The Men Behind Mr. McFeely on A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood [Exclusive]


There has been a massive resurgence in the past couple of years when it comes to people’s love and appreciation for Fred Rogers, the man behind Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. This is in large part thanks to the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? and last year’s oscar-nominated biopic, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But Rogers didn’t build his legacy alone. One of the most important supporting players in that legacy is David Newell, the man who played Mr. McFeely, Rogers’ iconic speedy delivery man.

It would have been nearly impossible to imagine a version of director Marielle Heller’s A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood without Mr. McFeely. Heller’s movie, which focuses on Fred Rogers’ relationship with journalist Lloyd Vogel (Matthew Rhys) in his later years, mirrors an episode of the TV show, but one aimed at adults. Much like Tom Hanks was tasked with bringing Fred Rogers to live on the big screen, someone had to take on the role of Mr. McFeely, and that man was Danel Krell.

I recently had the opportunity to speak with both David Newell and Daniel Krell in honor of the Blu-ray/DVD release of A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. Newell, at the ripe young age of 81, speaks with palpable energy and childlike excitement. He has deep passion and affection for his friend Fred Rogers and his work as Mr. McFeely. Newell also was quite kind in speaking about Krell’s portrayal. The affection goes both ways and the two fed off of one another’s energy in a delightful way.

David, I guess the obvious question here to start with is, how did Daniel do?

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David Newell: A lot of people said, when the knock came on the door and Daniel showed up in the movie, “We thought it was you.” Because of the costume, and Daniel has my frantic pace, and I think he did fine! Did you enjoy it, Daniel?

Daniel Krell: Oh, very much. Very much, yeah. The frantic pace was the character. That speedy delivery.

David Newell: Did you do it in one take? How many takes did you do?

Daniel Krell: We did several. We broke it down into pieces.

David Newell: I had people thinking it was me because the costume, it was made by the same person. They got the material from the same person. It was authentic!

That’s incredible. So, Daniel, there’s a line in the movie where the reporter’s wife says, “Don’t ruin my childhood.” Daniel, What pressure came with playing an iconic figure from so many people’s childhood?

Daniel Krell: It’s that funny mix of the pressure and the intimidation of it, but also just the honor, the joy to be able to get the opportunity to do it. So it’s equal parts of those two things. But it’s nice, because I have so many fond memories of that show from my own childhood. So I was able to bring that to it. I think that was the main crux of it.

Did you two meet at all before filming to discuss this?

David Newell: We didn’t meet necessarily to discuss it. I knew the day they were gonna film that, and I purposely came out to watch. I was out in the hallway, not actually in the studio when they were filming, but Daniel and I had our pictures taken together before we started. And yes, I came out specifically for that, and to watch the rest of the taping. In fact, I don’t know if you know that the studio where they made the film is the studio that we taped Mister Rogers in for all those over 35 years. So it was the same. Same place, same environment.

David, how surreal was that for you, then? Being there, in the place you were so familiar with, but seeing them document this in a narrative way?

David Newell: It was surreal because when I saw Daniel Krell get into his costume on his day to film, I was sort of standing back looking at myself, remembering the 35 years that I came through that door. It was a funny feeling. Then when I walked into the set, they recreated the set entirely. They didn’t use our existing set. They re-created it, and it was almost like time warp. It was almost down to the same pictures on the wall that they somehow managed to recreate. It was very surreal. It almost seemed like Back to the Future, that feeling I had. I spent a career in that studio doing that same entrance. It was surreal, again, but it also was delightful to see the neighborhood sort of being resurrected again because I loved my job, and I loved working with Fred Rogers, and it was a wonderful time in my life, and I’m still associated with it. I’m still doing McFeely actually, appearances and different things. So, yes, it was a wonderful experience all around and meeting Daniel. I had seen Daniel around. Daniel is an actor who does a lot of work on the stage in Pittsburgh, and over the years I had seen him, but never really met him. So we had a chance to meet too. All of that worked into a very satisfying tribute to me, the neighborhood and everything.

Daniel, you touched on this a little bit, but what was your relationship to Mr. Rogers growing up? What was your relationship to the show like?

Daniel Krell: Well, yeah, I watched it as a kid. Of course, you don’t have any context of the future. It wouldn’t do much as a child, but then you think back on it, and it brings the importance of it. As an adult, it brings it to the fore, and it’s so nice to be able to take those memories from my childhood. You hear people talking about reliving their childhood. I got to sort of relive a memory of my childhood right then and there. One description I heard of the movie, which is pretty good, I think it’s pretty on point, Is that It’s an adult episode of the Mister Rogers show.

