Film & Television

‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Yes, Please!

Fred Rogers, television pioneer, ordained minister, and gentle soul, passed away in 2003. It isn’t difficult to imagine what he would say were he alive today, witnessing, as we all are, the terrible epidemic of school shootings across this country.

“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’ To this day, especially in times of disaster, I remember my mother’s words, and I am always comforted by realizing that there are still so many helpers — so many caring people in this world.”

Rogers first offered this piece of advice in a newspaper column is 1986, then revisited it in the wake of 9/11. Even as the most horrific events play out, seemingly week after week, we still naturally follow his example. Along with psychological analyses of the shooters and tearful tributes to the victims, there are invariably tales of selfless heroism. Melody Herzfeld, a drama teacher from Parkland, Florida, saved 67 students last February and was honored at the most recent Tony Awards.

Hope was just one of the gifts that Mr. Rogers gave his young viewers. Most important, perhaps, is that he impressed upon them that they were worthy of being liked and loved. “You are special,” he assured them in 1968. “You are my friend. You’re special to me. You are the only one like you. Like you, my friend, I like you.”

Whether you grew up with Mr. Rogers yourself, watched a daughter or son, or (in my case) younger sibling do so, you’ll find the marvelous new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? to be a fascinating portrait of the world’s most unlikely celebrity. Directed by Morgan Neville (2013’s acclaimed 20 Feet from Stardom), this appropriately thoughtful and slow-paced film focuses mainly on Mr. Rogers’s television legacy, but also provides glimpses into his childhood, family life, philosophy, and faith. The movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January and opened this past week at select U.S. theaters. It’s a touching tribute that left many audience members in my local indie movie house (this reviewer included) smiling through tears. (You may want to bring a hanky.)

Fred McFeely Rogers was born in 1928. As we learn in Neville’s film, he was frequently ill and learned to use his imagination while stuck in bed recuperating. For a spell, he was nicknamed “Fat Fred,” and it’s easy to see why he later championed acceptance and discouraged bullying. (As an adult, he weighed a consistent 143 pounds, a number he found satisfying because it correlated to the number of letters in “I Love You.”) He was a gifted musician (he wrote every song you may remember from his TV show), and earned a B.A. in music before beginning his seminary education as planned. However, his path changed when he first saw television. “I went into television because I hated it so,” he later explained. “I thought there must be some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.” He worked for a few years at NBC, but quickly became disenchanted with commercial television, and moved to WQED, a public station in Pittsburgh. While there, he completed seminary, but chose to continue to work with children’s programming rather than as a minister. Mr. Rogers Neighborhood (incorporating elements he had developed working on other children’s shows) began in 1966. It was expanded to national PBS distribution in 1970.

Thanks to his soft-spoken, simple messages, Mr. Rogers is easy to dismiss. (Won’t You Be My Neighbor? does include quick references to some of the show’s spoofs, such as Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Blessed with a genuine and self-deprecating sense of humor, Rogers found it funny.) What Neville focuses on, however, are some of the truly groundbreaking moments in the show’s thirty-year history. When Bobby Kennedy was shot, for example, Daniel, the shy tiger puppet, asked Lady Aberlin (actress Betty Aberlin) “What does assassination mean?” When black families were attacked by whites for swimming in public pools, Mr. Rogers invited African-American Officer Clemmons (singer François Clemmons) to cool off with him in an inflatable pool. “But, I don’t have a towel,” Officer Clemons protested. “You can use mine,” offered Mr. Rogers.

Over the decades, Mr. Rogers Neighborhood dealt with death, divorce, anger, disability, and so much more. Rogers’s approach was to deal with these difficult topics honestly. He took the time to explain what was happening and how a child might feel about it. He legitimized fear and sadness, but always underscored that children would be safe, that there were grownups who would make sure they were.


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  • Cecilia Ford June 19, 2018 at 12:06 pm

    I agree completely with Dr. Pat. Fred Rogers understood what children need most: a good friendly neighbor. The US is ow the neighborhood bully. Would he even recognize it?

  • Dr. Pat June 19, 2018 at 8:47 am

    Thank you so much, Alex, for covering this documentary for WVFC. Since I am an Olympic weeper, it is not surprising that I now have to do face touch up before patients arrive after reading this post. You remind us that Mr. Rogers was once an aspirational role model for children and adults; certainly a role model for parents. I weep not only for the past but for the children who have been torn from their parents in our once decent and welcoming country. I weep because I feel hopeless in this environment where citizens who once had collective power by working together, uniting to fight injustice, are now fighting exhaustion from daily horrors affecting so many of our citizens including this new nightmare perpetrated by Homeland Security and ICE against those who had hoped to apply for asylum and now may lose their children forever. We who know that so much is wrong in the new America of “Make America Great” seem to be exhausted from the many battles to be fought, the disbelief we feel as we hear the same big lies over and over again, fearing that fellow Americans will eventually believe that the lie as some sort of new truth. I don’t know what Mr. Rogers would tell children who feared separation from their parents after years of productive lives in America; I don’t know how he would encourage us to care for our neighbors as ourselves at this time in history. I certainly miss his comforting voice and his always sane advice.