Gloria Vanderbilt Documentary to be Rebroadcast on HBO


Photo courtesy HBO.

“She was always the youngest one in the room,” recalls CNN anchor Anderson Cooper of his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt

Fashion designer … artist … author … heiress … and mom Gloria Vanderbilt passed away this week (6/17/19) at the age of 95.  Just in case you missed the poignant, feature-length documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper, produced and directed by Liz Garbus, when it debuted on HBO and CNN in April 2016, you can catch an encore performance tonight, Thursday, June 20, 2019, at 8:00 p.m. ET/PT on HBO.

A public figure since childhood and muse of many legendary photographers, heiress, fashion designer and artist Gloria Vanderbilt (1924-2019) weathered high family drama and personal tragedies throughout her life but remained undaunted. Photo courtesy HBO.

I can’t encourage you enough to revisit this marvelous film after you reread my original review  (Ms. Vanderbilt was a vibrant, exquisite 91 in the film!) and my commentary about Gloria Vanderbilt’s extraordinary life in FrontRowCenter, on April 9, 2016

As I detailed in that review and continue to assert, Nothing Left Unsaid is one of the most moving, psychologically smart and information-rich film bios I’ve ever seen. It’s definitely on par with another similarly-themed favorite of mine:  Listen To Me Marlon (reviewed in FrontRowCenter on 11/14/15).

Anderson Cooper and his mom, Gloria Vanderbilt, as they appear in NOTHING LEFT UNSAID. Photo courtesy HBO.

The moral of Ms. Vanderbilt’s life story (and Marlon’s despite his having grown up on the other side of the tracks) — that fame and fortune don’t buy happiness — is obvious, of course. But, as with Brando, Gloria’s ongoing creative attempts to work through the detritus of her childhood and surmount tragic losses are lessons we all, rich or poor, can learn from. –Judith Trojan

Nothing Left Unsaid: Gloria Vanderbilt & Anderson Cooper will be rebroadcast on HBO tonight, Thursday, June 20, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO playdates and availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO and HBO On Demand.)

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Remembering D-Day, Band of Brothers, The War, and The Cold Blue

Nine surviving Eighth Air Force veterans recall the realities facing them on the ground and in the cockpits of their B-17 bombers as they headed out in formation to drop and dodge bombs and machine gun fire over Germany, circa 1943. From THE COLD BLUE, Erik Nelson’s frame-by-frame restoration of William Wyler’s classic WWII documentary, THE MEMPHIS BELLE (1944). Photo courtesy HBO.

Today, June 6, 2019, is the 75th anniversary of D-Day.

“It plays like the stuff of military myth or legend, but it’s remarkably true: A disparate group of American recruits transformed into an elite rifle company, parachuted into France on June 6, 1944, and made history. The men of Easy Company, 506th Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, U.S. Army, began their mission on D-Day and fought their way across France, Holland, Belgium and Germany. They survived the Battle of the Bulge and captured Hitler’s Eagle’s Nest at Berchtesgaden.” —Judith Trojan

I wrote those words in an introduction to a series of interviews I conducted with the author and filmmakers responsible for the powerful, 10-part HBO dramatic miniseries, Band of Brothers (2001). The series was adapted from historian Stephen E. Ambrose’s award-winning nonfiction best seller of the same name by executive producers Tom Hanks and Steven Spielberg and an outstanding creative team.

Band of Brothers is an achievement that I, in my capacity as Director of the Christopher Awards, will always be proud to have honored with a Christopher Award. It continues to be one of the most important war films, standalone or series, that has ever been produced for TV/cable.  I literally wept, alone in our screening room, for 10 minutes after I finished watching the final episode…moved by its focus on the elderly veterans whose lives on the beach and battlefield were dramatized in the prior nine episodes.

The Allied liberation of Western Europe was orchestrated as a brilliant stealth operation that commenced on June 6, 1944, when some 156,00 American, British and Canadian forces landed on five beaches along a 50-mile stretch of France’s heavily fortified Normandy coastline. By late August 1944, all of northern France had been liberated, and by the following spring the Allies had defeated the Germans. The Normandy landings, that began on D-Day, have been called “the beginning of the end of war in Europe.”

It is more important than ever to remember and celebrate those who fought the good fight during World War II in Europe and the Pacific, achieving hard won victories that would change the course of history and secure the freedoms and opportunities that we continue to cherish today.

