Madison man inspires Tom Hanks to play Mr. Rogers

Jeff Erlanger's quadriplegia did not stop him
Madison man inspires Tom Hanks to play Mr. Rogers
Photo courtesy of Howard Erlanger
Jeff Erlanger (left) was 5 years old in 1981 when he met Mr. Rogers and appeared on his PBS show.

In an article posted earlier this month by Vanity Fair, the actor Tom Hanks said that seeing a video clip of Fred Rogers talking to a young boy in a wheelchair is “one of the reasons I’m in the movie.”

The movie is “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” which premiered recently at the Toronto International Film Festival and will be in theaters later this year.

Hanks plays the late Fred Rogers, longtime host of the enormously popular public TV show, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

The young boy in the wheelchair? That was Jeff Erlanger of Madison, who appeared on the show in 1981.

The Vanity Fair story is headlined, “The Fred Rogers Moment That Made Tom Hanks Bawl His Eyes Out.”

At a press conference in Toronto around the premiere, Hanks said that he hadn’t watched a lot of “Mr. Rogers,” being more of a fan of “Rocky and Bullwinkle.” But a few years ago, a friend sent Hanks the video clip. “It made me bawl my eyes out,” Hanks said. In Vanity Fair, he references Erlanger by name.

For some of us, the news that Jeff Erlanger is still connecting with people — a celebrated movie star, no less — made it a pretty great day in the neighborhood.

“It’s incredible,” Jeff’s dad, Howard Erlanger, an emeritus University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, said last week. We spoke by phone and he sent me a link to the Vanity Fair piece.

Jeff Erlanger died in 2007 at the age of 36. A quadriplegic, Erlanger suffered from complications related to a spinal cord tumor discovered when he was an infant.

Erlanger was always more concerned with what he could do than what he couldn’t, and he did plenty, including chairing Madison’s Commission on People with Disabilities.

I first interviewed him for a newspaper column in 2000. I was writing six columns a week for The Capital Times on deadline back then. I received a tip that Erlanger had an amazing story involving the still nascent internet, and he was good enough to share it when I reached him by phone.

I didn’t know that just a year earlier, in March 1999, Erlanger had surprised Fred Rogers onstage when Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame.

“On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger told Rogers at the event, “it’s you I like” — a reference to a song Rogers and Jeff sang together during Jeff’s 1981 “Mr. Rogers” appearance.

During our 2000 interview, Erlanger told me he was born in Berkeley but soon after moved to Madison with his parents, Howie and Pam, when they accepted UW-Madison teaching jobs.

His story — the reason we were talking — concerned an episode from a few nights earlier.

Erlanger was an avid fan of the internet. Most nights he was on ESPN’s website reading baseball stories. But on this evening, he was up for a chat on America Online. He wound up communicating with a woman from Boston who said her name was Sarah.

Erlanger typed, “What do you do for a living?”

“I’m a dentist,” she replied. “But can I tell you about myself?”

Erlanger was about to respond when she continued: “I’m a manic depressive. I’ve attempted suicide. I’ve been hospitalized for it.”

Uncertain how to reply, Jeff simply typed, “OK.”

Sarah wrote, “Right now I have blood coming down my arms.”

“Are you all right?”

“No.”

“Do you want help?”

“No.”

She ended the conversation soon after.

Erlanger, unsure if what Sarah described was truly happening, decided he needed to try to summon help. His computer was tying up his phone line, so Erlanger used the lobby phone in his apartment building to call 911. The Madison police told him to call the Boston police.

The Boston cops said they couldn’t do much without a last name. Erlanger went back to the computer and sent a note to America Online. They responded: Call the police. Finally, Jeff reached back to the Boston police and suggested they contact America Online.

That worked. The Boston police found Sarah, who had fresh cuts on her wrists.

“The Boston Globe told me they were non-life threatening,” Erlanger said.

The story went, as we now say, viral. “Good Morning, America” reached out to Erlanger for an interview. So did a radio station in Iceland. Erlanger was miffed that most wanted to make a big deal of his disability.

“I never considered it part of the story. I think I get around very well,” he told me.

We stayed in touch. In 2002 Erlanger invited me to speak at a summer school class for seniors he taught on campus.

A year later, when Fred Rogers died, I went over to Erlanger’s parents house and got the story on how the family first connected with Rogers.

“We first met when I was five [in 1975],” Jeff Erlanger said. He was about to have spine surgery. “My parents asked me what I wanted to do before the surgery. I imagine they thought I would want to go to Great America or Disneyland. I said I wanted to meet Mr. Rogers.”

The family wrote Rogers a letter. Rogers wrote back, saying he was going to be making an appearance in Milwaukee, and why didn’t they come over? They hit it off so well that an invitation was extended for Jeff to appear on the show, resulting in the video that so moved Tom Hanks and countless others.

The day Rogers died, Jeff Erlanger said, “He was just as he appeared on TV. He was a wonderful man.”

Doug Moe is a Madison writer. Read his monthly column, Person of Interest, in Madison Magazine.

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