Long before the cacophony of today’s TV with its thousands of channels, squabbling housewives and violent games of thrones, an unlikely icon emerged with an unpopular idea — quality educational programming for very young kids. With Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred McFeely Rogers left an indelible mark on millions with his quiet sincerity and life lessons. The Pennsylvania-born Presbyterian minister “just wanted to make people feel good,” says his friend and the show’s floor manager Nick Tallo.
50 years after the show began and 15 years after Rogers’s death at 74, a new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, explores the life and legacy of the man inside those iconic sweaters. “His decision to level with kids in a very sensitive way was his greatest accomplishment,” says director Morgan Neville. “Spending time with him today is like revisiting a part of yourself.” Here are five things we learned about TV’s king of kindness from Neville’s documentary.
He had a difficult childhood
Born in 1928 to parents James and Nancy, Rogers was shy and sickly as a boy—“I had every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever,” he recalls in the film—and therefore spent much of his time alone in his room crafting elaborate stories with puppets and writing music. After earning a divinity degree and a master’s degree in child development, Rogers worked for NBC in New York City before developing his own show at Pittsburgh’s public-TV station WQED. “People thought about toddlers very differently 50 years ago,” says Neville. “He was so far ahead of the curve.”
He fought racism on-air
Despite the show’s calm atmosphere, Rogers didn’t shy away from controversial issues. During his first season in 1968, he produced a special to help kids cope after Robert F. Kennedy’s assassination. The next year he tackled racial tensions when he invited black costar François Clemmons, as the neighborhood police officer, to join him in a kiddie pool and helped dry Clemmons’s feet with a towel. “At that time in the nation, white people in urban settings were putting acid in swimming pools to keep black people out of the pools,” recalls Clemmons. “He was very much aware of what was happening in America. He didn’t put his head in the sand. I’ve had countless people over the years tell me how deeply, deeply meaningful it was.”
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The Land of Make Believe occasionally followed him home
“He used puppet voices at the dinner table with his children when he wanted to express different facets of his personality,” says Neville. Which, according to his wife of 50 years, Joanne, 90, was the same on TV and at home. “He was to me and to the family who he is to everybody else,” she says. The couple met while studying music at Rollins College and married in1952 (Rogers proposed in a letter). They have two sons, James, 58, and John, 57, who spent much of their younger years visiting the set. “We all came to an understanding of this is who he was, and this is what life was going to be,” Joanne, a professional pianist, says of navigating Rogers’s fame and work commitments. “Over the years we learned that maybe we needed our own lives too, so that’s how we dealt with that.”
No, he wasn’t a Navy SEAL
With the rise of the Internet, outlandish urban legends emerged—including that Rogers had secretly been a Navy SEAL or wore long sleeves to cover tattoos. “People have an idea of what they want him to be, so they create a legend,” says Clemmons of the rumors—including those questioning his sexuality. “Fred was nurturing, loving, gentle and very much heterosexual,” says Clemmons, who came out as gay himself decades later and says Rogers became a surrogate father to him.
He’s missed more than ever
Joanne says that her husband’s lasting legacy is his clarity about what he stood for—kindness, goodness and neighborliness. “He did in his life what he said was so important, which is to give the gift of his honest self,” she says. Adds Tallo: “It’s sad to know that there aren’t very many people as nice as Fred anymore. No matter what, he could make you say to yourself, ‘It’s okay.’ ”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is now playing in select theaters.