Photo courtesy Florentine Films.

Filmmaker Ken Burns had already redefined and elevated the documentary landscape with his groundbreaking nine-part PBS miniseries, The Civil War (1990), when he felt compelled to turn his attention to yet another war that would involve a much broader playing field.

“Towards the end of the Nineties, I had learned two awful facts, ” Ken Burns recalled in one of several interviews I conducted with him over the years.  “One is that we were losing a thousand veterans a day from the Second World War. And that many graduating high school students thought we fought with the Germans against the Russians in the Second World War.  I was appalled and felt, for the reason that we were losing our soldiers and our historical compass, that I had to dive back into the subject of war.”

Ken Burns’ seven-part documentary miniseries, The War, debuted on PBS in 2007.  It explored in human terms the lasting impact of WWII on average Americans from four different regions of the country.

A member of director William Wyler’s crew filming from the cockpit of a B-17 during an actual WWII combat mission over Germany, circa 1943. Photo courtesy HBO.

New to this mix of timely WWII films is The Cold Blue, an 82-minute documentary restoration and augmentation of three-time Academy Award-winning director William Wyler’s 1944 documentary The Memphis Belle: A Story of a Flying Fortress. Wyler put his filmmaking chops to good use when, in 1943, he and his crew filmed Eighth Air Force bomber pilots, on land and from the cockpits of their B-17s during actual combat missions over Germany.

“My father was trying to make a documentary that would help the war effort,” remembered Wyler’s daughter, Catherine. “He was born in Europe, he was Jewish, and he had relatives he wanted to save.  He had a lot of trouble getting into the Air Force because he was 40 years old, but he wanted to show the people at home the courage of these men and their crews flying the bombers.”

Eighth Air Force Bombers in formation en route to Germany. Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew, circa 1943, now seen in Erik Nelson’s THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

Seven decades later, while searching for random color footage of World War II aviation, filmmaker Erik Nelson was alerted to the fact that 34 reels of outtakes–raw color footage shot by William Wyler in 1943 over land and sea for The Memphis Belle–was being stored in the vaults of the National Archives.

Nelson and his team revisited The Memphis Belle, frame-by-frame, incorporating digitally restored color footage and updated sound design, as well as interviews with surviving WWII Air Force veterans, all in their nineties. The months-long process was complex, but it refreshed Wyler’s original film in a theatrically viable way.

“Every one of the original prints had faded, in some cases beyond recognition,” said Erik Nelson.  “There seemed to be no possibility of restoration.  We decided to take a chance by hoping that our 34 reels constituted the entirety of The Memphis Belle, and decided to place over 500 individual shots over The Memphis Belle’s existing soundtrack.  This heralds a new kind of restoration–where a film is literally recut from scratch with all of the original elements, yet preserves exactly the same content of the original.”

The result is a riveting, birds-eye look at what it was like for very young American airmen to endure more than 25 missions over Germany, deemed the most deadly target of the war.  Aside from the remarkable aerial combat footage, the film zeroes in on the rituals and camaraderie that cushioned the loss of comrades, the all-consuming fear of bodily harm or death, and the trauma of killing another human being, albeit an enemy airman, and bombing the civilian German landscape below to smithereens.

Footage shot by William Wyler and his crew during an actual bombing raid over Germany, circa 1943, from THE COLD BLUE. Photo courtesy HBO.

The Cold Blue, a production of Paul G. Allen’s Vulcan Productions and Creative Differences, debuts on HBO tonight, Thursday, June 6, 2019, 8:00 – 9:15 p.m. ET/PT, the 75th anniversary of D-Day. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD. Band of Brothers (HBO) and Ken Burns’ The War (PBS) are readily available via streaming services and on DVD.–Judith Trojan

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Foster Debuts on HBO During National Foster Care Month

Social service professionals and foster moms like Mrs. Earcylene Beavers (pictured here with eight-year-old Casi) as seen in the feature-documentary, FOSTER, are making a positive difference in the lives of abused, neglected, and abandoned kids in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy HBO.

“There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children.”Nelson Mandela.

It’s hard to argue with Mr. Mandela, except I would add “and the elderly” to his quote. The children who find themselves, through no fault of their own, abused, neglected and abandoned in Los Angeles County, California, and the social workers, legal and lay advocates who try to make their young clients’ lives worth living are the focus of Foster, the new feature-length documentary by filmmakers Deborah Oppenheimer and Mark Jonathan Harris.

