Nostalgia Gives Birth to a Biopic that Demands a Celestial Talent to Honor his Halo-like Memory
After last year’s Oscar nominated documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” stirred up nostalgia for the retro children’s show “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” and its wholesome host Fred Rogers, it was only a matter of time before we saw the loveable man portrayed in a feature.
In January 2018, Sony’s Tristar Pictures bought the rights to a screenplay titled “Are You My Friend.” Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster wrote the script over six years ago and it earned a place on the 2013 blacklist. Centered on Fred Rogers, the story focuses on his relationship with a skeptical Esquire reporter who finds a transformed outlook on life when he sits down to interview the endearing kids show host.
The project was retitled “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” and from the earliest stages of development, one question was on everyone’s mind: who could portray the renowned Mr. Rogers on the screen? Being a legendary figure for an entire generation’s childhood and holding an unparalleled demeanor of authenticity, gentility, and kindness, not just anyone could fit Mr. Rogers’ white-laced, sky-blue sneakers.
Therefore, one of TriStar’s first decisions in pre-production was to cast somebody who could accurately and effectively capture Mr. Rogers’ quasi-celestial star power. The studio also also needed to find somebody who could portray Rogers in his middle ages, as the film takes place in the mid-nineties, towards the end of his career.
Rather than go for an unknown to play the lead, Sony aimed high and casted the incomparable Tom Hanks, turning the project into an image of an icon playing an icon.
Make no mistake, Tom Hanks has more than enough talent to play Mr. Rogers. With two Oscar wins and three additional nominations under his belt, the sixty-three year old actor seems up to snuff for any role thrown his way. Over the years he’s been in everything from comedies to dramas to action flicks to musicals. He’s played diverse fictional characters from the dim-witted Forrest Gump to a literal man-child in “Big,” and has portrayed several real figures such as Captain Richard Phillips, Pilot Chesley “Sully” Sullenberger, Ben Bradlee, Walt Disney and more—not to mention his unmistakable voice-acting as Woody in the “Toy Story” franchise.
Icon portrays Icon—The Dilemma of Tom Hanks as Mr. Rogers
Indeed, nothing seems beyond Tom Hank’s abilities, and his talent is appreciated widely enough that his mere presence on screen is likely to draw an audience. That being said, it is possible that when it comes to playing Fred Rogers, Hanks’ strength may actually be his weakness, and his recognizability may paradoxically end up detrimental to the performance.
As aforementioned, Mr. Rogers is an icon. There can only be one of him. No matter who plays him, audiences will naturally notice inconsistencies between the actor’s portrayal of the man and the man himself. If an unknown actor played Rogers, however, then at least there would be a blank canvas on which the film could project their depiction of him.
With Tom Hanks being an icon as well, audiences will inevitably see him within the character. No matter how well he portrays Rogers, Tom Hanks will always be Tom Hanks to the audience. Thus, viewers may struggle to overlook the actor when aiming to appreciate the character.
This is already somewhat evidenced in the film’s trailer. While Hanks seems to be doing a good job playing the lead character, there is one noticeably uncanny element—his voice. Both Hanks and Rogers have recognizable voices, but they are very different in tone. When Hanks tries to impersonate Rogers’ light, gentle voice, we cannot help but hear traces of the actor’s signature deep drawl underneath. This is just one manifestation of the dilemma that comes with Hanks as Rogers.
None of this is to say that Tom Hanks will not be able to pull the role off. Stranger casting choices have surprised us in the past, and “A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood” already received positive acclaim following its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival. We are just noting that despite the star power that Hanks brings to the project, there is a cost to that star power in a role like this. The actor will have to deliver something truly above and beyond to convince us that he is the real Fred Rogers and not just Tom Hanks sporting a red-sweater, white shirt, tie, and khakis, singing along in the Land of Make-Believe.
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