Joe Smith: Vulnerable Confidence

The longer we produce “Friends & Neighbors,” the clearer it becomes what type of people resonate: self starters and creatives, to be sure. Optimists, catalysts, builders, and those who value empathy, relationships and community. People who share their humanity — their very humanness — with humility: the full spectrum of feelings, strengths and weaknesses, confidences and vulnerabilities.

I’ve known Joe Smith since our time together at Syracuse University in the early 90s. I don’t really remember meeting he; he was just always sort of there. And he was always all of the above.

Joe was the unofficial fifth member of my beloved college band, Smokey Junglefrog, the only musician ever invited into our fold. He frequently joined us on stage to play the then-hip (see also “John Popper”) harmonica. But that was just a sideline for Joe.

Back then, when our fellow Orangemen were starry-eyed actor wannabes, Joe had already tread the footlights. To me, he seemed fully formed, the byproduct of being raised in the theatre. He was confident, but vulnerable. He improvised characters on a dime, and wrote skits and shows just for fun.

For 30 years now, Joe has popped up on my media box with some regularity, the approachably handsome, often nerdy, usually self-deprecating everyman. The Best Buy Guy. The Cheez-It Scientist. The Clueless Husband.

Whether in a lab coat or golf shirt, Joe’s humanity is always on display. His characters are never cool, or perfectly composed; they’re doing their best to make sense of a complex, convoluted world.

Like, if we’re being honest, most of us.

Joe and I hadn’t really talked in years. We hugged and high-fived at the premiere of “Mister Rogers & Me” in 2012, but our last deep discussion was when I visited his Hollywood apartment in the early Aughts.

When I called Joe a few days he told me he was on alert; his partner of sixteen years, Amy, had a chronic condition. He may, he said, need to jump off to help her. 

And then we began, first discussing our time together at Syracuse, his early acting in his parent’s Worcester, Mass, theatre, and journey to La La Land where he’s appeared in too many movies, commercials, and voice over gigs to count.

But when our conversation was interrupted by a call Joe had to take, it turned especially deep and simple, and very real.

For a dozen or so episodes now, I’ve been closing with pearls of Fred Rogers’ wisdom connected with each conversation. Sometimes, those quotations come to mind immediately, other times, I have to search the Internet for reminders.

Today, I walked to my bookshelf where a small collection of items from the making of our film, “Mister Rogers & Me,” provide a constant reminder. There are signed copies of Amy Hollingsworth’s “The Simple Faith of Mister Rogers” and Tim Madigan’s “I’m Proud of You,” plus our Heartland Film Festival and American Public Television awards. 

And in the center of it all, there is a tiny, kid-sized copy of, “You Are Special: Neighborly Wisdom from Mister Rogers.” Inside, in his beautiful penmanship, Fred wrote: “For Benjamin on his birthday and always … from your real neighbor.”

I opened to a random page, and began reading.

“The greatest gift you ever give is the gift of your honest self.”

In the years that I’ve known Joe, as evidence in this conversation, he has given nothing less than his full humanity, his deep humility — a full spectrum of feelings, strengths AND weaknesses, confidences and vulnerabilities.

At the height of his confidences, as Joe shared his work-a-day insights on how to audition, or move mountains with a spoon, Joe also shared his deepest vulnerability: Life is hard. And often gets harder. And sometimes, it feels like nobody warned us.

“There is no normal life that is free of pain,” Fred Rogers once said. “It’s the very wrestling with our problems that can be the impetus for our growth.”

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