Academy Award® winners for another fine film that celebrates those who courageously moved children out of harm’s way (Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kindertransport), Oppenheimer and Harris now set their sights on the kids, foster parents and professionals who currently populate the largest child protection agency in the United States. There are no flesh and blood villains profiled in Foster, only their collateral damage… the battered souls and haunted memories of the kids left behind by their biological parents to navigate the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services.

A tribute to the incredible resilience of these kids and their advocates, several of whom are profiled in the film, Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT.

FOSTER zeroes in on the challenges and successes, big and small, faced by the Los Angeles County Department of Children and Family Services. Photo courtesy HBO.

The statistics are chilling: “One in eight American children suffer abuse or neglect by age 18” and there are “more than 400,000 children in foster care in the U.S.”  But as depressing as those stats sound, the filmmakers focus instead not on the losses but on the wins, the baby steps that have given these kids a second chance at life.

After years of being shuffled through the revolving door of foster and group homes and juvenile detention centers, the kids–ranging in age from eight through preteen and teenage, college and young adulthood–are remarkably articulate and personable.  All have stories to tell about their tortuous past lives with biological and foster parents and years in the foster care system. Fortunately, those recollections are kept to a minimum.

By the time the filmmakers chose to tell their stories, the youngsters’ lives had taken a more promising turn.  Several had found a welcoming home with compassionate foster parents or a safe haven under the supportive jurisdiction of caring social service and legal professionals, some of whom had even survived the system themselves as children.

Former foster child, Jessica, now advocates as a professional for foster children in Los Angeles County. Photo courtesy HBO.

Former foster child Jessica overcame horrific odds to continue her education and receive her Master’s degree, raise two healthy sons and build a professional career as an advocate and role model for foster kids who feel invisible without hope of ever building a productive life outside  the foster care system.

Unable to have more than one biological child of her own, Mrs. Earcylene Beavers dreamed of having a large family and has welcomed more than 100 foster children into her home over the years.  Some have remained with Mrs. Beavers permanently, a wish expressed and happily realized by members of her current brood, who include autistic Casi, and preteens Sydney and Denyshia.

As teenage Dasani struggles to give voice to the memory of watching his dad murder his mom, he also takes positive steps to redeem himself after making some bad moves in his group home and landing on probation.

Until Raenne worked to resolve her substance abuse problems, she lost custody of her newborn to the child’s father. Photo courtesy HBO.

The responsibilities of first time parents Chris and Raenne are scrutinized when their newborn daughter is thought to have been neurologically damaged by Raenne’s cocaine addiction. Chris steps up to the plate as the child’s full-time caregiver when Raenne is removed from their home and encouraged in her rehab efforts.

Having aged out of the traditional foster care system, beautiful 18-year-old Mary grapples with the demons that undermine her ability to remain in college.  However, her dream of becoming an actress and her move into an modern, adult apartment with her biological sister provide the impetus for her to stick with college and commit to live a better tomorrow.  “You can’t always write the beginning to your story,” stresses Mary, “but you can definitely write the end.”

At 18, Mary has transitioned out of the L.A. County Foster Care system and into college and an apartment with her biological sister. Photo courtesy HBO.

Participant Media, the film’s co-producer with HBO Documentary Films and Emerson Collective, is launching a social impact campaign linked to the debut of Foster on HBO, including a ten-state screening tour of the film. Their goal is “to bring individuals, organizations, corporations and government agencies together to change perceptions of foster youth … and to accelerate solutions aimed at helping children and families thrive.”

Going forward, Foster will be an asset in college and university programs focusing on social work, juvenile justice and school psychology. The film also has evergreen potential as a discussion catalyst in foster care group therapy programs with young people and the professionals who serve them.

For more information on foster care and Foster Care Month, check out  and

Foster debuts on HBO during National Foster Care Month tonight on National Foster Care Day, Tuesday, May 7, 2019, 8:00 – 10:00 p.m. ET/PT. Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD. –Judith Trojan

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Gentleman Jack Proves She Ain’t No Gentleman on HBO

“She was a real player.  She was very good at sex. It was high on her agenda of what was important.”–writer/director Sally Wainwright.

