What does the new Mister Rogers movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” tell us about Atlanta writer Tom Junod?
Does it tell us that he’s a pretty messed-up guy?
That he can write a heck of a profile of Fred Rogers for Esquire magazine, but he might also punch his father in the nose at his sister’s wedding?
Well, not exactly.
There’s a real Tom Junod, 61, of Marietta, whose 1998 profile of Rogers became the basis for the Tom Hanks movie that had audiences weeping and cheering at a preview last week.
Then there’s a character in the movie, a magazine writer (with the unlikely alias “Lloyd Vogel”), a surly cynic who chafes at his latest assignment to interview the children’s television star. “You want me to go easy on this guy because he plays with puppets?” he asks his editor.
Vogel’s wife finds out about the assignment and is alarmed. She’s afraid her husband is going to hand in the kind of hit job he’s famous for. “Oh God, Lloyd,” she says. “Please don’t ruin my childhood.”
When Junod, a senior writer at ESPN, first read the script for the movie, his heart sank. The writers, Noah Harpster and Micah Fitzerman-Blue, had made him into a jerk. (Junod used an earthier term.) “We want you to read it with an open mind,” they told him. “The relationship between you and Fred is accurately portrayed, and everything else is made up.”
Junod reflected on his strange fate during a recent sunny afternoon while sipping a Blue Moon at a Roswell tavern. On the television behind the bar, the Falcons were scoring an improbable victory against the Saints. Taller than his on-screen doppelgänger (played by Welsh actor Matthew Rhys), Junod has a healthy shock of graying hair and the cadence of a natural story-teller.
Now he’s in the story, a story about a young man bitterly angry with a philandering father who leaves his dying mother. That, of course, didn’t happen. “My dad, for all his scoundrelish ways, stayed with my mother until he died,” said Junod, “and my mom, to her immense relief and satisfaction, outlasted him.”
Junod has written extensively about his father, Lou, a faithless husband, a handbag salesman, a sharp dresser, a lounge singer, a self-mythologizing figure, and is currently working on a book about him. But despite Lou’s faults, “I idolized him,” said Junod. “I wanted to be him.”
His father, Lou Junod, was cool. At the opposite end of the spectrum of cool was Fred Rogers — quiet, earnest, faithful, a man with a divinity degree and a cardigan sweater. Someone who offered a very different version of what it meant to be a man.
For some reason, Rogers befriended Tom when the writer arrived for the Esquire interview. He invited Junod to his hometown, they exchanged letters and continued to communicate until Rogers’ death in 2003.
When the screenwriters were going through the Fred Rogers correspondence at the Mister Rogers archive in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, they found a box with several hundred letters and emails between Rogers and Junod. “It’s far deeper than an interviewer and his subject,” said Fitzerman-Blue. “Fred Rogers was an ordained Presbyterian minister and this was ministry happening. It emanated from his confrontationally kind demeanor. We said to ourselves ‘This is the movie; this is the story.’”
In the movie, through the alchemy of Fred Rogers, Vogel is transformed. He learns how to forgive his father, and become a better father himself.
How was Junod transformed? Did he need ministering? He recently wrote about his relationship with Rogers in the Atlantic magazine. Their first encounter occurred after Junod had just written a catty Esquire cover story on Kevin Spacey. “I did an elaborate rhetorical dance around the sexuality of Kevin Spacey, a story of coy ill will that fooled no one,” he wrote. “I was 40 when I first met (Rogers), unsure that the work for which I was celebrated had not come at the cost of my humanity.”
Janet, Junod’s wife of 35 years, said perhaps Junod learned from the encounter: “I can still be a writer and be a journalist and — in Tom’s word — not be an (expletive) about it.”
In the end, Junod chose Fred’s example, not Lou’s. “Fred cured me of wanting to be my dad.”
The film that dramatizes this friendship had humble beginnings, starting out as a charming independent production (with puppets). Then two things happened. First, Fred Rogers became, posthumously, a kind of secular saint, a reminder of the world that we’ve discarded in this era of casual online hatred and cruelty. And, second, Tom Hanks became attached to the movie. That was the Saturn V booster that lifted the project far beyond the reach of gravity, and into the TriStar/Sony orbit.
Thus, Tom Junod finds himself inside a scenario worthy of Philip K. Dick. He’s a character in a story that he himself has written, an ogre who looks nothing like him but turns out to be him. He insisted the character have a different name than Tom Junod, but a Tom Junod essence remained.
“When I saw the movie, it hit me hard, not because it was different from my life, but because there was so much of me out there,” said Junod, as Matt Ryan throws an interception.
He felt immense relief, he said, relief that it was such a good movie, though it was contrary to the Hollywood mold: “It’s a movie about forgiveness and feelings,” said Junod. “Nobody gets blown up, nobody gets shot, and there’s puppets in it.”
And, he said, “My second reaction was, ‘Oh my god. I thought it was going to be Lloyd Vogel, and it was me.’ And that’s an intense thing. And once you get to that, ‘Oh that’s me,’ then you get to the ‘Who’s me? Why did Fred take an interest in me? What did he see? Am I broken?’ It was a powerful experience, unlike anything I’ve ever gone through.”
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