‘Did Fred really talk that slowly?’ Tom Hanks once asked Mister Rogers’ wife
One of the first questions actor Tom Hanks asked Joanne Rogers was “Did Fred really talk that slowly?”
“And I told him, ‘Yes, yes he did,’” Joanne Rogers said while discussing her late husband Wednesday. “And he said, ‘Even at home?’ and I said, ‘Yes.’”
Mrs. Rogers recalled the conversation with Hanks during a conversation about the book “The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers” by Maxwell King. The discussion took place at Duquesne University’s Power Center Ballroom.
Tom Hanks is portraying her Fred Rogers in the upcoming film “You Are My Friend” being shot in Pittsburgh. Joanne Rogers said Hanks looks a lot like her late husband, especially with the “wig and eyebrows,” she said.
She believes he is perfect for the role.
About 175 guests attended the event. Joanne Rogers and Maxwell King fielded questions along with Joe Negri, who spent 30 years as Handyman Negri on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and David Newell, who played the beloved Mr. McFeely for more than 30 years.
King, who is also president and CEO of The Pittsburgh Foundation, held a book signing afterward.
A New York Times best-seller, the newly released book uses original interviews and archival documents to trace Fred Rogers’ personal, professional and artistic lives. King includes childhood stories, Rogers’ relationship with his family and his close collaboration with leading childhood development experts to provide the definitive portrait of a cherished figure and enduring American icon.
“Fred Rogers was a brilliant story teller,” King said. “He saw the potential of television as an educational tool. He was an example of strong human values, which he lived every day of his life. He set the example.”
“Fred Rogers was enormously influential in television history and in the lives of millions of children,” said Duquesne University President Ken Gormley, who moderated the event. “Max King’s remarkable book captures Fred Rogers’ compassion, kindness and commitment to children and the world.”
Rogers is one of America’s most treasured heroes, Gormley said. His soothing words have given children ways to navigate difficult times, especially like the one Pittsburgh has been enduring since the shooting.
The program began with a video clip of the late Fred Rogers changing out of his red sweater and sneakers and walking through a door of the studio being surprised for his birthday on the show. He was about to make a wish before blowing out a candle when he shared what he was thinking.
“My wish is no secret,” he said on the video. “My wish is that each of you knows how special you are to me.”
If he were alive, he most definitely would have done something after the Tree of Life Congregation mass shooting, Newell said. He recalled Rogers putting together a program overnight addressing the meaning of assassination after Bobby Kennedy was killed.
“He canceled our regular programming and addressed the concept of what happened,” Newell said. “He wrote a pamphlet about how to talk to children about tragedy in news and did a show on violence in the news and addressed the issue of tragedy after Pope John Paul and President Ronald Reagan were shot in 1981.
Fred Rogers talked to children about how to deal with life when you are feeling mad or angry. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he conducted a series of public service announcements, which is where the saying “look for the helpers,” came from.
Newell said if he is feeling down, he goes to YouTube to watch some of the shows and messages from Mister Rogers.
“I believe Fred Rogers’ spirit is taking effect in our world today because with all of the hatred and racism, we need the teachings of Fred Rogers in our life,” said Negri, who performed the song “It’s a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.” I am proud to have worked with him and to be in this book. The show definitely had a Pittsburgh vibe to it. Fred told me one day it was being shown in the Philippines and I was like ‘wow, our Pittsburgh show is everywhere.’”
Craig Zosack, a Duquesne University graduate who lives in Greensburg, waited in line for a signed copy of the book. He said Rogers was his idol. Since he was a child, he wanted to be Mister Rogers when he grew up.
“He was a most authentic neighbor,” Zosack said. “If he were here today, he would know what to say to help us heal from the tragedy at Tree of Life. I think about him every day. We need more caring people like Mister Rogers.”
JoAnne Harrop is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact JoAnne at 724-853-5062 or [email protected] or via Twitter @Jharrop_Trib.