There was nothing ordinary about Anne Lister (1791-1840). Wealthy Yorkshire landowner, businesswoman, diarist and international gadabout Anne Lister was an unconventional force to reckon with in Regency England during the first half of the 19th century.

Her intellectual pursuits (anatomy, forensics, geology) defied female convention.  And at a time when women were festooned with ruffles and flourishes and relied upon men for marriage, Lister favored heavy black overcoats, top hats… and women who, according to Lister’s explicit, cleverly coded diaries, were more often than not willing to share her bed.

Anne Lister’s moniker, Gentleman Jack, is an apt title for the new, eight-episode dramatic miniseries, created, written and co-directed by Sally Wainwright for HBO/BBC.  Episode One “I was just passing”– debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 22, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Episodes 2-8, follow on successive Mondays in May and June.)

Anne Lister’s remarkably bold lifestyle has been the subject of various literary and Brit TV efforts, but was first documented by Lister herself in voluminous daily diary entries (with her sexual exploits detailed in code).  The diaries (and her lesbian romances) date from her teenage years.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) defiantly asserts her role as manager of her estate’s tenant farmers and rich coal mines in the HBO/BBC miniseries, GENTLEMAN JACK. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

Gentleman Jack jumps feet first into Lister’s life story, circa 1832, as she returns to Shipden Hall, her ancestral home in Halifax, Yorkshire, bent but unbroken by yet another female lover’s decision to marry a man. Actress Suranne Jones tears up the screen as bold, charismatic Anne Lister.  With a wink and nod to the camera, she lets nothing stand in her way as she throws her family (sister, elderly aunt and father) and servants, tenant farmers and neighbors into a tailspin when she sets various progressive protocols in motion as Shipden’s headstrong heir.

She threatens to modernize stuffy Shipden Hall, adding fanciful outbuildings and lush, park-inspired landscapes to the estate grounds. She demands overdue rent from lax tenant farmers, and haggles smartly with local coal magnates over title to her estate’s rich coal deposits.  All this, she hopes, will set the stage for a new, more permanent local romantic conquest… the seduction and, yes, a hoped for church sanctified union with the shy, sheltered young heiress, Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle), next door.

Anne Lister (Suranne Jones) works her magic on shy heiress Ann Walker (Sophie Rundle) in GENTLEMAN JACK on HBO. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

Anne Lister was determined to buck the status quo and live true to her God-given nature, which she apparently paraded confidently in public and enjoyed in the bedroom. She would never consider marrying a man, not even under societal pressure for convenience or financial gain.  Instead, she set her romantic and financial sights on women like young heiress Ann Walker.

There’s no question that Gentleman Jack is a fascinating departure from run-of-the mill historical dramas.  Series creator Sally Wainwright hits the ground running as she introduces 21st century viewers to a real-life, ballsy, unconventional Regency-era heroine who, as it turns out, has gained notoriety not only for her historical relevance as a swashbuckling, marriage-minded lesbian but also as an acclaimed diarist.

Anne (Suranne Jones) Lister’s young French maid, Eugénie (Albane Courtois), has a time-sensitive secret in GENTLEMAN JACK on HBO. Photo: Matt Squire/HBO.

The series should definitely encourage further research and discussion about Anne Lister’s milieu, life and lifestyle. But although Anne’s gender-bending persona, as inhabited with fearsome energy by brilliant actress Suranne Jones, sets each episode afire, the nervously compliant object of her affection, young Ann Walker (lovely Sophie Rundle), initially grows tiresome and hardly worthy of Lister’s ardor.

There are also a host of colorful marginal characters with great potential here:  her fussy spinster sister, Marian; her supportive elderly aunt and no-nonsense dad; as well as comical servants, faithful and fearsome tenant farmers; and sleazy Trumpian coal magnates.  All have their moments, and they do much to enliven the saga of Lister’s pursuit of conflicted Miss Walker.

It’s not long before Lister and Walker’s growing passion and love for each other are tested by touching missteps and life-altering crises.  But, in the end, as Lister’s bravado and Walker’s insecurities fall away, Gentleman Jack turns into an incredibly moving, true romance of the highest order… all of it driven by Anne Lister’s actual diary entries.

It should be noted that the intimate scenes between the two women are exquisitely choreographed and acted:  simultaneously tender and powerful, they are not in any way gratuitous.

Anne Lister (1791-1840).

