“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Our Man Fred… Rogers
For over 30 years, Fred Rogers came daily into homes across America. His television program, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was made up of Fred and his cast of puppets and friends who spoke directly to young children about some of life’s heaviest issues simply and directly. In one sensitive segment, co-star Francois Clemmons talked about coming out of the closet to Fred Rogers and this film also looks into the rumors about Rogers’ own sexuality. I am somewhat embarrassed to say that seeing director Morgan Neville’s film here is the first time I met Mr. Rogers. I was out of the country for many of the years when it was broadcast and when I was here I just never got around to it.
Early in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” we see a clip from the 1968 premiere episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood in which the leader of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe”, a puppet named King Friday XIII, announces his plans to build a wall around his kingdom because of his fear of change. Today we see the obvious irony in light of president Donald Trump’s repeated calls for a wall at the Mexican border. There is tension generated by the clashing notions that Fred Rogers was both an iconoclast in children’s entertainment and that his pleas for kindness, understanding, and basic human decency never quite took hold in American society and this is the theme of Neville’s documentary.
Now some 50 years after the idea of the beloved PBS series, many of the world’s problems remain depressingly the same. The film exhibits a steadfast belief that Rogers’s philosophy of love and acceptance can be useful as more than just a nostalgic balm in troubled times. Through carefully curated archival footage and interviews with those most intimately involved with Rogers over the years, we see the seemingly simple yet surprisingly radical methodology employed by Rogers during his years on the air.
Rogers’s 1969 senate testimony helped to secure the $15 million needed to keep public television alive is the film’s centerpiece yet a series of smaller, more intimate moments reveal the soft-spoken man’s unique worldview. The archival footage, like that of his heartwarming conversation with 10 year-old Jeff Erlanger about how the young boy deals with his sadness and disability, helps to show us a man determined to speak honestly and directly with, rather than down to, children of all ages. In clip after clip, Rogers addresses such topics as death, depression, anger, divorce, even Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination, connecting with children not by protecting them from harsh truths, but by helping them to face and cope with them.
While Neville depicts Rogers as something of a saint, he also touches on a number of Rogers’s personal and professional struggles. Rogers’s relentless perfectionism led one of his sons to describe the challenge of having “the second Christ as a father.” That perfectionism also caused Rogers, who was overweight as a boy and teased for it, to be obsessed with weighing in daily at exactly 143 pounds—a number which, according to his personal numerology code, means “I love you.” Even Rogers’s professed belief in accepting everyone for who they are is brought into question when François “Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”, discusses his boss’s insistence that he remain in the closet so as not to put the show’s funding at risk.
Every unflattering fact unearthed about Rogers is offset by a dozen glowing ones, including Clemmons praising his boss’s eventual 180 on homosexuality. But Neville wisely keeps the focus primarily on Rogers’s message rather than his private life. Doing so allows the filmmaker not only to explore Rogers’s ways of reaching children and how he remained steadfast in his convictions despite his core beliefs falling out of favor. We see Rogers as a living, breathing example of love, tolerance, and openness to a world dead focused on building walls rather than tearing them down.
Mister Rogers was the writer and producer of his show and also did the voices for 10 different puppets. Lessons on loneliness and friendship are mixed with more edgy commentaries on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the Challenger disaster, and other events. During a time when some communities were having trouble with interracial bathing in swimming pools, Mister Rogers invited an African-American policeman (Francois Clemmons) to join him soaking their feet in a common tub.
Rogers was mentor of openness and goodness, and lived his own belief that “The only thing that really changes the world is when someone gets the idea that love can abound.”