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It’s a beautiful day in the Presbyterian neighborhood


Tom Hanks’ portrayal of Fred Rogers is Hollywood’s most recent look at Presbyterian clergy

by Dr. Edward McNulty | Special to Presbyterian News Service

Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, left, welcomes Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) to the WQED studio in Pittsburgh in a scene from “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” (Photo courtesy of TriStar Pictures)

FRANKLIN, Ohio — Though the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is a relatively small denomination compared to Baptists or Methodists, Hollywood has paid plenty of attention to Presbyterian clergy.

The most recent example is director Marielle Heller’s long-anticipated film featuring the children’s television host Fred Rogers. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” is but the latest in a line of films in which a Presbyterian member of the clergy is a major character.

  • In 1955 crowds packed theaters to see “A Man Called Peter.” Richard Todd played the golden-tongued Peter Marshall, who served as U.S. Senate chaplain. It was a film that inspired many young people, including myself, to become a minister.
  • In 1979 the Walt Disney Studios produced “North Avenue Irregulars,” a comedy very loosely based on the Albert Fay Hill’s memoir of enlisting his women’s association to fight a gambling mob in New Rochelle, N.Y. during the 1960s.
  • In 1992 “A River Runs Through It” was released. The film is based on Norman Maclean’s autobiographical book in which his Presbyterian minister father loves to fly fish almost as much as he enjoys preaching. Though dealing with the tragic death of the author’s brother, the line from the film that many people remember is Maclean’s observation that Methodists are “Baptists who could read.”
  • In 2008 Clint Eastwood directed “Changeling,” set in Los Angeles in the late 1920s. Presbyterian minister Rev. Gustav Briegleb comes to the rescue of a distraught mother being persecuted by a Los Angeles police captain.
  • In the 1972 film adaptation of the Broadway musical “1776,” one of our spiritual forebears who gave his name to the street on which the PC(USA)’s Louisville headquarters sits, John Witherspoon, has a small role. He joins the Philadelphia gathering late as a delegate from New Jersey. When John Hancock learns he is a minister, Witherspoon is asked to be the chaplain of the Continental Congress.

However, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood” takes little note that Fred Rogers was a Presbyterian minister. There is no mention of God or prayer until the last few minutes of the film.

Scriptwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, drawing on writer Tom Junod’s 1998 story for Esquire titled “Can You Say…Hero?,” are more interested in Rogers’ extraordinary kindness than in his religion. The result is not a biography of Fred Rogers — for that we already have last year’s delightful documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”  The new film is the story of a relationship and the healing power of friendship, as well as a father-son story.

The film is cleverly set up as if it were a typical “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” episode with Fred (Tom Hanks) coming through that familiar door, going to his closet and changing into his cardigan sweater and deck shoes while talking to the audience about the large board with small doors next to him. He opens a couple doors at the bottom to show pictures of two of his puppet characters, then opens one that shows “my friend Lloyd,” whose face is battered. The host explains that his friend is troubled.

We move from Pittsburgh to New York City, where the name of real-life journalist Tom Junod is changed to Lloyd Vogel (and played by Matthew Rhys). He’s been told by his editor to write a brief profile (about 400 words) for a Hero issue of Esquire magazine. Skeptical that anyone could be as good as Rogers appears to be, he tells his editor “no,” asking to be allowed to interview one of the other “heroes” instead. The editor insists on this one, informing Vogel that the other interviewees had specifically asked not to be interviewed by him because of so many savage remarks he had made about the subjects of his past interviews.

Thus, it is not a good time for Vogel. He is coping with being a new father while at war with his own father Jerry (Chris Cooper). Never having gotten over his anger at his father’s abandoning him and his sister when their mother was dying years ago, Vogel is so resentful that his sister includes their father in her wedding that he provokes a fistfight with the old man. This embarrassing outburst strains his relationship with his wife Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson) as well as his that of his sibling. His bitterness infects his writing as well.

When Vogel enters the studio at Pittsburgh’s WQED, Rogers is on the set being taped as he speaks with an autistic boy and his parents. The youngster is reluctant to talk. This bothers the parents, but not Fred, as he continues to probe, successfully using the famous puppets the boy was familiar with. Afterwards, Rogers devotes his full attention to Vogel, though his schedule is so tight that he can give him just a few minutes of his time. It is evident that Rogers is as interested in interviewing Vogel as the journalist is in talking with him.

