Fred Rogers Memorial, Pittsburgh. Photo by Britt Reints.
If you want to get an American between the ages of 20 and 50 misty-eyed, you could do worse than linking them to a clip of Fred Rogers telling viewers that he still likes them just the way they are.
That particular bit of video comes from a series of public service announcements a retired Rogers taped in 2001 after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I suspect these genuine sentiments could have touched any viewer, but for the millions of people – including me – who grew up as Mr. Rogers’ “neighbors,” the messages were reminders of the importance of his extraordinary body of work.
I recently got the chance to see “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”, a new documentary that focuses on Rogers’ career, especially his show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” Filmmaker Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for his 2013 film “20 Feet From Stardom,” paints a portrait of a multifaceted and sometimes flawed human being who nevertheless embodied many of the best qualities that generations of fans associated with his television persona. More than one of Neville’s interview subjects mentions that people always want to know whether Rogers “was really like that” – and the unanimous verdict from people who knew him is that he was indeed a remarkably patient and kind man who cared passionately about the well-being of those around him, particularly children.
For me, these conversations were fascinating, but not truly surprising. One of the biggest aspects of Rogers’ appeal was the fact that he was so unceasingly genuine in his interactions with children, both onscreen and off. In some footage used in the film, Rogers mentioned that he always pictured a single child on the other side of the camera when filming his show. From my perspective, that technique translated clearly into the sense that you, the viewer, were seen and valued.
I watched the show mainly in the late 1980s, nearly the dead center of its long run. In all, between the show’s premiere in 1968 and its final air dates in 2001, it ran for 895 episodes, and at its peak 8 percent of U.S. households were tuning in. That’s a lot of neighbors. Each episode included an earnest conversation with the audience and a trip to the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe;” many also featured special guests, demonstrations or “field trips” to see how various items were manufactured. (I suspect the long-running TV series “How It’s Made” benefited from scores of former kids who fondly remember discovering the secrets behind crayons or pasta.)
But Rogers’ true legacy, and most of Neville’s focus in the film, rests on the ways he demonstrated for young children that they have inherent value and are worthy of love, despite anything that makes them feel different from other people. In a memorable segment featured in Neville’s film, the puppet Daniel Striped Tiger asks whether he is a mistake, since he doesn’t know anyone else like him. The character Lady Aberlin reassures him, but does not dismiss his worries as silly or not worth talking about. Rogers routinely made room for kids to talk about emotions that might be difficult, such as anger or fear.
Given the length of the show’s run, Rogers also had the opportunity to address many larger events that children might struggle to make sense of – and that parents might be unsure how to discuss. Instead of avoiding hard topics, Rogers’ show addressed them head-on, from Robert Kennedy’s assassination to the segregation of public pools to the Challenger explosion. He neither sugarcoated nor catastrophized these topics, but instead talked about them in a genuine, matter-of-fact way, acknowledging that kids’ questions and concerns are worth taking seriously.
While I’m not a parent myself, I can see the value of Rogers’ approach from a new perspective as an adult. The popular YouTube series “Kids React” also demonstrated this point in a recent episode. While most of the featured kids are older than Rogers’ typical target audience, it is easy to see how various segments still open the door for conversations between kids and parents. You can see, too, that many of the parents who appear in the video still harbor profound respect and affection for a man who so affected their own childhoods.
Rogers’ influence was not restricted to his influential show. He famously testified before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, quietly but passionately arguing against proposed cuts to the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and PBS. Neville said that he cites the incident as a prime illustration of Rogers’ extraordinary determination: “Many people would call Fred a wimp, but what you realize in that moment is that Fred was the most iron-willed person out there.” The subcommittee chairman, Sen. John Pastore (D-R.I.), blocked the proposed cut largely on the strength of Rogers’ testimony.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is a film worth watching, no matter how much or how little you know about Fred Rogers’ work going in. But (as another famous children’s TV educator famously said) you don’t have to take my word for it. The documentary is currently “certified fresh” on Rotten Tomatoes at 99 percent positive reviews. Odie Henderson, writing for RogerEbert.com, noted that he was not a fan of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” as a child, though his sister loved the program. As an adult, however, he realized the profound value of its message: “He just told you that, no matter what you looked like, how able you were or how much money you had, that you had value.” Henderson adds of the documentary, not inaccurately, “Bring Kleenex. Lots of it.”
Fred Rogers died only a few months before I graduated from high school, which perhaps makes me feel more than most as if he is inextricably linked to my childhood. But watching Neville’s film, I felt an incredible kinship with the many, many people whose lives Rogers touched, directly and indirectly. Obviously this includes the people who appeared in the documentary, but I suspect it also includes some my fellow audience members, more than a few of whom left the theater visibly moved.
In his acceptance speech for a lifetime achievement award during the 1997 Emmys, Rogers incorporated a few moments of silence, in which he invited listeners to think about the people who have helped them become who they are. For many of us, the list of people who “loved us into being” firmly includes a man who we never met, but feel as if we know just the same.