Won't You Be My Neighbor?
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For over 30 years, Fred Rogers, an unassuming minister, puppeteer, writer and producer, was beamed daily into homes across America. In his beloved television program, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Fred and his cast of puppets and friends spoke directly to young children about some of life's weightiest issues, in a simple, direct fashion. There hadn't been anything like Mr. Rogers on television before and there hasn't been since.
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In Chapter Ten of the Bible’s Book for Luke, a lawyer seeking to test Jesus asks him what he needs to do in order to inherit eternal life. Jesus answers the man by saying that he needs to love God with all his heart, his soul, and his mind. And to love his neighbor as he loves himself.
The lawyer persists. He asks Jesus, “And who is my neighbor?” And Jesus replies by telling the man the parable of the Good Samaritan.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, it is impossible that Fred Rogers did not know the story documented by Luke in his Gospel…or that he didn’t have Jesus’ parable very much in mind when he composed the song which opened not only every single episode of his seminal children’s television show, but also is used as the title to the superb new documentary released on June 8 by Focus Features, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Fred Rogers, of course, was the creator and star of WQED’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the PBS children’s show which over the course of 912 episodes and 31 years helped entire generations of young people through some of the most traumatic times they experienced between infancy and adolescence. Over the course of those years, Mister Rogers changed not only the face of PBS and children’s television—he changed the world.
Directed by Morgan Neville, the Academy Award-winning filmmaker behind “Twenty Feet From Stardom” in 2014 and 2015’s “Best of Enemies,” the new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” with the full cooperation of Rogers’ family and unlimited access to rare and obscure archival footage, paints the gentle and soft-spoken Rogers as an enormously unlikely but fearless and persistent revolutionary: The word “radical,” in all its tenses and forms, is used several times over the course of the film’s 93-minute running time.
A 1946 graduate of Latrobe High School, Fred Rogers was educated at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida, where in 1951 he earned a BA in music. Intending to pursue a career as a minister in the Presbyterian Church, Rogers experienced a life-changing epiphany when he first viewed the new medium of television.
Specifically, Rogers was appalled by what passed in those days as children’s television programming—pies in the face, violence, and often-inappropriate cartoons. The young Rogers decided to put on hold his ambitions of a career in faith and religion, and instead set about changing the face and image of children’s television. “I’ve always felt that I didn’t need to put on a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child,” Rogers says in archival footage used by Neville in the film.
Employing a fairly straightforward documentary style, director Neville makes brilliant use of new interviews with Rogers’ associates, colleagues, friends and family members, as well as writers, critics, and historians, to relate observations, insights, and always more stories and anecdotes about the gentle and unassuming man who sought to make television his personal ministry.
But the real heart and soul of Neville’s documentary is the footage of Rogers himself, blazing trails, opening doors, and resisting intolerance, often in ways which when viewed with the clarity of hindsight appear audacious, sometimes heroic, and at least once even prescient: In February of 1968, during the very first nationally-televised week of “Mister Rogers,” the Neighborhood of Make Believe’s ruler King Friday the Thirteenth commanded the construction of a wall topped with barbed wire to isolate his kingdom from outsiders. Sound familiar?
During the course of Neville’s documentary, we see Rogers sometimes braving almost overwhelming opposition to reinforce his vision, his medium, and his message. While public television was originally endorsed and subsidized by the presidential administration of Lyndon Johnson, President Nixon in 1969 needed more funding to channel to the Vietnam War. He sought to find some of that money by deducting $20 million from government subsidies to the fledgling PBS.
To resist cuts which might’ve ended public television while still in its infancy, Mister Rogers went to Washington to testify before the Senate Appropriations Committee, headed by the cynical, caustic, and outrageously sarcastic Rhode Island Senator John O. Pastore.
In new interview footage, Rogers’ widow Joanne reveals the nervousness and fear felt by her husband that day, but Neville’s archival footage betrays no such tension. Instead, with a firm but carefully deferential demeanor and a quietly modulated voice little different from the tones and cadences he used to communicate with the nation’s preschoolers, Rogers faces down Pastore’s belligerence. He recites to the Senate committee the lyrics to a song he composed for an episode of his show, highlighting the importance of people helping others.