Rogers by now has piqued the interest of the jaded reporter, and so there follows other encounters, mostly in New York. By this time Rogers had ceased production of the Neighborhood series and moved on to other projects, some of which were aimed at adults, whose influence he knew could have a great effect upon children. During Fred and wife Joanne Rogers’ frequent visits to Manhattan, where they maintained an apartment for use during business trips, the reporter and the TV host meet several times. Vogel has been told that Fred Rogers is especially drawn to “broken people.”

Rogers at times telephones Vogel, concerned that the man is deeply troubled. In one dramatic encounter he asks if Vogel had a special friend as a child. After a moment or two, Vogel mentions there was a toy rabbit. Enter Fred’s puppets.

Another — perhaps the most delightful scene in the film — takes place on the subway when a group of children recognize Rogers and start singing “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” Soon the other passengers are joining in, including two police officers near the children. Fred smiles and thanks them, saying, “That was wonderful!”

The screenwriters have carefully worked in another of Fred Rogers’ insightful songs, “What do you do with the mad that you feel?” Designed to help children become aware of and handle the anger that they experience almost every day, the song applies to Vogel as well. His anger lingers even after the fight with his father at the wedding. Lila (Jessica Hecht), Jerry’s second wife, is apparently a compassionate woman who wants her husband to reconcile with his son. When Lloyd returns home one day, she and Jerry are sitting with Andrea at the dinner table awaiting him. Thus, she unconsciously is Fred’s ally in forcing Lloyd to deal with his anger and resentment and getting Jerry to take responsibility for his past misdeeds. Lloyd is not at all pleased with what he regards as an intrusion, but after much struggle and support from the gentle man who now is his friend (and even Fred’s wife Joanne enters the picture), there emerges a reconciliation that is beautiful to behold — and, as it turns out, not a moment too soon.

Bringing in Joanne Rogers (Maryann Plunkett) helps Lloyd (and us) see Fred not as a “living saint,” but as a man with his own problems that he too struggles with. Hanks, as everyone seems to agree, beautifully captures the essence of Fred Rogers, especially Rogers’ slow-paced, soft-voiced speech and intense concentration as he listens to people. Due credit also must be given to Rhys, who convincingly displays the anger and anguish of Tom Junod (the Lloyd Vogel character in the film). The man may be a famous writer for a top magazine, but Rogers discerns that at heart he is still the angry boy deeply hurt by, and thus resentful of, his father. When Rogers’ agape form of love, so beautifully described by the apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 13, envelops him, he begins to change as he rediscovers the hurting child buried deeply in himself. A broken man learns that he does not have to stay broken.

I responded personally to the film, having met and written about Fred Rogers several times. There are several similarities between Lloyd’s first encounter with Rogers and my own. When I entered WQED studios for my first interview, I too was greeted by “Speedy” McFeely, a.k.a. David Newell, who escorted me back to the studio. As with Lloyd’s visit, Fred was talking with a child — actually, two children — though not on camera. (For more on this and my other encounters, see my tribute article following Fred Rogers’ death in 2003, “Wasn’t It Nice in the Neighborhood?”) As he did with Lloyd, when these children proved too shy to respond, I saw Fred skillfully draw them out by taking out his puppets and having the three of them talk through them (Daniel Tiger, of course, was Fred’s avatar). And when the two children left, Fred was interviewing me before I could get very far into my list of questions. Unlike Vogel, I did not mind my host changing the focus of the conversation, much of it dealing with questions about my children.

As mentioned earlier, God is not mentioned until later in the film, when Fred and Lloyd are visiting the dying Jerry Vogel. As they take their leave, Fred leans down and whispers into Jerry’s ear. Outside, Lloyd asks Fred what he’d said to his father. Fred informs him that he asked the old man to pray for him. Now, pause and think about this request. Most clergy would have told the dying man that he (the clergy person) was praying for him. But this humble man asks for a prayer! What a way to empower and dignify a man who must have felt impotent in the face of impending death! If ever there was a man who fulfilled Micah’s dictum “to do justice, to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God,” it was the man at the center of this beautiful film. What a wonderful gift it is to a disillusioned public so badly in need of kindness and humility!

Dr. Edward McNulty is a Presbyterian minister serving the Blue Ball Presbyterian Church in Ohio. The author of three books published by Westminster John Knox Press (“Praying the Movies,” “Praying the Movies II” and “Faith & Film”), McNulty’s latest book is “Jesus Christ: Movie Star.” More than 2,200 of his film reviews can be read by clicking here.

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