Christian Toto, Columnists, Exclusives, Featured, National

Toto: Could Mr. Rogers exist today?

Few pop culture figures are as hot right now as Fred Rogers.

The host of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” who passed in 2003 at the age of 74, became an unlikely documentary star last year. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” honored his legacy of kindness, snaring near universal raves along the way.

It also made serious box office bank. The film earned $22.8 million, a massive sum for a documentary not associated with Michael Moore.

Rogers is about to get another cinematic close up courtesy of two-time Oscar winner Tom Hanks. “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” scheduled for a Nov. 22 release, casts Hanks as Rogers. The film, inspired by real events, follows a depressed journalist (Matthew Rhys of “The Americans” fame) who strikes up an unusual bond with Rogers.

Fred Rogers

The film, thanks to Hanks’ presence and early critical acclaim, is gaining Oscar buzz. Part of that enthusiasm can be pinned on Rogers’ gentle persona, a tonic for our divided times. Americans are going to cyber-war with their fellow citizens daily on social media. We’ve grown cynical and coarse, two adjectives you’d never hear attached to Rogers.

He’s the kind of warm-hearted soul we need now … more than ever. And that’s where the recent Rogers love comes with a big, ol’ caveat.

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” first hit small screens in 1968. Back then, children’s TV content showcased a much slower storytelling pace. Rogers’ gentlemanly poise and delicate line readings proved perfectly agreeable to viewers young and old.

Today’s kids are weaned on fast-paced cartoons, TikTok videos and Pixar movies with near-nonstop gags. It’s hard to imagine they’d sit still while Mr. Rogers ladled out his glacially paced homilies on childhood.

His spell could capture some children, no doubt. It would be a tougher sale.

There’s something else that’s changed today, and it’s where Rogers would struggle the most had he come of age in 2019.

Imagine a children’s show where a straight white male, a Presbyterian minister no less, told children and their parents how to best lead their lives. This character served up old-school advice about loving one another and processing difficult moments, like the death of a loved one.

His skin color alone might cause outrage among the usual suspects. His faith may similarly be targeted. Presbyterians are far more open, and inclusive, than other Christian belief systems. The modern Presbyterian church supports gay marriage. What if Rogers had different views 10 years ago? Twenty years ago?

The woke mob perpetually hounds Chik-Fil-A restaurants because they disagree with the founder’s Biblical beliefs. In today’s climate, anything is possible.

“Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” famously tackled racism, nuclear war and divorce. You could imagine him exploring gay rights in modern times. But what about trans rights? Drag queens? Islamophobia?

Social pressure would mount until his show’s producers delivered storylines tied to those specific themes. Heaven help Team Mr. Rogers if they made a misstep, real or imagined, in the eyes of select critics.

And what about the show’s mostly white cast members? Where’s the diversity? Did it matter that “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” gently tackled racism at a time when few shows proved so bold, so progressive?

The simple act of Rogers bathing his feet alongside his black co-star proved revolutionary. Would those ground-breaking precedents protect him against race-based critics?

What happens when viewers learn Rogers is a lifelong Republican? That alone could sink his show, or at least spark a hashtag campaign. Remember the grief Ellen DeGeneres received recently when she shared a few public laughs with, gasp, former President George W. Bush?

Joanne Rogers, the TV star’s widow, has said her late husband did his best to avoid politics. That wouldn’t wash today, of course. Consider how the press badgered Taylor Swift, bullying her to take a political stand after years of nonpartisan … singing. Swift finally relented, vowing to use her celebrity bully pulpit to back Democrats.

Rogers couldn’t stay neutral without a similar dustup.

We’ll always have Rogers’ legacy, from his show’s reruns to the memories several generations cherish of watching him don that red sweater with their loved ones on PBS. Now, we have not one but two films dedicated to his gentle, affirming spirit. They offer a balm for our discomforting times, a symbol of openness, decency and even prayer.

Let’s hope all of the above keeps the social justice crowd away from Rogers … indefinitely.

Christian Toto is the editor of the Colorado-based HollywoodInToto.com.

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