It’s not often that a reporter and the person they’re interviewing become friends, but some journalists get lucky. There's now an entire movie inspired by the real friendship between Tom Junod and Mr. Rogers, and it will make you laugh, it might make you cry, but more than anything, it will truly, sincerely, make you want to be kind.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood features Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers and Matthew Rhys as reporter Lloyd Vogel, a fictionalized version of Junod. There are some key differences between Vogel and Junod — the real reporter didn’t get into a fistfight with his father at his sister’s wedding, and he in fact idolized his father, he pointed out in an article for The Atlantic. But the core of the story, the story of the friendship between a reporter and a kind man who wanted to make television a better place, is very true.
“He was the first person I ever wrote about who became my friend, and our friendship endured until he died,” Junod wrote in The Atlantic piece. Junod was 40 when he met Fred Rogers, who was 70, in 1998. Rogers died in February 2003.
They spent a significant amount of time together, and it resulted in the Esquire article “Can You Say … ‘Hero’?,” which is now the basis for the film. Junod tells a story that doesn’t just give insight into Mr. Rogers’ life, but into his own, and really, it is a lovingly crafted piece that details the beginning of their friendship.
In those few years, the two continued to talk, often over email, and occasionally the phone. Mr. Rogers kept files on his friends, Junod revealed, and according to a New York Times article by Taffy Brodesser-Akner, the one on Junod included four pillars of journalism to follow. “1. Journalists are human beings not stenographers, human beings not automatons. 2. Point out injustice when you have to. 3. Point out beauty when you can. 4. Be aware of celebrating the wonders of creation.”
Junod last spoke to Mr. Rogers on Christmas in 2002, two months before Rogers died.
“The last thing Fred Rogers ever said to me was ‘How like you,’” Junod wrote in The Atlantic article, after explaining the story of how Mr. Rogers tried to remind Junod that he was a good person. “He gave so much to me, so much trust and friendship, without asking me to earn it. But still I wonder whether I have.”