Anne Lister (1791-1840).

Episode One of Gentleman Jack– “I was just passing”– debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, April 22, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET/PT. (Episodes 2-8, follow on successive Mondays in May and June.)

Check for additional HBO play dates in your region in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD.

Gentleman Jack was scheduled to premiere concurrently on the BBC on April 22, 2019. And, one month later, on May 23, 2019, HBO and BBC announced that they are renewing the series for a second season. This is definitely welcome news!–Judith Trojan

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Tech Visionary or Fraud? The Inventor: Out for Blood on HBO

Former self-made healthcare billionaire, media darling and Steve Jobs wannabe Elizabeth Holmes pitched a blood-testing device that she claimed would revolutionize the healthcare industry. She has been indicted for conspiracy to commit fraud. Photo courtesy HBO.

“When I was introduced to Elizabeth by George Shultz, her plan sounded like an undergraduate’s dream. I told her she had only two prospects: total failure or vast success. There would be no middle ground.”

Former  U.S. Secretary of State Henry A. Kissinger wrote those prescient words in a 2015 Time magazine tribute to then 31-year-old Elizabeth Holmes, the founder and CEO of the multi-billion dollar healthcare company, Theranos.  She was heralded as a “Titan” on Time magazine’s list of  the “100 Most Influential People of 2015,” and Kissinger was her champion.

Henry Kissinger and former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz joined a roster of distinguished, politically connected high rollers, including future U.S. Secretary of Defense James Mattis, on the Theranos Board of Directors.  Although Elizabeth Holmes’ Silicon Valley success inspired female entrepreneurs and healthcare professionals the world over, no women or medical professionals sat on her company’s Board of Directors.

Just two years later, the bad practices and false promises of her shady enterprise were exposed by a Wall Street Journal investigative reporter and a few brave company whistle-blowers. Holmes’ investors, whom she charmed out of millions of dollars, lost sizable fortunes.  And her staffers (at her company’s peak, some 800 strong) had to reclaim what was left of their professional credibility after being strong-armed into silence (and suicide in one case) by Theranos’ cutthroat legal team.

By 2018, when her $9 billion company was worth less than zero, Elizabeth Holmes and her COO and former investor boyfriend, Ramesh “Sunny” Balwani, were indicted by the federal government for conspiracy to commit fraud.

Elizabeth Holmes and Yoda, happy together. Photo courtesy HBO.

In his new feature-length documentary, The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley debuting tonight on HBO, Oscar® and Emmy® Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney explores the “psychology of fraud” by tracing Elizabeth Holmes’ meteoric rise from a 19-year-old Stanford dropout and Steve Jobs wannabe to savvy inventor and marketer of what she touted as a groundbreaking blood-testing device that could run hundreds of tests from a single finger stick.

“You’re just too good to be true, can’t take my eyes off of you.”–Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.

That refrain could easily have been used to describe the startling allure of Elizabeth Holmes. Her Spartan black, turtle-neck wardrobe mirrored the sartorial signature of her idol, Steve Jobs. Her progressively deepening baritone voice and huge, unblinking blue eyes drove storied men and women straight to their checkbooks.

Holmes’ childhood precociousness, fascination with invention and entrepreneurial roots in the Fleischmann Yeast family gave her a step up as she turned the heads of notable professors and mentors at Stanford and beyond.  She named her blood-testing machine, Edison, after her earliest role model, Thomas Alva Edison, whose expertise as a pitchman, do or die mindset and myriad trial and errors Alex Gibney recaps in a wonderful opener that features vintage Edison film clips.

Elizabeth Holmes, founder and CEO of Theranos, was a master storyteller. Photo courtesy HBO.

If Edison worked, as Holmes promised it did, it would sideline uncomfortable blood draws that required vials of blood and several days to process.  Edison would bring low-cost, quick and easy blood testing to neighborhood pharmacies like Walgreens (who bit hard), and remote locations on the battlefield. And it promised to upend the two giants monopolizing the blood-testing industry:  Quest and LabCorp.

Edison and Steve Job’s example and the Silicon Valley mantra “Fake it till you make it” drove her relentless ambition to market her blood-testing machine to unquestioning investors and the masses.  She became the world’s youngest self-made millionaire; a captivating feature story on all the magazine covers and news shows that mattered (Forbes, Fortune, The New Yorker, The Today Show, Charlie Rose); and she was honored with prestigious awards and endorsements from political and media movers and shakers.

