Tom Hanks initially passed on playing Mister Rogers in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood'

Kevin Polowy
Senior Correspondent, Yahoo Entertainment

It took lots of not-so beautiful days to bring Mister Rogers to the screen... more than a decades’ worth in fact.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, the new drama starring American treasure Tom Hanks as late American treasure Fred Rogers, has arrived in theaters with critical raves, big box-office hopes and major Oscar buzz dating back to its September premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival.

For screenwriters and executive producers Micah Fitzerman-Blue and Noah Harpster, though, their arduous journey with the film dates back 13 years.

As the writers told Yahoo Entertainment in a new interview (watch highlights above), the film was originally titled I'm Proud of You, based on the 2006 book by Tim Madigan about his relationship with the beloved children's host known as Mister Rogers. It wasn't until, after a year-and-a-half of earning the trust of the late icon's widow Joanne Rogers and former Fred Rogers Company exec Bill Isler ("It was long, and it was hard, and it was the piece of this project that took the longest," Fitzerman-Blue described), they discovered a cache of correspondence between Rogers and Tom Junod, a New York journalist who had profiled the host for Esquire Magazine.

"Once we read those letters in the archive between Tom Junod and Fred Rogers, hundreds of letters that they had written back and forth, that for us was a moment, like, 'Oh, this is the story,'" Harpster explained.

Their resulting script was heralded, earning top-tier placement on the 2013 Black List, an online catalog of the best unproduced screenplays. But it still languished several more years in development hell, until director Marielle Heller (Diary of a Teenage Girl, Can You Ever Forgive Me?) came aboard.

The resulting film looks at the wondrous persona of Rogers through the deeply cynical eyes of Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys, essentially playing Junod), a bitter magazine writer who resents being assigned "a puff piece" on the benign Pittsburgh entertainer.

Tom Hanks in 'A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood' (Sony)

While Hanks disappears underneath the skin of Rogers for one of his best performances in years, it was a challenge casting the iconic actor.

"From our very first conversations, we were like, 'Do we even want to embark on this? Because who could play this role? Who could pull this off?,'" Harpster recalled. "And it was like, 'Tom Hanks. Tom Hanks could pull this off.' We can dream, can't we?

"And we had sent him the script years and years ago, and he had passed."

It wasn't until Heller, who knew Tom's son Colin Hanks, entered the project that the dream became a reality.

"When Marielle came on, she asked us, 'Who have you always wanted to play Fred Rogers?' And we were like, 'Well, Tom Hanks, but let's get real. And she kind of cut us off and was like, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa. Lemme ask him. Give me a shot.' She called Tom Hanks, as one does, and he said yes and then Micah and I lost our minds."

While conflict is essential for any film's story and Rogers led a life and career largely devoid of controversy, the writers instead looked to capture his inner turmoil. "There's a mystery about Fred Rogers at the center of this film," Fitzerman-Blue said. "Which is, where did all of this hurt and suffering that he would absorb from other people go? How did he deal with it? And we know from Joanne and from Bill, the people from the estate, that he had ways of dealing with it. He swam every day, he would bang on the keys of the piano, he would pray.

"But we realized that there was something about him in this sort of emotional Kudo that he was playing that makes him a little difficult to fully understand. There was a mystery to him, and we don't think that we ever got to fully crack it. But we wanted to leave a lot of clues.”

Joanne Rogers told the writers she was adamant that her late husband not be portrayed as a "saint," which is one word fans and admirers have long used to describe Fred Rogers, especially in the wake of the hit 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?, which not only captured his rare aura of benevolence but also portrayed him as a quiet civil rights pioneer.

But how would audiences in 2019 respond to Mister Rogers?

"Right before he died … he said that he wouldn't be allowed to do what he does now. He wouldn't be accepted, there would not be a place for him on television," Harpster said. "And I think he was sad about that.

"And I think we desperately we need him right now."

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is now playing. Watch our full interview:

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