He was more overtly religious in his emails than he was in conversation or on television. “You’re moving very close to the Eternal, Tom,” he wrote on November 11, 1998. “And what’s more you’re recognizing that presence.”
It is a truism by now that there was no difference between Fred Rogers and Mister Rogers, that Fred was always Fred. It also happens to be true. He was implacably on message, because the message was in the fiber of his friendships. He worked hard on his friendships; he prepared for his friendships; he took notes on his friendships; he even kept files on his friendships, and not long ago I found out that he’d kept a file on me. The files are in his archives, at Saint Vincent College, in Latrobe; apparently they are extensive—box after box of information and inspiration concerning those he loved—and in one of those boxes are the names of my wife, my dogs, and one of my nieces, who was facing trouble and for whom he prayed. There are also printouts of our correspondence and notes he took on our phone conversations, written on yellow legal pads in his eerily calligraphic hand.
Does this freak me out? No, because I used to wonder how he did it—how he was available to so many people, on so many different occasions. Now I know. I also remember that for all his scrupulous preparation, his conversation was never canned, but rather questing and free. Once, when I called to tell him the story of five people stopping their cars to help an ancient and enormous snapping turtle across a highway exit ramp in Atlanta, he asked if I was going to write about it. I said no and asked him why he thought it might make a good story. And this was his response: “Because whenever people come together to help either another person or another creature, something has happened, and everyone wants to know about it—because we all long to know that there’s a graciousness at the heart of creation.”