With the recent announcement of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood", an impending biopic on Fred Rogers, the Internet lit up with suggestions of what actor might play him in the film. It would be dangerously easy to underestimate this casting challenge, given how often and effortlessly entertainers have done a send-up on Fred's easily recognized mannerisms. During the early years of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood when I was president of Fred's production company, we enjoyed amassing a reel of comedians' parodies -- none better than Eddie Murphy's classic "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood." So one might think (as most of the Internet chatter thus far has assumed) that it's mostly a question of physiognomy -- who most resembles his facial and bodily characteristics.
But that, alas, is the worst possible criterion to apply in this case.
Fred Rogers was all about what is on the inside. And whoever attempts to depict him on the screen will have to be, first and foremost, a person who already, genuinely, shares Fred's understanding and convictions about people's inner life, including of course that of the small persons for whom he created Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. I say that as one of only two or three people other than Fred who have ever written a script for Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, a daunting task that called for understanding Fred nearly as well as Fred understood the preschool child.
Yes, I know there are actors out there so supremely skilled at their craft that they can prompt most of us to willingly suspend our disbelief for hours at a stretch. While some can never suppress their everyday identity no matter what role they play (think Tom Cruise), others like Daniel Day Lewis can lose themselves enough to "become" Lincoln. The best of them can even triumph at that challenge described by French novelist Jean Giraudoux (The Madwoman of Chaillot): "The secret of success is sincerity. Once you can fake that, you've got it made."
But good luck on faking Fred Rogers' sincerity. He was, to an almost inconceivable degree, his own man. His early years as the carefully protected child of wealthy parents provided ample range for his imagination to soar, and for his generous feelings to loom large -- qualities that remained robust for a lifetime. After college, his witnessing the witless mayhem that passed for children's TV programming both appalled and inspired him. Surely, he thought, we can do better than this to honor young children's inner life and spirit. Blessed with financial independence to pursue this mission, he entered the TV industry and set about redeeming some small part of a child's TV-watching time. In due course, he created Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, and the rest is history.
But what an ironic travesty it would be if that history were subjected to a depiction that came from a look-alike and a script, rather than from the heart. This is not an idle comment. That travesty has been committed before. Back in the 1970s, Burger King decided to create commercials aimed at children using an actor impersonating "Mister Rogers." Was he good? Did it work? Let me tell you how good he was and how well it worked: When I first saw the commercial while at home one late afternoon, I thought it was Fred.
Now mind you, Fred and I were colleagues and dear friends. I was president of his company. In the early days, I wrote scripts alongside him. During those years I spent huge amounts of time with him, delving deep into our work and scripts and purpose. I knew the man intimately.
And still I thought that Burger King's impersonator was Fred. Of course, I knew that Fred would never, ever, under any circumstances have agreed to create a commercial for children. And to make the notion even more ludicrous, consider that the product was hamburgers, and Fred was an unwavering vegetarian. But I was dead certain it was Fred I was seeing in that commercial.
So my mind began spinning, trying to figure out what was going on. I immediately imagined that Burger King's ad agency, J. Walter Thompson, had cleverly cut and pasted snippets of footage lifted from Mister Rogers' Neighborhood tapes and fashioned them into a 30-second commercial. But that explanation didn't satisfy: I had worked as a consultant for J. Walter Thompson and knew that both their inherent integrity and their legal department would forbid such a violation of rights and permissions. (In the weirdest coincidence of all, one of my consulting engagements with them was helping to design their strategy and pitch to win the Burger King account several years before.)
I was still mulling the mystery of "Mister Rogers" appearing to con kiddies into eating Whoppers when my phone rang. It was Fred. He, too, had just seen the commercial. "What do you think I should do?" he asked.
From my own conversations with the recently appointed CEO of Burger King, I knew that he had young children of his own and was deeply committed to his role as their father. "Call him up and talk to him," I suggested, and gave Fred his phone number. Fred called him. He never mentioned the commercials. Instead, he just engaged him in a father-to-father conversation about how precious it is for one's children to have a true understanding about the nature and value of their parents' work, and how unfortunate it would be if those children were led to believe that their parent's work was exploitative or dishonest.
Moments after that conversation concluded, the phone rang at J. Walter Thompson. The essence of the message from the CEO of Burger King was simple: "Destroy those tapes and never run them again."
Now, this story of my being taken in by a skilled imposter might suggest that many a fine actor could convincingly depict Fred in this new biopic. But a flash appearance in a 30-second commercial is an easy ruse to pull off. Not so, a sustained exposure in a 90-120 minute feature film. And so I hope the producers of "A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood" will take a hint from another commercial that ran back in the '70s when United Airlines' slogan was "Fly the friendly skies of United." In one of their commercials, they said (in effect), "We don't hire flight attendants and then teach them to be friendly. We hire friendly people and teach them to be flight attendants."
While I yield to no one in my admiration for the sui generis character of Fred Rogers, I also believe that there are other people out there whose inherent qualities would enable them to depict "Mister Rogers" in a way that would be less an impersonation and more a reflection of who he was.
My own candidate is an unheralded man named Danny LaBrecque, an avid student of Fred Rogers' work whose own career includes stints as a preschool teacher, creator of early childhood experiences at The Field Museum of Natural History, and concept-developer of what I might describe as next-generation interactive media for young children and (very importantly) their parents and caregivers. His homemade TV program "Danny Joe's Tree House" (on YouTube) is not ready for prime time, but he himself certainly could be, with the proper coaching. LaBrecque displays the depth of caring and commitment that was the hallmark of Fred Rogers' life, has a natural manner that is consistent with Fred's, and (just a happy coincidence) he also bears a passable resemblance to Fred.
Over time we have seen rookie actors nominated for Oscars, and films featuring unknown and inexperienced talent have recently lit up the screen and our emotions. It's always a gamble, but then nothing about Fred Rogers ever was predictable. In the hands of a gifted director, and embedded in a script worthy of the subject, Danny LaBrecque might well kindle in the film's audience a quiet and moving memory of why Fred Rogers became perhaps the most beloved person in our country.
At the very least, he wouldn't carry the added burden of faking sincerity.