Mr. Rogers changed his life. Now he’s bringing the TV icon to a Fort Worth stage

dfwnewsa | October 24, 2023 | 0 | Dallas News , Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Mr. Rogers changed his life. Now he’s bringing the TV icon to a Fort Worth stage

The cast of “I’m Proud of You,” a play based on the relationship between Fred Rogers and Fort Worth journalist Tim Madigan, poses on a playground during a promotional photoshoot ahead of the production’s world premiere at Circle Theatre. (Courtesy photo | TayStan Photography, Circle Theatre)

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Growing up, Tim Madigan was always more of a “Captain Kangaroo” kid than a “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” devotee, but that changed when, as an adult, he and Fred Rogers became close friends.

In the ’90s, the author and former Fort Worth Star-Telegram reporter was working on a story about kids and violence on television when a colleague encouraged him to reach out to the two TV personalities. To Madigan’s surprise, his desk phone rang and he received back-to-back phone calls from one television star and then the other.

Both interviews went well, but there was something Rogers said at the end of their call that stuck with Madigan.

“I don’t really remember the context, but he said to me, ‘Do you know what the most important thing in my life is right now?’ And I said, ‘Mr. Rogers, we just met. How could I possibly know that?’” Madigan recalled. “He said, ‘Speaking to Mr. Tim Madigan.’”

Rogers was generous with his time and answered Madigan’s questions. However, Rogers also asked the journalist several questions and showed genuine interest in Madigan’s life.

“His superpower was his ability to be wholly present to people and to life, no matter what. … He wasn’t preoccupied with anything — family, work, whatever,” Madigan said. “He didn’t have his own agenda circling around in his mind. … He was just wholly right there with you.”

After his first article about Fred Rogers was published, Madigan flew to Pittsburgh to see Rogers on his home turf. He wrote a profile of Rogers for the Fort Worth paper, and a lifelong connection formed.

If you go

What: Performances of “I’m Proud of You”
When: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 26 and Nov. 2, 9, 16
8 p.m. Oct. 27, 28 and Nov. 3, 4, 10, 11, 17, 18
3 p.m. Oct. 28 and Nov. 4, 11, 18 
Where: Circle Theatre
230 W. 4th St.
Fort Worth
Tickets: $37-40

Rogers’ kindness and sincerity was a salve to Madigan who was struggling with depression, a tattered relationship with his father and a younger brother with a terminal illness.

But the relationship wasn’t just a one-way street. Rogers’ shared some of his personal struggles with Madigan, too.

Rogers described himself as a “shy, musical and chubby” kid —  a target for bullies. A charismatic, well-liked football player took Rogers under his wing, and they became good friends. That friend died a few weeks before Madigan’s initial trip to Pittsburgh, and Rogers shared his grief. 

“He turns to me and he says, ‘Tim, you’re ministering to me. By listening, you minister to me.’ And I would say that that’s kind of where our friendship began,” Madigan said. 

Madigan published “I’m Proud of You,” a book about how his friendship with Rogers changed his life in 2006, roughly three years after Rogers died of stomach cancer.

Several years later, Harry Parker, a theater professor at Texas Christian University and the department’s former longtime chair, heard Madigan talk about the book and couldn’t get the story out of his head.  

“I went back and I read it again and I thought, ‘I think this is a play.’ … That’s what I do for a living is direct plays,” he said. “I’ve never written a play — never ever. It was a humbling experience for me to find out how difficult it is to write a play, even one that has great source material and wonderful story and characters that are already laid out for you.”

Madigan’s previous book “The Burning: The Tulsa Race Massacre of 1921” was used as source material for HBO’s series “Watchmen,” but he had never written a play either.

Parker took a first crack at the script and the two men continued to work on it together, often over pizza. 

The play doesn’t sugarcoat the hardships Madigan shared with Rogers, and, for that, Parker applauds Madigan’s vulnerability.

“He’s told us very clearly in some rehearsals, ‘Wow, it’s hard for me to listen to this section.’ … This is a true story. These feelings and events really happened to him. And he’s reliving them as we’re reenacting them on the stage,” Parker said. 

“But it has been his desire from the very beginning to try to tell the story as honestly as we can. And I think his motivation is that it’s a story worth telling, that other people have fought depression, and other people have been in dark places. And maybe they can hear something that will help them in the same way that Fred was able to help him.”

In spring of 2022, Madigan had the opportunity to hear professional actors do a read-through of the play for the first time. 

“You could have knocked me over with a feather. It was so emotional for me,” he said. 

Tim Long, executive director of Circle Theatre, was also there and saw the play’s potential. And a little more than a year later after the read-through, it will make its debut on the company’s thrust stage Oct. 26.  

For Madigan, watching an actor reenact some of the toughest moments of his life can feel a little bit like “running around naked on the stage for 90 minutes.” But the bonds he’s developed with everyone in the production and the knowledge that each person is doing their job with great care helps him feel a little less exposed. 

Even though the play is based on Madigan’s life, the reason he is sharing this story is not for his own gratification. 

“The most personal, painful things we try so hard to hide from one another are precisely what we have most in common with other people,” Madigan said.

One of the reasons Rogers’ show was able to stick around for 895 episodes was his ability to help viewers, no matter how big or small, discuss their emotions.

“(Fred) was essentially asking people to come out of hiding. And this story is essentially how much redemption and healing can be had when people do that,” Madigan said. “So that is why, as hard as it is, I have no choice but to put this out there.”

Marcheta Fornoff covers the arts for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at or on Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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