Enrico Colantoni is one of Canada’s busiest actors, having appeared in a lion’s share of roles both in Canada and the US – acting in 89 productions with numerous directing and writing credits as well. Colantoni joined a very special film A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, a feature film about Fred Rogers, TV’s children’s host Mr. Rogers, played by an eerily Rogers-like Tom Hanks. Colantoni plays his handler, Bill Isler, who helped keep Mr. Rogers feet on the ground. We talked about the real-life characters, the beauty of Mr. Rogers’ message to children, and the emotional impact stepping into Fred’s world had on Colantoni. He also reminded me Canada had its own children’s TV hosts who led with kindness. Read the whole thing and try not to cry with joy.
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Enrico – This film is very special because I was supposed to be in Vancouver to direct another episode of iZombie. I was like, “The film isn’t paying me that much. It’s not that big a role. I’m going to be in Pittsburgh for a month and a half. I wouldn’t get to direct. They’re paying me a lot of money.” It’s like, “I’m going to go to Pittsburgh and just hang out in the hotel room and watch Tom Hanks be Mister Rogers.”
Anne – Sweet.
Enrico – And it turned out to be the most magnificent experience because the greatest part of this film, not only the message and being associated with the message and what it’s reminding the world of. I got to meet the real person I got to play. And I played Elia Kazan, I — you know, René Angélil, you know, it’s like — I never got to meet them. But with Bill, we became friends, we hung out. He was so important to Fred.
Anne – Yeah. Whatever else he was to Fred Rogers; he was his protector.
Enrico – He was the gateway, he was the protector, he was that handshake guy who just kept him moving and kept — he jokingly referred to him as the franchise, “Well, you’re the franchise, Fred, you know. Whatever you say, Fred. You’re the franchise.” He would always rib him and they had such a beautiful relationship. And to get to meet Joanne who is just like, “Could you stop smiling, please? Could you really just stop being so happy to see me?” You know what I mean? And you just see them, it’s just like — and they were all like that. All of Pittsburgh was imbued with that spirit.
Anne – Wow.
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Enrico – Bill grew up in that town over there next to Fred who grew up in that town over there, and they still see each other, and they still hang out, and it’s like, it’s still that community. Everybody you meet is just like, “Yeah, I just grew up over there.” They didn’t leave. They’ve had to reinvent themselves at the same time. The steel mill closed down.
Anne – Having seen the documentary and a few episodes and your film, Rogers seems like a walking saint, like an angel, just so different from everybody. What did Bill tell you that you surprised you?
Enrico – Well, I think it was common knowledge that he didn’t like to be referred to as a saint or as a hero.
Anne – Yes.
Enrico – I think the relationship sort of dictated everything. The fact that Bill had to take care of him, the implication is that Fred was unconcerned, not concerned with the other things. How to get to point A to point B. Fred really would have been lost talking to somebody for three hours, just get lost in their story and being involved in their story, and the disappointment having to disconnect from them just to do something else and then find themselves in that world. It was like he was just — the innocence of the man was still there.
What’s beautiful about the documentary is that they pointed out that he took the time away from the show to finish his ministry to become a Presbyterian minister, but he never talked about God in a ministry kind of way. He was walking the walk and he was talking the talk. And I love that about the film. Like, no, he wasn’t born that way. He’s really just choosing to not live in that, but the choice of, “I want to rise above all this. I was made fun of as a kid. I didn’t have the happiest childhood, but the choice to just — I’m going to be that.”
Anne – Yes, he was tired of seeing children being spoken down to and treated cavalierly on television with pies in faces and whatnot, awakened his —
Enrico – Remember that in the documentary, he says “What are we teaching these kids?“ ”What are we really teaching them?” And you know what we do have in Canada, we do have Mr. Dressup.
Anne – And we had The Friendly Giant.
Enrico – We had The Friendly Giant.
Enrico – So when somebody reminds me of Mister Rogers, I go, “That was on PBS. That was on Channel 17 or something,” so they don’t really watch that.
But it was Mr. Dressup that touched me. Do you know their history?
Anne – No.
Enrico – They came up together from Pittsburgh.
Anne – Excuse me?
Enrico – Ernie Coombs was an American from Pittsburgh and they drove up together. In the early days, the CBC aired, I don’t know — I’m making this up just for story’s sake, but maybe a season of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. A little unknown fact.
Anne – Wow.
Enrico – Ernie Coombs stayed, developed Mr. Dressup. Fred went back to Pittsburgh and continued that legacy. So, I wondered why Canadians were less affected by Mister Rogers. It’s because we had our own version. We grew up with –
Anne – But there were other shows too, there was a kindness to them.
Enrico – Yeah. Romper Room.
Anne – So this is great and I’m just glad that Fred Rogers is being revived for more kids to know.
Enrico – Yes. And you know what, the story isn’t sappy.
Anne – It’s about his bravery too, having been bullied and having chosen this path. And according to the documentary, some of the stage guys and the producers are a pretty hardy bunch. And he’s remained who he was, but didn’t rebuff their dirty jokes or whatnot.
Enrico – Some of the stories I heard is that he got pretty filthy too sometimes. He would come up with a couple of songs, not overly filthy, but just — and it won’t be enough for Fred Rogers if you can imagine it. But he was very human. He was very human. But you know, when we’re talking about the film and what a simple — how difficult it is to embrace such a simple message and how much we yearn for that, but how frightened we are of it at the same time.
Anne – Yes.
Enrico – We want to be loved, but we’re petrified to ask for it. Or we don’t know how to ask for it, we don’t know how to be responsible for saying, “See me.” And so we’re waiting for somebody like Fred Rogers to lead the way, and I think that’s irresponsible. We can’t keep blaming the situation of the world, you know, any one place. Because how many of us — like, you know, here’s the thing. When I read the script, because I was brought up Catholic, I remember the message of it thinking if Jesus Christ knocked on my door today, I would tell him to **** off — ’cause I wouldn’t believe it.
I wouldn’t believe that somebody would be so — I couldn’t believe that somebody would be that sincere and that jaded. And so I gave Fred Rogers that same disrespect. But it was this film to remind me that, it’s like, okay, you know, we’re only as willing and as available to receive that message as we really are ready to receive it. We can say, you know, the world sucks right now, but —
Anne – However, in the film, with the reporter from Esquire — he — I don’t want to use the word “deduced,” but it happens. The scales fall from his eyes and he sees this reality that Fred Rogers is putting forward.
Enrico – Lloyd is everybody, right? Lloyd is everybody, who’s just, I’ve got walls, what is it going to take for me to forgive myself? What is it going to take for me to forgive the people in my life? What is it going to take for me to just remember what’s important? It’s like we all have experienced that moment where all we want to say to the people that we love is just like — “You’re important to me.” “You’re what I want.” ‘Cause my whole heart is saying “You’re what I want” It’s like, oh my God. How hard it is.
And we forget about Mister Rogers and then we go, “Why isn’t he here?” It’s like, “What do you mean?” He was here. Beauty is still present. All Fred Rogers did was recognize beauty in the world. That’s it. That’s all he did, he recognized the beauty that exists, and he saw it. It doesn’t not exist. It’s not a made-up thing.
A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood opens November 22.
Interview by @annebrodie
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