How Mister Rogers changed Atlanta writer Tom Junod’s life

Portraying Mister Rogers, a jaunty Tom Hanks tosses a loafer in the air while changing shoes on the set of the eponymous children’s show. That’s the image featured in the ads and trailers for the upcoming holiday release, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But the movie is not a biopic about the beloved TV-show host. Fred Rogers isn’t even the central figure. It’s Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized character based on Atlanta writer Tom Junod.

The movie, which opens November 22, casts Rogers as an agent of change in the life of a cynical journalist played by Matthew Rhys, just as Rogers was a catalyst in the real life of Junod, who is now at ESPN The Magazine, with previous stints at Esquire, GQ, and Atlanta magazine.

Of all the aspirations a magazine writer might entertain, even the most ambitious could not anticipate that a story he wrote for Esquire in 1998 would be transformed into a big-budget movie 21 years later—and that he ostensibly would be the protagonist of the film.

Junod, who had just turned 40, was at a low point when an editor assigned him the story for a November issue celebrating heroes. The writer had developed a reputation as a men’s-magazine bad boy by penning controversial articles like his 1997 Esquire profile of Kevin Spacey that more or less outed the actor. “Vituperative” is how Junod describes the media backlash. Spacey, who was at the height of his career at the time, called for a Hollywood boycott of both the writer and the magazine, describing the story as “mean-spirited” and “homophobic.” It was not one of Junod’s proudest moments.

“That story had the reek of bad faith to it, to be quite honest with you,” Junod now admits, calling from the Toronto International Film Festival, where A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood premiered in September. “It came out at a time when I had achieved a lot of success out of nowhere and fairly quickly, and that was the thing that really put the brakes on my ascent for a while.”

Public reaction wasn’t the only thing that gave Junod pause. “I was really shaken up not just by the response to the story, but by myself and by the demands that journalism makes on you to occasionally set your humanity aside. I was really struggling with that. That’s where I was when I first met Fred.”

Prior to the assignment, Junod’s exposure to Rogers was like that of most men born in 1958.

“When he came onto the national stage, I was about 12, which—when you’re a 12-year-old boy, your whole life is about being tough. And here’s this extremely soft-spoken man calling upon you to be a child again, and that’s exactly what you don’t want to hear,” he said.

By the early ’80s, Rogers was being regularly lampooned on Saturday Night Live.

“That’s how I knew him—as a parodied figure. And I wasn’t entirely convinced that he was an American hero,” says Junod. “I had a lot to learn when I first met Fred.”

Junod was living in East Cobb, married and childless, when he got the assignment. In the cinematic version, Vogel lives in New York City with his wife and newborn son. Aside from a fictional subplot involving the writer’s father, the film’s narrative hews to the Esquire story. The protagonist attempts to interview Rogers on the set of the TV show in Pittsburgh and in his modest pied-a-terre in New York, but Rogers always manages to turn the interview around on Vogel. In the process, the reporter’s tarnished faith in people is restored. The transformation is more dramatic in the Hollywood version, naturally, but it was also profound in real life.

Junod, who stayed friends with Rogers until his death in 2003, credits their relationship with making him a better writer. He attributes the success of “The Falling Man”—an elegiac Esquire piece about 9/11 and arguably Junod’s best-known work—to Rogers. “That story was a product of my relationship with Fred because I was able to bring a sense of theological doubt and simultaneous wonder to my work that I wasn’t quite able to do before,” he said.

On a personal front, Junod says Rogers has made him and his wife, Janet, better parents to their 16-year-old daughter, Nia, whom they adopted in 2004. In fact, Rogers helped give them the courage to adopt in the first place.

“Many times my wife and I ask each other, ‘What would Fred Rogers do?’ And I’m not kidding,” Junod said. “I’m at my best as a father when I try to think what Fred Rogers would do, and I’m probably at my worst when I think what my own father would do.”

He looks back at 2015, when his article was optioned for the big screen, with nostalgia, referring to it as the “age of relative innocence.”

“I certainly did not know that Donald Trump would be elected in 2016 and that, all of a sudden, the example of Fred would come to matter so much more,” he said. “Fred was a guy who was very specific about his vision. He wanted to make a sacred space out of what he regarded as a rich but toxic medium, which is television. And now there are mediums that are nothing but toxic. I think all the time, what would Fred do about Twitter?

Junod, who consulted on the film, believes that renewed interest in Rogers, evident by the recent spate of books and movies about him, is no coincidence.

“It wasn’t just a profile that was dusted off,” he said about his article’s second life. “This idea was revived, the idea of Fred, and that has been one of the great rewards of participating on this movie.”

By Suzanne Van Atten

Published in Atlanta magazine, November 2019

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