I cry every time I talk about Mister Rogers. Every. single. time.
It doesn’t matter the context. The tears well up in my eyes. I struggle to hold them back but I always fail. To say that Mister Rogers had a big impact on my childhood is an understatement. He continues to have an impact on me decades later as I’m well into my adult years. Fred Rogers passed away in 2003. 15 years later we need him now more than ever.
Directed by Academy Award winner Morgan Neville, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is a new documentary chronicling the life of the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Fred Rogers. Told through interviews, clips from the show, home video footage, news footage and more, audiences get a closer look at the man whose TV presence impacted generations of children. The talking heads in the movie are members of Fred Rogers’ close circle. These include his wife, his two sons, actors from the show, guests from the show like Yo-Yo Ma and a few others who knew him well. This gives the documentary a level of intimacy that would not have been attained if outsiders like academics, professionals, cultural historians had been included in the mix. We learn about Rogers’ early years and how his path towards becoming a Presbyterian minister was put aside when he saw a need to help children through the medium of television. Fred Rogers transformed into Mister Rogers, a gentle, caring and patient screen presence who encouraged kids to feel good about themselves and also guided them through some of the more difficult aspects of growing up and life in general.
Fans of the show will recognize many familiar faces including David Newell (Mr. McFeeley), Betty Aberlin (Lady Aberlin), Joe Negri (Handyman Negri) and Francois Clemmons (Officer Clemmons). There are even members who worked behind the scenes including floor manager Nick Tallo who had some great stories to share. They speak at length regarding important and ground-breaking moments in the show and what Fred Rogers was like to work with. Fans will also appreciate how the documentary goes into detail how Mister Rogers used puppets and the land of make believe to convey important messages to children when a direct approach would not be as effective. We also learn how events and cultural moments of the last half of the 20th century affected children and in turn how Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood addressed those concerns.
The show was ground breaking. Where other television programming for children was fast-paced, flashy, goofy and often violent, Rogers and his team had something special. The pace was slow and methodical but with not a wasted minute. Mister Rogers was always transparent with children, whether it was on his show or in person, about the format of television, what was real about it and what wasn’t. I remember one episode from the 1980s where Rogers takes viewers behind the scenes and show all the particulars of the set and introduces us to Johnny Costa, the pianist who played the music to the show. In another episode, Negri leaves his dog with Rogers to dogsit. Rogers is very clear with viewers that the set isn’t his real home and that he has a wife and children in a real home elsewhere. I always appreciated this about him. He could have relied on the smoke and mirrors quality of television. He chose honesty instead.
We like to put Fred Rogers in the mold of modern day saint but he was a much more complicated man than that. He was very vocal in his dislike for television. It took him years to accept actor Francois Clemmons’ homosexuality. Rogers had an obsession with his weight, always keeping it at 143 because that number represented the words I Love You. In his later years, especially after he retired, he got depressed, wouldn’t see the doctor for the stomach ailment that eventually turned into the cancer that killed him and he doubted the impact he had on people and whether he could still have an impact.
I knew I would get emotional watching this film. I thought it would be for the many reasons that the memory of Mister Rogers makes me cry. A couple a years ago I spent an entire year watching one episode of the show per week (a local PBS affiliate would air an episode from the early 1980s every Saturday morning at 6 am). I would record it, watch it and cry. I’d cry from happiness of seeing Mister Rogers again and from the pain that nostalgia brings with it. I cried from the loss of those early years, the loss of my childhood and the loss of my father. Every episode would bring a flood of emotions. Even as a kid I was never interested in the land of make believe and I would get upset when the trolley showed up in Mister Rogers apartment because I knew he’d be gone for a little while. I really just wanted to spend time with him.
When I watched Won’t You Be My Neighbor I cried for a very different reason than I had expected. This surprised me. We live in an era in which dirty politics, mass shootings, bullying, and cruelty dominate our society. Mister Rogers was the embodiment of kindness. True and unadulterated kindness. He always told us “ I like you just the way you are.” In 2018, that kindness doesn’t seem to exist any more, a point brought up in the documentary and reflected on by Rogers’ wife Joanne. We live in a divided culture and we are cruel to each other on a daily basis. 15 years after his death we need Mister Rogers’ brand kindness more than ever. We need him to tell us to look for the helpers. We need him to remind us that “it’s such a good feeling to know you’re alive.” We need him to tell us it’s okay to be mad, sad, glad and that it’s okay to work through our emotions. We still need Mister Rogers and we get a little bit of him through this film.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (2018) is screening in select theaters now.