Morgan Neville never met Fred Rogers. Growing up, he had the same relationship with Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as did many people his age: Neville, now 50, watched the show, then more or less forgot about it.
He went on to become an acclaimed documentary filmmaker, with credits including the Oscar-winning music documentary 20 Feet From Stardom.
Several years ago, Neville was working on The Music of Strangers, a film with cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
“One day at lunch I was asking Yo-Yo how he figured out how to be a famous person,” recalled Neville. “And he instantly responded, ‘Mister Rogers taught me.’ And I kind of chuckled and he said, ‘No, I'm not kidding. He really went out of his way to mentor me. I went on his show and we became friends and over the years he really showed me how I could use fame as a positive force in my life.’
“And that really kind of blew my mind,” said Neville. “And I thought, ‘Well, maybe there's something more to Mister Rogers than what I remembered from when I was 5.’”
Now Neville does feel like he’s met the late Fred Rogers, in a way.
His new feature-length documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, marks the iconic program’s 50th anniversary. In making it, Neville spent a year exploring Rogers’ life and legacy, with a deep dive into video archives and interviews with cast members, family and cultural commentators. The film opens June 8.
Many might regard Rogers – an ordained Presbyterian minister, after all – as simply that nice man in a cardigan who liked people just the way they were. But Neville paints him as a mild-mannered revolutionary – a proponent, as the filmmaker puts it, of “radical kindness.”
The show, as one commentator says in the film, was the opposite of everything you’d do to make good television. The sets were inexpensive and anodyne, the pace was slow, the volume low. Half the characters were hand puppets.
The program, produced at WQED in Pittsburgh, went national on PBS in 1968. (The documentary includes plenty of still photos and behind-the-scenes footage from the WQED studios on Fifth Avenue in Oakland.) But Won’t You Be My Neighbor? emphasizes that this humble-looking show was in the vanguard of new ideas about how to raise and relate to kids.
“He was so far ahead of the curve,” said Neville. “But the things he was doing were not only ahead of their time, they were out of time. … You know, dealing with issues like war or death, bringing on children with different abilities and all kinds of sordid stories for young children -- nobody is doing that now on television.”
Rogers grew up affluent in Latrobe. The film covers his early forays into children’s television, including WQED’s Children’s Corner. Rogers regarded this work as an extension of his ministry. He thought kids’ TV was too loud and violent – too many pies in the face – and that it didn’t nurture kids or help them become better people. Hence the slow pace of his shows: He once, famously, took a whole minute of his half-hour show to set an egg-timer and then sit quietly to demonstrate just how long 60 seconds was.
This was all, needless to say, rather countercultural in the days when even a lauded show like Sesame Street was trying to meet contemporary kids halfway by mimicking the fast pace and high volume of TV commercials. But Rogers went even further. In the midst of the Vietnam War, the very first national episode of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood told a martial allegory of the monarch King Friday declaring hostilities with an adjacent neighborhood, while the other inhabitants – X the Owl, Daniel Striped Tiger, etc. – entreated him to make peace.
Later episodes confronted assassination (Robert F. Kennedy had just been gunned down) and death (with Rogers extracting a dead goldfish from his aquarium), among other topics.
An episode in which he shared a wading pool with recurring human character Officer Clemmons (played by the African-American actor Francois Clemmons) was meant to address the controversy surrounding the desegregation public pools. Rogers did everything from welcoming kids with disabilities to telling his young viewers it was OK to be angry, as long as you knew how to deal with it.
“What Fred understood … is that kids have a real emotional maturity and real instincts, and to tell children not to worry about something bad that's happening in the culture is not going to work because kids are way too smart and intuitive to not know that something bad is happening,” Neville said. “So the proper thing to do is to level with them in kind of age-appropriate terms, and that's what Fred did.”
The film also explores Rogers’ dark side, to the extent that he had one. Bullied as a kid (he was called “Fat Freddy”), he escaped into make-believe. (The film notes that timid Daniel Tiger was the character closest to Rogers’ own personality.) As an adult, while Rogers remained deeply in touch with what it was like to be a child, he also became somewhat rigid in his beliefs about how to relate to kids.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? also explores a fascinating but forgotten stretch of Rogers’ career. In the 1970s, he retired his show and started a PBS program for adults.
Old Friends, New Friends featured everything from discussions behind bars with prison inmates (depicted briefly in the film) to interviews with people with interesting jobs (like a pediatric oncologist) and encounters with show-biz legends (Milton Berle and composer Hoagy Carmichael, to name two).
But the show never caught on, and after a few years Rogers moved back to the old Neighborhood. Neville said he thinks he knows why the new show didn’t work.
“I think it's that, you know, children speak exactly what they think, and they will tell you what they're feeling and they'll ask the questions they really want to know,” he said. “And as you grow up, you build defenses and you mask your intentions and you hide your emotions. And Fred seemed to not tolerate that. Fred just wanted to be as honest and direct as possible. And adults have a hard time dealing with somebody who is that direct and that honest and that openly emotional vulnerable in that way.”
The film asks whether, for all its good intentions, Mister Rogers Neighborhood really changed anything in our culture.
Seventeen years after the last original episode aired – and 15 after Fred Rogers’ own death -- Rogers’ ethos certainly seems reflected in our contemporary concerns about inclusion, diversity and bullying. And ironically, the voices we hear in the film who argue the most strongly for Rogers’ impact are those who decry it – critics, mostly social conservatives, who say that having everybody go around thinking they’re special just for existing isn’t so great after all. (He’s been called “an evil, evil man” on Fox & Friends.)
Neville acknowledged that the show’s impact is impossible to quanify.
“If you look around at the culture, you can't see a whole lot of other shows following along in the wake of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood that are picking up that mantle,” he said. “But I think it's without a doubt profoundly impactful if you look at the impact that that show had on the millions and millions of kids that grew up with that. Like myself, you know, that little bit of what we learned from this show. I think that really is the legacy we need.”
Neville was joined by David Newell, who for decades played the deliveryman Mr. McFeely on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, as part of a press tour in Pittsburgh to promote the film. During one conversation, Newell asked Neville if he’d ever met Rogers. Neville said he hadn’t, but added that after having seen the documentary, “I feel that the director of the documentary knew Fred well.”
“That was kind of my mission, in making the film originally, was wanting to spend time with Fred,” said Neville. “That it was something about his voice and his message. What he was talking about felt like a voice I don't hear anywhere else in the culture, and it wasn't just nostalgically wanting to revisit a voice from my childhood. It was wanting to hear the message he was talking about in 2018.”