Film & Television

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

In addition to memorable segments from the PBS series and archival interviews with Fred Rogers, Won’t You Be My Neighbor includes interviews with his colleagues and family. Their memories are affectionate and insightful. Joanne, his widow, and John and James, their two sons, admit that he wasn’t always easy to live with. Stagehands recall on-set pranks. Clemmons recounts a time when Rogers warned him that if he continued going to gay clubs he would have to leave. Rogers couldn’t risk losing the show’s sponsors, but was surprisingly tolerant on a personal level. In fact, protesters at his funeral held up signs damning him to hell for having tolerated homosexuals. As one friend notes sadly, “They were intolerant of his tolerance.”

Rogers was also criticized for creating a generation of slackers. Some claim that his “You are special just the way you are” message discouraged millennials from working hard or striving to better themselves. Scene after scene of Rogers’s effect on children make such accusations seem insignificant if not ridiculous. He also—single-handedly, it seems—saved public television when the Nixon administration wanted to cut funding to finance the war in Vietnam. It would be a rare curmudgeon who could possibly see Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood as anything other than a force for good.

Fortunately, Mr. Rogers’ still airs in some markets. There’s also a contemporary spinoff program, the animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood. And, of course, the age of social media has created a new way to appreciate Mr. Rogers. His is the face that launched a thousand memes. Some are deliberately crude and off-color, but many extend his message in ways he would approve of. Superimposed over photos of Rogers in one of his iconic sweaters are observations like, “Presbyterian minister, extremely religious, never mentions anything religious in the most moral, caring TV show of my childhood.” Or, “Another birthday and I don’t think you look a day older. It’s fun to make believe, isn’t it!” Or, my favorite, “You are not acting like the person Mr. Rogers knew you could be.” I take that to heart.

You see, I met Mr. Rogers in 1974. I was twelve years old and attending New York’s Toy Fair with a friend, whose journalist mother would be interviewing him. I was not looking forward to that part of our day (after all, I certainly didn’t watch his baby program, and on the tradeshow floor, they were giving away toys). But, as soon as Rogers came in, he sat down and spoke directly to my friend and me. He was genuinely interested in who we were and what we thought. Even as a petulant pre-teen, I realized that this man was not only cooler than I had thought he’d be, he was cooler than I was. There are people who are innately special, who are at once more human and more otherworldly than we mere mortals are. Friends who have met the Dalai Lama describe their experience in much the same way I remember that afternoon.

Rogers didn’t write “What the World Needs Now” (that was Burt Bacharach and Hal David). But, he could have. Getting temporarily lost in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, I was a bit sorry to return to today’s headlines.

I can’t help but think that what the world needs now is another Mr. Rogers.

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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.