The Enduring Legacy of Mr. Rogers

Why we keep celebrating a visionary leader in children's well-being.

Posted Dec 02, 2019

I’ll confess, even as a young child I never cared much for Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.  I tended to be attracted to the comparatively flashier fare of Sesame Street or The Electric Company.  Then, when I was six, Star Wars happened and all the children’s shows were pretty much left in the dust.  But even the pre-Star Wars me found Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to be hokey and dull, an impression that never changed much whenever I saw clips of the show as an adult.  I never found puppets particularly interesting, particularly with amateur grating voices, nor was I particularly inclined toward slow-paced explorations of feelings.

My resurgent interest in Fred Rogers the man was sparked by, of all things, my teenage son.  Like me, he tends to be drawn toward more action-oriented fare but really wanted to see the Rogers documentary.  The documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor had already been out for some weeks and had generated positive buzz.  Nonetheless, by that point, I still gave craps < 0 about Fred Rogers but was intrigued by my son’s curiosity.  We went and were treated to a sensitive and honest portrayal of a deep and sometimes flawed man who strove to find the best in people.

Earlier this month, the documentary was followed by the Tom Hanks led film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.  Having seen success with the documentary, my son and I trundled off to see the film a bit more eagerly this time.

Like the documentary, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood treats its subject with great reverence yet isn’t shy to humanize Rogers.  Indeed, I think this is the secret to Rogers’ legacy, not that he was perfect, but rather he was, mostly at least, willing to recognize his flaws and, in doing so, accept those in others and still treat them with respect, kids included.  Rogers struggled with anger and pessimism at times, as most of us do, and the movie acknowledges he sometimes experienced a strained relationship with at least one of his sons.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is a semi-fictionalized account of an interview Rogers did with an Esquire journalist (the specific events and Lloyd Vogel character are largely fictionalized, though the interview did happen.)  It’s not a biography per se, but particularly with Hanks' powerful performance (it’s a rare movie where you realize you forgot who the lead actor even is), the movie succeeds in humanizing Rogers and revealing him for the inspiring person he is, whether or not you liked his actual show.

The movie’s few missteps occur when it fictionalizes events that appear to make Rogers look like a mystic.  For instance, the restaurant scene where diners appear to spontaneously participate in a moment of silence Hanks’ Rogers only suggests quietly to Lloyd Vogel (and, as such, the crowd couldn’t have possibly have heard, let alone all be inclined to participate in), is ill-conceived and actually robs Rogers of his humanness for a moment.  In fact, the event never happened and seems to have been inspired by a very different event wherein Rogers actually asked a crowd at an awards ceremony to observe a moment of silence. 

Despite a few missteps, the movie is otherwise an elegant portrayal.  It’s most touching moments come when Rogers’ acknowledges his own flaws, particularly when discussing the strained relationship with his son.  You can sense his pain and, when Vogel asks a pointed question about how tough it must have been to be Rogers' son, a question that visibly hits home, Rogers' ability to turn that moment into thanking Vogel for his perspective is an inspiration for all of us mired down by Twitter-fights and work-power struggles.  Sometimes, perhaps, if we could take a moment to see the intention in others, we might be able to appreciate that, even if the unintended effect is to wound or offend us.

To be honest, I still don’t care at all for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood but between the documentary and the recent film, I found myself admiring Fred Rogers himself.  He succeeded, more often than he failed, in turning his human limitations to something positive.  And he always worked hard to understand the struggles in others.

I suspect that he moved others not so much because he created a great show, but because he used the badly sung songs and grating puppets as a vehicle for real compassion.  He treated kids not as either pure angels, nor monstrous burdens, but as human beings.  He understood they too experienced anger and resentment, fear, and uncertainty, and this didn’t make them bad.  He was willing to tackle difficult subjects like divorce, death, and war by treating kids with respect and listening to their concerns. 

For me, perhaps the most poignant moment of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood comes at the very end, as the lights dim.  Earlier in the movie, Hanks' Rogers mentions banging on the lowest notes of the piano as a means of releasing anger (the movie completely ignores social psychology’s gripes about catharsis and is right to do so).  Later, after the end of filming one of his shows, Rogers settles in to play the piano as the crew shuts down the scene and turns off the lights. 

Left all but alone in the dark, and without any hint regarding his thoughts, Rogers suddenly pounds on those lowest keys then sits silently for a moment.  Then, seconds later, he resumes playing his peaceful song.  This final act was an eloquent curtain close for both an exceptional man, and a philosophical guide for an approach to the twists and turns of life.