Movies

What’s Fact and What’s Fiction in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

Was Mr. Rogers a vegetarian? Did he really inspire a subway singalong? We break down the new Mr. Rogers movie.

Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.
Tom Hanks as Fred Rogers in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood and Fred Rogers in Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by TriStar Pictures and WPBS-TV.

Sixteen years after his death, Fred Rogers is having a bit of a moment. Last year, the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was a success with both audiences and critics, both of whom proved hungry to engage with his comforting legacy during this turbulent era. The new Mr. Rogers biopic A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, directed by Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) and featuring Tom Hanks cutting that familiar cardiganed form, strikes the same chords as last year’s documentary except with a cynical, broken journalist serving as a surrogate for our cynical, broken times.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is based on a 1998 Esquire profile of Rogers by journalist Tom Junod, but many of its details are straight from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Below, we break it all down.

Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) vs. Tom Junod

We first meet Lloyd in 1998 where, as the previous year’s winner of the National Magazine Award, he’s presenting the current year’s prize. We soon learn that he’s recently become a father, and there’s a palpable discomfort in his interactions with his wife, Andrea (Susan Kelechi Watson), and his newborn son. These are only escalated when the small family attends Lloyd’s sister’s wedding. There, Lloyd confronts his father, who we later find out cheated on his dying wife before abandoning her and their children, and father and son get into a fistfight. At work the next day, Lloyd plays off his shiner as the result of a softball injury and very reluctantly takes a 400-word profile of Mr. Rogers assigned by his editor at Esquire in an effort to clean up his reputation for being too hard on subjects.

Junod did work for Esquire, and he did win two National Magazine Awards (though they were for stories published in 1994 and 1995). That’s about where the similarities end. As Junod himself writes in a recent piece for the Atlantic, “I did not get into a fistfight with my father at my sister’s wedding. My sister didn’t have a wedding.” And though he admits that his father was as much a “boozy philanderer” as Lloyd’s is, in the case of the Junods that fact didn’t drive father and son apart. “I was well aware of his eccentricity, but unlike my character in the script, I had never rejected him or his message.”

And while, according to Junod, he was indeed assigned to cover Rogers as a sort of mismatch between subject and reporter, it doesn’t look like it was to brighten his reputation.
Instead, he 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.” Still, like Vogel, Junod did have a reputation for being hard on subjects after he wrote an Esquire cover story dancing around the subject of Kevin Spacey’s sexuality, “a story of coy ill will that fooled no one.”

The movie adheres more strictly to Junod’s fashion: “He was dressed as I used to dress back in the late ’90s, in a black mock turtleneck and an Armani blazer,” Junod writes. And the scene about Vogel’s childhood toy, Old Rabbit, is straight from his profile, which opens with a description of Old Rabbit.

Matthew Rhys and Tom Junod
Matthew Rhys and Tom Junod.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by TriStar Pictures and Cindy Ord/Getty Images for SCAD.

Andrea Vogel (Susan Kelechi Watson) vs. Janet Junod

There’s not a whole lot of information about Junod’s wife, Janet, in either of his pieces. In the movie, Andrea is a lawyer and recent mother of a son who eventually becomes good enough friends with Mr. Rogers that he asks her if she’s still worrying about putting her son in day care. In real life, the Junods adopted a daughter after the profile was published and Janet never met Fred Rogers.

Jerry Vogel (Chris Cooper) vs. Lou Junod

Lloyd’s father, Jerry, is almost entirely an invention of the movie, which also means most of the film’s narrative drama is entirely fictionalized, including the scene where Lloyd faints on set and one where Rogers visits Jerry on his deathbed, pie in hand.

One part of Jerry’s story arc is accurate, though. At the end, Rogers asks the dying man to pray for him. When Lloyd asks Rogers why, he responds, “Someone who is suffering that much must be very close to God.” While Rogers never said this about Junod’s father, in the original profile, he does ask a boy with cerebral palsy he visited in California to pray for him, saying, “I asked him because I think that anyone who has gone through challenges like that must be very close to God.”

