The neighborhood film A Beautiful Day described as an episode of the neighborhood of Mister Rogers. Fred Rogers, whose gentle disposition suits Tom Hanks as comfortably as his red cardigan, starts by introducing the audience to a story about his friend, reporter Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys of the Americans). Scene changes show toy towns, just like those used on the famous children’s show, in Manhattan, except Lloyd’s story unfolds, not Pittsburgh.
While Hanks ‘ Mister Rogers is the storyteller in the new film by Marielle Heller, the inspiration of the film, a cover story by Esquire in 1998, positions him as a subject instead. Headlined in the article Can You Say, Hero? Using a series of anecdotes, the journalist Tom Junod, the basis of the fictionalized Lloyd, conveys the fantastic goodness of Rogers: Rogers, the Presbyterian minister, prayed every day for people by name. He made connections with a young fan with cerebral palsy, with the famous gorilla Koko (also an enthusiastic amateur) everywhere he went. He helped a blind child who wanted to pray, and he loved to take pictures of everybody he met to show his mother, Joanne.
Like Lloyd does in the film, after the children’s TV host saw something different in him, Junod became close to Rogers.
“I was expecting some distance from it,” Junod tells TIME of his film-watching experience. “So I didn’t have any distance, as it turned out. I saw myself in character in the way Matthew [ Rhys ] played it.”
That is the story of how Junod’s life forever changed by Rogers, who died in 2003.
Junod earned a bit of an unsavory reputation before he was assigned to interview Rogers for an Esquire issue about American heroes. He coyly outed the actor in a cover story in October 1997 called “Kevin Spacey Has a Secret,” while Spacey at the time refused to confirm or refute any rumors about his sexuality. The article helped split the tailspin, and many Hollywood reporters declined to cooperate with the publishing.
“The thing about the Kevin Spacey story that hurt me wasn’t that we revealed Kevin was gay — it was that we revealed Kevin was gay for a reason not worth the disclosure,” says Junod. (Spacey came out as a gay in 2017, after actor Anthony Rapp accused him of raping him at the age of 14, in 1986. Spacey responded on Twitter, he was “horrified” by the accusations, but did not recall the meeting.)
It was at that juncture that editor at Esquire thought Junod could be the secret to redeeming himself, giving him a chance to meet Rogers, generally considered the most beautiful guy in the world. Junod says that after a period of writing good stories about darker subjects, he had “no idea how to write about person like Fred.” (He won the National Magazine Award for a 1995 article about a convicted sex offender seeking rehabilitation entitled “The Rapist Says He’s Sorry.”)
So Junod wasn’t sure how to proceed when he was first assigned this profile. The group of Rogers was also reluctant.
As the film depicts, the production company of Rogers was managed by Bill Isler (played by Enrico Colantoni), whom Junod refers to as the “majordomo” of Rogers. Isler had read the work of Junod and did not think the interview was a good fit. Isler ] protected Fred, he did not want this story to done by Fred, “says Junod. But ultimately, Rogers said he still wanted to work with the journalist.
“Why Fred made this decision, he never told me,” admits Junod. “Fred was going in mysterious ways.”
While he still doesn’t know if Rogers had read the Spacey post, Junod believes Rogers understood that after “losing confidence” in himself, he was going through a moment of change. “I think this is what Fred saw and decided to work on in his Unfailingway,” he says.
‘Goodness is mysterious and interesting to write about as badness.’
It was not easy for Junod to work with Mister Rogers. And Rogers wasn’t shy about switching interviewer and interviewee roles, asking questions, and trying to find out more about his new friend.
The reporter, however, did not know what to do with the television host. “For me, it was a complete mystery, how he could be who he was, how could stay who he was,” says Junod, “that it wasn’t a pose, it wasn’t an act.”
The mystery paved the way for a compelling story as Junod tried to understand how well Mister Rogers could be. As it turned out, he found the problem as fascinating as exploring what caused other subjects to be evil.
“I think it was a lesson that for the rest of my time as a journalist kept me in good stead,” Junod says.
When screenwriters Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue were doing script analysis, they found a file folder that Rogers had stored on everybody and everything he loved.
Junod’s got a directory. Among its contents was list of four principles of reporting to which Rogers hoped his friend would stick: that reporters are human beings; that when appropriate, they should point out injustice, point out beauty where possible, and celebrate the wonders of nature.
The author has no idea whether these are intended Junod himself as pieces of advice, observations, or notes Rogers may have taken. However, he says, “I think Fred was also interested in the process of [ journalism ].”