Award-winning filmmaker Alex Gibney, segued from profiling Scientology and Sinatra to visionary dreamer and potential jailbird Elizabeth Holmes in HBO’S THE INVENTOR. Photo courtesy HBO.

Alex Gibney timelines Holmes’ rise and fall with insight gained from some key early Holmes print profilers (The New Yorker’s Ken Auletta and Forbes’ Roger Parloff) and investors and staffers who jumped on board the Theranos bandwagon as believers only to become unnerved by the paranoia, secrecy and unsound medical practices unfolding behind closed doors.

Especially noteworthy here are the personal anecdotes from the brave Theranos professionals who eventually helped to bring Elizabeth Holmes down, most notably George Shultz’s personable grandson, Tyler Schultz, and medical tech Erika Cheung, as well as investigative reporter John Carreyrou, who first broke the story in the Wall Street Journal and went on to write a book, Bad Blood (Alfred A. Knopf, 2018), about it.

The Edison sounded good on paper in the striking investment portfolios and media campaigns that pitched it (one was directed by renowned documentarian Errol Morris).  But it was essentially just a story, one that Elizabeth Holmes was brilliant at telling and selling remarkably by sidelining  the prestigious naysayers (professors and healthcare professionals) who said it was a bad idea and a health hazard to patients who relied upon its flawed results.

The Inventor: Out for Blood in Silicon Valley debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, March 18, 2019, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET. (Check for additional play dates in your region and in the days and weeks ahead, and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD.)  I also recommend sourcing ABC-TV On Demand for The Dropout, an excellent two-hour exposé about Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes that covers more of her backstory and additional witnesses. The Dropout aired on ABC-TV’s 20/20 on Friday, March 15, 2019, 9:00 – 11:00 p.m. ET.

And what of Elizabeth Holmes’ future?  Will “orange be her new black”? Stay tuned!— Judith Trojan

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Fred Rogers Celebrated in Won’t You Be My Neighbor? on HBO and PBS

Fred Rogers (1928-2003) on the set of his PBS show, MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. From the Morgan Neville/Focus Features film, WON’T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR? Photo: Jim Judkis.

“Love is at the root of everything–all learning, all parenting, all relationships–love or the lack of it.”–Fred Rogers.

Love your neighbor. Love yourself.  It sounds easy; but, as we all know, it isn’t.  No one knew that better than Fred Rogers.

The sweater, the sneakers, the comforting voice and welcoming smile…it certainly never stopped being a beautiful day in “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Even before he stepped out of the seminary as an ordained Presbyterian minister in 1963, he was convinced that television had the potential to reach and teach young children lessons of love, kindness and acceptance.

“What we see and hear on the screen is part of who we become.”–Fred Rogers.

Fred Rogers cools his feet on a hot summer day with Officer Clemmons (Francois Scarborough Clemmons) on an episode of MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo: John Beale.

If you need a refresher course in the magic of Fred Rogers, on-air and off, you need look no further than Morgan Neville’s critically acclaimed new feature-length documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? A 2018 blockbuster in theatrical release, at film festivals and on the awards circuit (the film won the 2019 Producers Guild of America Award for Best Documentary and a boatload of other prestigious awards), Won’t You Be My Neighbor? debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. And in honor of Fred Rogers’ career-long commitment to public television, the film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens.  (Check listings for PBS air times in your region.)

Fred Rogers learned the ropes as a jack-of-all trades at WQED-TV, Pittsburgh, and eventually as co-producer/scriptwriter/puppeteer/musician on “The Children’s Corner” (1955-1961), a live, weekday afternoon program.  “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” also produced at WQED, debuted on February 19, 1968, on what was then called National Educational Television (NET).  By the time the last new episode of “Mister Rogers Neighborhood” aired on August 31, 2001 (less than two weeks before 911), it had quietly and positively impacted the lives of generations of children.

The format and content of each show were carefully paced and structured to build self-esteem by gently encouraging children to explore the world around them, master developmental tasks and cope with new and sometimes unsettling life experiences (parental divorce, assassination, bigotry, disabilities). As welcome guests in Rogers’ neighborhood, young children were safe to be themselves, to learn, laugh and, most of all, to love themselves and others without judgment or preconceived notions about disabilities or differences.