In six minutes of testimony, Rogers accomplishes much the same result the US Army’s chief counsel Joseph Walsh did some fifteen years earlier while facing down the despotic Senator Joe McCarthy: After Rogers completes his brief presentation, a chastened and defeated Senator Pastore looks down at his hands and resignedly acknowledges, “Well, it looks like you’ve just earned $20 million.” It’s a powerful moment.
There are many such quietly courageous instances included in this wonderful film. In response to news footage of the owners of segregated hotels dumping cleaning compounds into pools as a means of evicting black swimmers, Rogers appears in an episode of his show soaking his feet in a small pool of cool water, an antidote to the day’s oppressive heat. And when the Neighborhood’s Officer Clemons happens by, Rogers insists that the African American policeman join him.
The message of the scene is unmistakable, but one wonders today how many of the nation’s segregationists understood the relevance of the moment which followed, as Mister Rogers helped his black friend towel off his feet…or that the simple gesture’s roots were in the Bible’s Book of John. In new interview footage shot by director Neville, actor and singer Francois Clemons, who played the Neighborhood’s police officer, still grows misty while cherishing his memory of the scene, and the man.
We see moments from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” shows on assassination, on death, and divorce—“Love is the root of all relationships,” says Rogers, “Love…or the lack of it.” We see black and white news footage of hundreds of children and their families in a line stretching along entire city blocks for a 1969 guest appearance by Mister Rogers on a PBS show in Boston. And it’s difficult to not feel a sense of electricity and inspiration while viewing the images of Rogers and Clemons emerging side-by-side from a tenement during times of civil turbulence, engaging inner-city youngsters playing in the mean streets of New York.
Still, Neville never renders Fred Rogers in strokes larger than the man himself. Mister Rogers was not a saint, nor by any means perfect. We see his eyes flash with anger and his words grow harsh at the thought of a proliferation of violence and suggestiveness in children’s television programming. A staff member recalls Rogers admonishing him for frequenting a venue for gays, and forbidding return visits. And we see Rogers’ son John ruefully acknowledging the childhood difficulties of being “the son of the second coming of Christ.”
But the overwhelming impression of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is one of a quiet, gentle, unassuming man, not much different than the one entire generations grew to know, love, and trust—the man who regarded the space between the television and the child “holy ground indeed,” and who sought to “make goodness attractive.”
Is there room in the world today for such a message? The tearful smiles of viewers exiting screenings of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” emphatically suggest that there is.
The first week of his show’s 1968 national debut (yes, the show started in 1968!), we met the puppet King Friday, the XIII (incidentally, it took me 41 years to get the “Friday the 13th” joke), a despotic ruler who’s “afraid of change” and wants “the undesirables” out, so he decides to build a wall. Sound familiar? Later, Mr. Rogers hired a black man to play “Police Officer Clemmons,” despite the strained (to say the least) relationship the police had with the black community in the ‘60s that still clearly resonates today. At a time when many whites were trying to segregate swimming pools, Mr. Rogers had Officer Clemmons share a foot bath with him in a kiddie pool.
In his documentary, Neville interviews an intimate group of talking heads who knew Mr. Rogers best, including his wife, “Officer Clemmons” himself (who somehow looks thinner and younger than his televised self from decades ago), and even famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who once guested on an episode. (“He scared the hell out of me!” Ma jokes.) I think my favorite description of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” from one of these interviewees was that it was “a television show made by a guy who didn’t like television.” It had low production values; a quiet, almost camera-shy host who didn’t yell at you (unlike every other kiddie show host at the time); and dime-store puppets in lieu of expensive animation. On his way to seminary school, Mr. Rogers discovered the strange new invention of the television set and, seeing its potential as an important and powerful tool, decided to try his hand at producing his own show. He was discouraged at what passed for children’s entertainment at the time: lots of noise; excitable, almost apoplectic hosts; and repeated pies thrown in faces. In other words, there wasn’t much human dignity on display. Mr. Rogers decided to do the opposite, and, as a result, ended up creating a timeless classic that has lasted for generations.
