Rogers had a difficult childhood. He was shy, introverted, and overweight, and was frequently homebound after suffering bouts of asthma.
He was bullied and taunted as a child for his weight, and called “Fat Freddy”. According to Morgan Neville, director of the 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers had a “lonely childhood … I think he made friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy, he had [stuffed] animals, and he would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom”
It’s easy to imagine the program’s appeal to be nostalgic, a longing for a simpler, kinder time (the last new episode ran just days before 9/11). But when the show launched nationally in 1968 the United States was in a convulsive, angry, and disillusioned state. It was a year that saw assassinations (Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy) and revealed a nation deeply divided over issues from the Vietnam War to racial equality.
While Mr. Rogers’ core audience was children, his message was universal, and often timely. In one now-famous episode he asks an African American actor portraying a policeman to join him in cooling off by putting their feet together into a wading pool – this at a time when the racial segregation of some public swimming pools was making news. (Some also have seen a reference to the biblical story of Jesus washing his disciples’ feet, an act of humility and love.)
Mr. Rogers’ offer to his young viewers – “Won’t you be my neighbor?” – was both simple and subtly profound. It was grounded in his belief that all human relationships benefit from being based on the golden rule: Treat those around you the way you would like to be treated. “Fred’s legacy reminds us … to try and forgive those who have hurt us and to see the innate goodness in all people,” his widow, Joanne, said recently.
By the Monitor’s Editorial Board
Near-perfect ‘A Beautiful Day’ captures the wholeness of Fred Rogers
WHY WE WROTE THIS
What does it take to counter cynicism? A new movie explores the effect Fred Rogers has on a jaded journalist, a transformative experience that film critic Peter Rainer says extends to the audience, too: It’s “about the difficult passage from dark to light and the transcendence that takes you there.”
What gives Hanks’ performance its ballast – what elevates it far above the realm of the touchy-feely – is the suggestion that the comforts he dispenses are hard won because they have come through fire. Rogers doesn’t deny life’s desecrations. His conviction, as stated in the movie, that “each one of us is special” carries moral weight because, in spite of everything, he holds to the belief that people are inherently good.
It is not even necessary to wholeheartedly sign on to this belief to experience this movie’s glow. For the time that we are in the theater – and for some time after, too – the aura holds. At least it did for me. Who can fail to smile at the scene (based on fact) where Vogel and Rogers, in a subway car, are regaled by its passengers with the theme song from Rogers’ TV show? It’s irrelevant to complain, as some commentators have, that Vogel’s reconciliation with his father is predictable. Predictability is the point. This is a movie about the difficult passage from dark to light and the transcendence that takes you there.