Fred Rogers touched the hearts of generations of children. Photo: Jim Judkis.

On February 21, 2001, as Fred Rogers approached the taping of his last episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” I was honored, as Director of the Christopher Awards, to spearhead the presentation of our 2001 Special Christopher Award to Fred Rogers for “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a program that had, from its debut in 1968, gently celebrated the sanctity of childhood.  It was the first Special Christopher Award ever presented to a children’s program in the Christopher Awards’ 52-year history.

Needless to say, we were thrilled and honored to have Fred Rogers and David Newell (aka Mr. McFeely) in attendance during our 52nd annual Christopher Awards’ event on February 22, 2001.  As icy winds and snowdrifts whipped around the Time-Life Building in midtown Manhattan that evening, Rogers warmed everyone’s heart with his gracious manner and touching speech, that concluded with a startling request that I will never forget:

“Before I say ‘Good Night,’ would you take just a minute to think of someone who has nourished your spirit, someone who has cared for you, encouraged you to believe that you’re welcome in this life–someone who has loved you into being? Whether that person is here tonight or far away or even in heaven, let’s just have a silent minute to be grateful for those who have become such an important part of who we are.  One minute–I’ll watch the time.”–Fred Rogers.

We sat in silence for one minute. Imagine Rogers’ soft voice and gentle but insistent delivery, and you will understand why there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when we rose en masse to give him a well-deserved standing ovation.

David Newell (Mr. McFeely) and Fred Rogers take a moment on MISTER ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo: Lynn Johnson.

As you will see, if you watch Morgan Neville’s beautifully crafted documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Rogers closed many of his speeches with that same entreaty.  It summed up the essence of the wonderful man whose company I enjoyed that snowy evening in February 2001 and via correspondence thereafter.

Two years later, on February 27, 2003, as we gathered at the Time-Life Building in Rockefeller Center for the 54th annual Christopher Awards gala, we suddenly learned and announced to our shocked audience that Fred Rogers had passed away earlier that day. More tears were shed, but this time for the loss of this great man who had hugged us with his presence, seemingly hale and hearty just two years before…who had made me and others that evening in February 2001 remember that we were special, that we were “loved and capable of loving.”

Now Academy Award®-winning director Morgan Neville honors Fred Rogers’ legacy with the exquisitely crafted and moving documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?  The film follows the trajectory of Rogers’ life and career–his boyhood challenges, his serious study of early child development and fascination with early television, and the road that melded those two passions with his media ministry. The pivotal themes, puppets, cast and crew are on-hand, as are Rogers’ widow Joanne, their sons John and Jim, and sister Elaine (aka Lady Elaine).

Fred Rogers with his puppet pal, Daniel Striped Tiger, from his show MR. ROGERS’ NEIGHBORHOOD. Photo courtesy The Fred Rogers Company.

There are many delightful and surprising moments.  Vintage clips underscore Fred’s impressive ability to individually engage shy young fans one-on-one; to share hugs and kisses with Koko, the gorilla; and convince old, cranky U.S. Senators with an ax to grind that funding children’s programming on public TV was a must.

A lovely animation, featuring Fred’s puppet Daniel Striped Tiger, threads throughout the film as quiet commentary on the challenges Rogers faced along the way. “Daniel was the real Fred,” remembers Joanne Rogers wistfully.

“The greatest thing that we can do is to help somebody know that they’re loved and capable of loving.” –Fred Rogers.

Be sure to grab a box of tissues and watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor? when it debuts on HBO tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT. The film will also air concurrently tonight, Saturday, February 9, 2019, 8:00 – 9:35 p.m. ET/PT on the PBS series, Independent Lens. (Check listings for PBS air times in your region and additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand, affiliate streaming platforms and DVD.) –Judith Trojan

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Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists Headlines on HBO

“We’re on the side of the little guy.”

I may have been born and raised in New Jersey but my dreams were all wrapped up in the promise and allure of the shining city on the Hudson. On good days and bad, as I was growing up, the iconic Manhattan skyline sat like a majestic magnet on the horizon to the east of my hometown. I’m proud to say that I spent more than half of my life working and studying in New York City.  I consider myself a New Yorker by choice… by way of NJ Transit… and have no regrets.