David Newell: I heard the same thing, yes.

Daniel Krell: It’s Mister Rogers for an adult to watch.

{bold|It definitely felt that way to me. And it’s funny. I couldn’t have put that in the words myself. But hearing that now, that’s exactly the feeling it gives you.

David Newell: That was the director’s concept, too, I think. Marielle Heller is a wonderful director. I think Fred would have loved her. She was somebody that he would have understood on the same wavelength.

Touching on Fred a little bit. I think because I knew this movie was happening, then I remember the day they announced that Tom Hanks was playing him. I think there are so few things that the Internet will collectively agree on. “This is a good idea.” Everybody just felt that it was perfect. And he was so good in it. How did it strike both of you when you heard that he was the one playing Mr. Rogers? Because you’re coming at this from very different vantage points.

David Newell: I had heard it. I said, “That’s perfect!” Then, when Sony released the first picture of Tom Hanks in his Mr. Rogers garb, I was going through the internet and I came upon it. I said to myself, “Where did they get that picture of Fred?” Then I realized it was Tom Hanks! So right off the bat I said, it’s going to work. And it did work. I thought Tom Hanks was the perfect choice.

Daniel Krell: It was so nice to be on set with him and to interact with him because, as a person, I think, he just makes you feel the same way that Fred Rogers does. Things like, when we would talk between takes, he would ask me a question and I would answer him. Then we would do a take, then we would stop, they would check some things, and we would come back and he would say, “So what were you saying? You were saying…” He would repeat what I had just said. So I thought, he’s really listening to me, which is such a big part of what Fred Rogers did.

David Newell: Oh yes! And that’s the essence. He got the essence of Fred. What I noticed in the film is just what you said Daniel, he did listen. When he was doing what he was doing the scenes with Matthew Rhys, he was listening, and that’s what Fred did. When you went into Fred’s office asking questions, he would put down whatever he was doing and give you undivided attention. Really listen to you. I think that one factor is what made it all work. Tom Hanks, his Intensity, his listening really, really got to Fred Rogers. Got him. Therefore, I think the movie worked, because of that one thing. In my knowing of Fred, that’s my perspective.

I feel like between this and the documentary that came out a couple of years ago, there is this major spotlight that’s been shed upon Fred’s legacy in the past two years, and I feel like a lot of people are rediscovering, or even just discovering, for the first time, the impact he had. Why do you guys think now is the right time for Mr. Rogers?

Daniel Krell: Well, I mean, without overstating the obvious. I mean, I think so many people, you just keep hearing that phrase over again. During these times, we need to be reminded that kindness is very important. That’s no coincidence with, what do you say? The political state of this country, and the world too, in the bigger picture. And so I think to remember

David Newell: I agree. There seems to be a separation between politically what’s happening. I often wonder what Fred would have thought, were he with us today, of the current situation. I think he would be very upset, and I think he would not be upset about the political end of it. What he would be upset about is the way people seem to be treating each other. The meanness that’s going on. It’s not kindness. It seems to be so… I’m trying to find the right word, but Fred would want us to work together to find a way to solve our differences, and we’re not. I think that’s what would upset him, name-calling and all of that. It would upset him very much. I think he would separate the politics out of it.

Daniel Krell: I guess what I mean by politics is I think that’s a big part of where that’s coming from.

David Newell: Oh yeah, you’re right.

Daniel Krell: It’s originating. It’s not just in the political sphere, I think it’s originating from the political sphere, and it’s been bleeding out into the rest of the country.

David Newell: I agree. What I was saying though, I think Fred would care more about the interaction between people. The kindness between people and sort of say, “Well, politics are politics. I want, no matter what party, you could at least be kind to each other.” You’re right. I think this is the perfect time for Fred Rogers to be a spokesperson, so to speak through these films. I think it’s working. It’s starting. Ryan, I think you mentioned people are discovering it, and that’s true. I still do a lot of McFeeley appearances, and there’s a whole new wave of children, younger children, preschoolers who are being introduced to it because [Mister Rogers Neighborhood] is now being streamed by PBS and there is a whole new generation being introduced. Fred would be delighted to know that. Kindness prevails, I guess you could say.

A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood is available now on digital, Blu-ray/DVD and 4K Ultra HD via Sony Pictures.

Ryan Scott at Movieweb