“I realized that this show is not about Fred Rogers. It’s about the feeling that Fred Rogers conveys and gives to the world. The nuances, the beliefs, the spirituality of him, the feeling … because I think that is what it is. It’s the love, the compassion. It’s the looking for the good, not for the bad. It’s the positive, not the negative. It’s what I try to do in my life, though I don’t always succeed.”
— Randy Pearlman, who portrays Fred Rogers in “I’m Proud of You”
When casting the role of Fred Rogers in our new play, “I’m Proud of You,” director Harry Parker made clear he wasn’t looking for an actor to impersonate the beloved icon of children’s television. Harry, also my co-writer for the production that premieres at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth on Thursday (Oct. 26), said as much in a character description at the top of an early draft of our script.
“A word about the actor playing Fred Rogers,” Harry wrote. “It is important that the essence of Fred be conveyed, but not a restrictive ‘impression’ of his famous look and voice. An excellent actor who captures the spirit and objectives of Fred Rogers, regardless of his physical resemblance to Fred or lack thereof, can be successful in the role.”
Harry concluded by invoking one of Mister Rogers’ most foundational sayings.
“Remember, ‘What is essential is invisible to the eyes.’”
As it turns out, Harry had an actor in mind for the role all along. He had directed Randy Pearlman before and knew why Randy was one of the most respected and sought-after stage actors in North Texas. Yet Randy’s talent and experience was almost a secondary credential for “I’m Proud of You.”
The play is based on my 2006 memoir of the same name. In it, Fred invites a tortured but successful journalist named Tim Madigan to be his friend. Fred’s wisdom, compassion, nonjudgment and gentle insistence on emotional intimacy help guide Tim through a period of deep depression. Fred helps Tim heal his relationship with his father. Fred also walks with Tim’s family through the illness of the journalist’s younger brother, Steve.
That’s a lot. The role of Fred would be daunting for any actor, but Harry knew that Randy had what it took.
“Randy as an actor, really as a person, is genuine,” Harry told me after a recent rehearsal at Circle. “He is kind. He is charismatic. He’s just an appealing personality, on stage and off. He doesn’t look like Fred and he doesn’t really sound like Fred. But in this role you need to have a great soul. What Randy has in common with Fred is a genuine kindness and love for humanity. And he’s a very good actor. That’s what made me think of him.”
That has also been my experience with Randy as he, the crew, Circle staff and other cast members prepare for the opening of the play. Actor Richie Haratine plays the role of Tim; Gabriel Whitehurst portrays Tim’s dad, brother and young son; and Lisa Durham Fairchild plays Tim’s mother and Joanne Rogers.
After a recent rehearsal, Randy and I sat down on the Circle stage to discuss his career, the demands of playing Fred, and message we hope our audiences will take away from the play.
Our conversation appears below, edited for length and clarity.
Tim Madigan: First, tell me a little about yourself and how you found a life in the theater.
Randy Pearlman: I’m from Dallas. In school, other people were getting into sports and stuff like that. That was not me. I was the shy, musical, a bit chubby, (as Fred Rogers was when he was young.) This is what I became known for. I just loved it. I started going away to summer camps like Interlochen National Music Camp and Northwestern High School Summer Institute in Theatre, where I could learn the craft. A lot of what I did was musicals.
Then I went to college for theater at USC, a great program, and lived in New York for eight years. I got very comfortable waiting tables — terrible jobs but always good stories. I got hit by a cab in New York. That kind of made me unenthused. I was getting unenthused with acting, so I moved home and started doing theater here. Each year I did more and more, getting kind of lucky. I don’t take for granted what has happened, but I don’t want to do anything else. Just being all these other people, getting to live their lives, immersing myself and living through them just gives me such joy. And I love the people I meet.
TM: It is a magical world, isn’t it.
RP: It is a magical world. We get to play and playing is fun, especially when people get to play with you and audiences go along for the ride. They’re not all winners, but I seem to find something in everything I do that accomplishes what I want. Very rarely do I feel like it’s just a job.
TM: Harry Parker called you early last year and told you about “I’m Proud of You.”
RP: He said “Yeah, I’ve got this script and I think you’re right for it. He told me the role he had in mind for me was Fred Rogers. And I’m like, ‘Huh? You thought of me as Fred Rogers? I really don’t look like Fred Rogers.’ For that first reading, I remember doing a lot of research. I looked at a documentary, and there was something else I watched about Fred Rogers on YouTube or Netflix. I started picking up a lot of the nuances.
What was funny is that I realized pretty fast that was not what Harry wanted, an imitation of Fred Rogers. Once I let go of that, I realized that this show is not about Fred Rogers. It’s about the feeling that Fred Rogers conveys and gives to the world. The nuances, the beliefs, the spirituality of him, the feeling … because I think that is what it is. It’s the love, the compassion. It’s the looking for the good, not for the bad. It’s the positive, not the negative. It’s what I try to do in my life, though I don’t always succeed.
Trying to do all his mannerisms and talk like him, what would happen is the audience would then focus completely on me and the story is not about me. The story is about Tim. The focus is on him, not on me. So if I was trying to do that, everything would be upstaged. And I think Harry wanted for me to give the flavor of Mister Rogers, but once that flavor’s established, it’s not Fred Rogers up there. It’s a person with Fred Rogers’ embodiment.
TM: To hear you talk further underscores the point that it’s really not a story about the television celebrity, Fred Rogers. It’s a story about friendship. It’s a story about suffering. It’s a story about taking our masks off with one another, sharing the truth of our insides, navigating through life.
RP: It’s about how you get through life. It’s really interesting how Harry divided the play into three parts. The first part really does establish the friendship, the connection. But then in the other two parts, you really don’t see Fred as much. You see his influence on Tim and what his friendship did for Tim. Which I find fascinating.
TM: Exactly. So what do you hope an audience will take away from the play? Do you think in those terms?
RP: Yeah. I hope the audience leaves the theater realizing that people are people, that everybody goes through the same stuff. I think the differences that are surface are completely surface. I think we all have the same “inners,” the same fears, the same family stuff. As I say in the show, we all have our dark nights, battling our demons, or we should because that’s what makes us human. Otherwise we would be lions doing what lions do and giraffes doing what giraffes do and monkeys doing what monkeys do. But we think. We touch. We have feelings and I would hope people would leave this realizing that other people are our neighbors. … And to be kinder.
TM: That’s just such a great message.
“I’m Proud of You” at Circle Theatre in Fort Worth, Oct. 26-Nov. 18. For more information and to purchase tickets, visit this link: https://bit.ly/3toZbZ0
To read this week’s Fort Worth Star-Telegram feature on Tim and the play, visit this link. https://bit.ly/45BuzRi
To purchase Tim’s memoir, “I’m Proud of You,” or any of his books, visit: https://amzn.to/3tVoAH0