Fred Rogers (Tom Hanks)

The movie is loosely framed as an episode of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, opening with the character of Fred Rogers speaking directly to the audience about the story of Lloyd Vogel. Unlike the barely-there similarities between Junod and Vogel, Hanks’ Fred Rogers uncannily resembles the real Rogers in mannerisms (A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens with the familiar routine of Rogers changing from his blue sports coat to his red cardigan, and Hanks’ use of silence, as if waiting for the audience to respond, is at once familiar and unsettling) and is largely faithful in terms of biography.

Like the real-life Fred Rogers, the movie’s Rogers married an accomplished pianist named Joanne and fathered two sons. In one scene, he admits to having a strained relationship with one of his sons, which is also true to life.

In the movie, Joanne reveals to Vogel that her husband begins every morning by swimming and praying for people by name, and at one point, Rogers discloses that he’s a vegetarian. This is all true, too. Rogers became a vegetarian in the 1970s, even taking a co-ownership in and appearing on the cover of the Vegetarian Times. Just as in the movie, he did often say he wouldn’t “eat anything that had a mother,” though it doesn’t seem like he ever used that line with Junod.

Finally, as in the movie, Rogers really was rumored to have been a Navy SEAL, though as the movie suggests, this was a myth.

Esquire magazine cover of Fred Rogers
Esquire

The Profile

Vogel is first assigned a puff piece on Rogers and their interview occurs over the phone, after which they meet at the WQED set in Pittsburgh—where Vogel is met with suspicions by one of Rogers’ handlers, Bill Isler. While on set, Vogel watches as Rogers struggles to set up a children’s tent that’s part of the day’s episode. To Vogel’s surprise, Rogers decides not to retape, saying that children need to see that “when adults make plans, sometimes they don’t work.”

This is all somewhat accurate, though no woman was editor in chief of Esquire in the ’90s, and its staff was not as diverse as it is in the movie. Other scenes are rearranged. According to Junod, his first meeting with Rogers occurred at the latter’s New York apartment, which is shown later in the film. He did eventually go to the Pittsburgh set as well as Rogers’ childhood home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It is true that Isler, who was the president of Rogers’ company, Family Communications, had tried to quash the interview. In Junod’s Atlantic piece, he writes that Isler “hadn’t wanted Fred to cooperate with my story, because he had read my stories and knew the cruelty I was capable of.” And though there is a real clip of Rogers fumbling with a tent for a solid two minutes, it’s from 1975—about two decades before Junod did his profile.

The Subway Singalong

Though the main narrative of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is largely fictional, interspersed through the film are scenes that are lifted directly from the profile—including a few of the most unbelievable ones. The first time that Vogel visits Rogers’ New York apartment, they take the train. In the middle of their conversation, a group of children begin to sing “Won’t You be My Neighbor?” This, implausibly, seems to actually have happened—though while the movie might leave the viewer with the sense that Rogers regularly took the subway, the circumstances in the profile suggest this wasn’t so routine. Still, the rest of the scene is virtually identical:

Once upon a time, Mister Rogers went to New York City and got caught in the rain. He didn’t have an umbrella, and he couldn’t find a taxi, either, so he ducked with a friend into the subway and got on one of the trains. It was late in the day, and the train was crowded with children who were going home from school. Though of all races, the schoolchildren were mostly black and Latino, and they didn’t even approach Mister Rogers and ask him for his autograph. They just sang. They sang, all at once, all together, the song he sings at the start of his program, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” and turned the clattering train into a single soft, runaway choir.

A Moment of Silence

At a pivotal moment in Vogel’s journey from skeptic to believer, Rogers asks Vogel to sit with him in silence in a crowded restaurant for a full minute “to think of the people who have loved us into being.”* Similar to the train scene, this actually happened but in a different and perhaps even more surprising context. As Junod’s profile points out, when Rogers accepted his Emmy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1997, he stood “in front of all the soap-opera stars and talk-show sinceratrons, in front of all the jutting man-tanned jaws and jutting saltwater bosoms” and said, “All of us have special ones who have loved us into being. Would you just take, along with me, 10 seconds to think of the people who have helped you become who you are.”

In the moments that followed, as Rogers watched the time on his watch, the crowd settled from nervous laughter into a hush, and then, for many, into being moved to tears. This is one Mr. Rogers story you don’t have to take on my authority, or Junod’s, because you can watch it yourself.

Correction, Dec. 3, 2019: This article originally misstated how long the moment of silence in A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood lasts.