The entire philosophy of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” could probably be boiled down to the Biblical adage, “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” For over 30 years, he continually greeted his viewers as “neighbor,” and obviously, “Neighborhood” is in the title of the program. Mr. Rogers used to sing songs (all of them written by himself, including the title song, which also serves as the title of this documentary) about respecting the value of others and, just as importantly (if not more so), yourself. He taught kids it didn’t matter how young, small, or even disabled they were (he once hosted a wheelchair-bound child to introduce his young viewers to children who struggle with disabilities), they each had worth. One of his most famous songs, titled “It’s You I Like,” includes the following lyrics: “It’s you I like/It’s not the things you wear/It’s not the way you do your hair/but it’s you I like.” Flash-forward in the documentary to his meeting with a crowd of very young fans, and you can hear a boy, no more than 3 or 4 years old, call out in the background to his hero, “Mister Rogers, it’s YOU I like!” Watching that moment, tears in my eyes, I had a powerful revelation about “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood”: It wasn’t just a show; it was an active, Christian ministry, and it clearly worked. Its subtlety was the secret of its success.
Comedian Sarah Silverman has suggested that Mr. Rogers, her own personal hero, should be made a saint, based on his three miracles of obtaining $20 million in funding from the government for PBS when Nixon was threatening to defund the station to help pay for the Vietnam War; his interactions with Koko the gorilla who knew sign language; and teaching generations of children to value themselves. I once thought the idea to canonize Mr. Rogers was laughable, but after seeing this documentary, I’m not so sure anymore.
Despite highlighting his many saintly attributes, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” doesn’t lapse into hagiography. When Mr. Rogers found out costar Clemmons routinely visited a gay club, he instructed him not to return in fear of the public finding out and threatening to protest the show. Of course, he was just worried about the fate of his beloved program, and this happened during a much less progressive time, so it’s difficult to judge what he did in the ‘60s and ‘70s based on 2018 standards. Besides, he had many gay friends in life, and, according to Clemmons, he “came around” on the issue eventually.
Mr. Rogers deliberately slowed his show down, just when his juvenile competitors were speeding things up for the ADD crowd. One episode, he showed his young audience exactly how long a minute is by using an egg timer. For one long, excruciating (by television standards) minute, he just sat in silence as that timer counted off a minute. By comparison, to drastically illustrate the difference in other children’s entertainment at the time, the documentary shows clips from the ‘80s that are a direct damning indictment of what I grew up on, after I was allowed to watch more than just those two aforementioned shows. We see loud, violent clips of “G.I. Joe,” “The Transformers,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,” and, perhaps most stinging of all, since it’s one of my favorite animated movies, “The Chipmunk Adventure.” I actually own a few original animation cels of that movie, and they’re hanging on my office wall, so you can imagine how close to home that hit.
Towards the end of his life, you could see the weight of the world start to wear on Mr. Rogers, and one of the talking heads noticed that his personality slowly morphed from the shy, innocent Daniel Tiger (who was modeled on the host and who now has his own animated program on PBS that my kids love) to the overbearing King Friday, the XIII who “wanted everything his way.” After 9/11, we see images of Mr. Rogers looking beaten down and almost broken. There’s a heaviness in his eyes, subtly acknowledging that evil had won. When PBS asked him to say a few words about the tragedy, he was reluctant. “Are people really going to want to hear what I have to say?” he asked. Yes, Mr. Rogers, we did. And we still wish we could hear your voice about the unfortunate state of the world today.
For over 30 years (with a brief, rerun-fueled hiatus where he tried his hand at an ill-received show for adults), “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” taught lessons that were at once blindingly obvious yet profoundly real: Kindness matters. Courtesy matters. Decency matters. It’s like that inspirational poster from the ‘90s: “Everything I need to know, I learned in kindergarten.” Lately, I think we could all use a reminder of that.
One of the many lessons I’ve taken from Mr. Rogers, without even realizing it, is that we should use our talents for good, not evil. The problem is, giving into temptation is just too easy in this world. Darth Vader once warned, “You don’t know the power of the Dark Side,” and unfortunately, he was right. To far too many in this country, it can be much more alluring to shout “Lock her up!” than to seriously debate the issues. Almost every day, I want to write an expletive-filled screed about the nonstop horrors this country is currently experiencing. Instead, I wrote a review about the Mr. Rogers movie. Thank you, Mr. Rogers.