My lifelong show biz predilections and career in the film and publishing industries required that I keep abreast of all of the daily media news fit to print. My newspaper of choice continues to be The New York Times. But pre-Trump, I confess to devouring the New York Post and never missed the New York Daily News, even if I had to read it over the shoulders of fellow commuters on the bus or subway.

Now that I’ve screened the wonderful new feature-length HBO documentary, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists celebrating superstar New York newspaper columnists Jimmy Breslin (1928-2017) and Pete Hamill (b.1935), it’s clear that they were producing some of the best journalism New York City newsprint had to offer for five decades.  I’m ashamed to admit that, back in the day, I bypassed their columns on a regular basis.

Legendary NYC newspaper columnists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin compare notes in their heyday. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

Legendary NYC newspaper columnists Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin compare notes in their heyday. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

No matter where you currently hang your hat, if you are now… or ever have been… an avid New Yorker, were born and raised in its boroughs, relish reliving the adventures of your youth on its shores or could use a refresher course highlighting the last 50 tumultuous years of NYC history, be sure not to miss Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists.  The feature-length documentary, directed and produced by Jonathan Alter, John Block and Steve McCarthy, debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, January 28, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:50 p.m. ET/PT.

As the film points out, from birth through old age, Jimmy Breslin and Pete Hamill had a lot in common.  They both grew up poor in New York’s Irish-American working class neighborhoods, with dominant mothers, for better (Hamill) or worse (Breslin), and hard-drinking fathers. They were street smart from an early age and cultivated friends and enemies in dark places. They broke into the news business at a time when print journalism flourished and as many as seven newspapers competed to snag readers with breaking daily news.  Newsrooms were choked with smoke, and hundreds of reporters without college degrees sat shoulder to shoulder pounding away on manual typewriters.

Brash journalist Jimmy Breslin was known for his take-no-prisoners approach to storytelling on and off the page. Photo: Paul Schwartzman. Courtesy HBO.

Breslin and Hamill touched all bases in their careers, as columnists for the New York Herald Tribune, the New York Daily News, Newsday and the New York Post; as best-selling book authors; as colorful, smart-assed TV talk show guests; hard-partying gadabouts and red carpet celebrities. But their immigrant roots and ongoing connections in the streets and back alleys of NYC and its boroughs with cops and cons and working class stiffs shaped their extraordinary prose and fueled their lifelong empathy for the underdog and zeal to challenge discrimination.

The film revisits in vivid detail–via Breslin and Hamill’s brilliant prose, vintage headlines, graphic news footage, and first person narratives–some of the stories that broke during their careers.  Included are Son of Sam’s affinity for Breslin; the discriminatory firing of a young, female Hispanic cop; the public support for subway vigilante Bernhard Goetz; Donald Trump’s incendiary impact on the Central Park Jogger case; Nixon’s legacy of lies; the victimization of AIDS patients; and Hamill’s gripping memories of being on-site during Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination and caught in the detritus of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001.

Popular journalist and NY and Hollywood A-lister, Pete Hamill enjoyed a close relationship with fellow Irish-Americans JFK and RFK. Photo courtesy Pete Hamill and HBO.

Breslin and Hamill:  Deadline Artists smoothly incorporates the duo’s individual biographies (early, middle and sunset years) with stirring quotes from their writing and reflections from an impressive array of their peers, colleagues and family members.  Archival footage of fiery Breslin (who thought nothing of taking a cab and a beating in the middle of the race riot to get his story) and dashing Hamill (who dated Jackie Kennedy and Shirley MacLaine, concurrently) in their salad days contrasts sharply with the men they became in advanced age as they look back wistfully at choices they made as relentless newspaper columnists and, closer to home, as hard-drinking husbands and fathers. Jimmy Breslin died on March 19, 2017.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists provides long overdue appreciation for the unique voices of two seasoned reporters who sought out and documented the stories of the little guys and gals who were impacted by the big stories of their day. I for one have been inspired by the film to catch up with their work and learn from their example. The film’s fascinating print newsroom back story will be an evergreen asset in high school and college journalism classes as well.

Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists debuts on HBO tonight, Monday, January 28, 2019, from 8:00 – 9:50 p.m. ET/PT. (Check listings for additional HBO play dates in the days and weeks ahead and the film’s availability on HBO NOW, HBO GO, HBO On Demand and affiliate streaming platforms.) –Judith Trojan

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