Fred Rogers isn’t your typical pop culture icon.
As the host of the long-running PBS children’s program Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, he wasn’t slick or sarcastic, hip or cool. He was sincere to a fault and spoke with a slow determination and a pure warmth uncommon for TV. Had his show still been on the air in the social media age, there’s every reason to believe that Twitter trolls would’ve dunked on him any chance they got.
There’s a whole generation of children who’ve come of age not even knowing who the man was, considering his show went off the air in August 2001 and he died only a year and a half later. And for the whole generations of children who did spend their formative years taking trips with the man into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe one half-hour episode at a time, well, they became adults, as all children hopefully do, and a fast-paced world full of distractions and cynicism pulled focus, forcing Rogers and his innate goodness to become something of a distant memory—twinkling, yet fleeting.
And yet, at a time when civility and kindness seem like four-letter words you can’t say on TV in a world gone stark raving mad, where our political leaders seem determined to disagree and catastrophe has engulfed the evening news, Rogers has emerged to be one of the unlikeliest pop culture heroes of our time. With a rapturously-received 2018 documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? making its joint HBO and PBS debut on Saturday, Feb. 9 and a biopic starring Tom Hanks as the beloved figure, entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, due in theaters this fall, Rogers’ story has returned exactly when we needed it most, bringing with it a beacon of hope amidst a sea of indifference and a gentle reminder that it doesn’t have to be this way.
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Before Fred Rogers became the hug of man generations of children knew him to be, he was first, as all adults are at one point in time, a child. And like all those children whom Rogers sought to comfort and make feel special as an adult, his childhood was a lonely one. Only, without a Mister Rogers of his own to turn to, the shy, introverted, and overweight young Rogers, taunted by his classmates as “Fat Freddy” and often made homebound by childhood asthma, was left to his own devices.
“It was a lonely childhood,” Won’t You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville told Entertainment Weekly. “I think he made friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy, he had [stuffed] animals, and he would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom.”
He also spent time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, whom he was named after and who would go on to inspire the Mr. McFeely character made famous on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—and who was also responsible for patiently imbuing in Rogers a sense of self-esteem. “You know, you’ve made this day a special day just by being yourself,” his grandpa would tell him.
All superheroes have their origin stories, and that potent mix of childhood pain and gentle grandfatherly guidance was the blueprint for all that Rogers would become.
With plans to enter seminary school after graduation, a chance encounter with an emerging piece of technology changed the course of his life. After his parents got their first TV set, the legend goes that Rogers did not like what he saw on the newfangled thing. “I was appalled by what were labeled ‘children’s programs’—pies in the face and slapstick!” he wrote in his book You Are Special. “Children deserve better. Children need better.”
“I got into television because I hated it so,” he once told CNN. “And I thought … there’s some way of using this fabulous instrument to be of nurture to those who would watch and listen.”
So, he headed to New York City where he worked at NBC as floor director on a handful of shows before returning to the Pittsburgh area in 1953 to work as a program developer at public television station WQED, where he worked with Josey Carey to develop The Children’s Corner, a children’s show that featured many of the puppet characters who would go on to populate his later work.
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“I really believe it was the power of the Holy Spirit,” Rogers told The Washington Post in 1982. “I mean, what did my parents think about all this? Here I was, leaving New York and network television to come back to Pittsburgh to start working with puppets. It was all so vague. Why, in the beginning, we used to go into the studio and just sort of…play.”
While at play, he also followed an earlier dream and attended Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, spending his noon hour for eight years until he graduated and was ordained in by the United Presbyterian Church in 1963. Along the way, he began studying with child psychologist Margaret McFarland, who shaped and informed much of his thinking about and appreciation for children. And rather than put all that studying to work, say, in the church, Rogers curiously kept the medium of television as his ministry, as it were.
Misterogers ran until 1966, when Rogers acquired the rights and returned to Pittsburgh, taking the sets he’d developed in Toronto back with him to WQED. Renamed Misterogers’ Neighborhood, the show began airing regionally in the northeastern United States until a lack of funding forced it into cancellation a year later. Immediately, the public outcry prompted a search for new funding and The Sears Roebuck Foundation stepped in. The new source of funding enabled it to be seen nationwide on National Education Television, the precursor to PBS and the slightly re-titled Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood began airing nationally on February 19, 1968.
In the first year of the show’s national run, he rushed a special to air only two days after the assassination of presidential candidate Robert Kennedy. “His funeral was televised nationally on Saturday and [Rogers] said, ‘We have to get something on television before the children of America are sitting at home this weekend watching it and not understanding what happened,'” Neville told a crowd during a January The Envelope Live chat with the L.A. Times. It was that episode that convinced the director to tell Rogers’ story.
“The world is not always a kind place,” Rogers once said. “That’s something all children learn for themselves, whether we want them to or not, but it’s something they really need our help to understand.”
Elaborating to CNN years later, he added, “I believe that those of us who are the producers and purveyors of television—or video games or newspapers or any mass media—I believe that we are the servants of this nation.”
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Along the way, Rogers’ unflappable sincerity opened him up to mockery, with Eddie Murphy‘s “ghetto” version on Saturday Night Live perhaps being the most famous example. But it didn’t faze the genial host. At least, not always. “I don’t really mind the parodies of me as long as they’re not hostile,” he told The Washington Post. “I think some comedy can be downright hostile. And some of it can be dangerous. There was this radio disc jockey we heard about who was saying things like ‘Now boys and girls, just go get your mother’s hair spray and your father’s cigarette lighter and I’ll show you how to make a blow torch.'”
And it certainly didn’t encourage him to be anything but his authentic self. “One of the greatest gifts you can give anybody is the gift of your honest self,” he told Newsweek shortly before the show went off the air. “I also believe that kids can spot a phony a mile away.”
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“I mean, it almost doesn’t seem possible or real,” Neville told EW. “It makes you kind of stop and think, ‘Is that something people can do?’ But it’s a window into his incredible willpower. He had such a strong devotion to everything he did from what he ate, to what he did every day, to his program. I mean, he was a man of incredible routine. He’d wake up at 5 a.m. and read the Bible every morning, often in Hebrew or Greek. He would go to the Pittsburgh Athletic Club and swim a mile every morning. He just had this very kind of almost monkish lifestyle.”
Eventually, just as he had plainly and compassionately explained to his young audience over the years, that body would begin to fail him, as all bodies are wont to do at one point of another. And in December 2002, he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. By February, he would be dead, less than a month before his 75th birthday.
“When I was a boy and I would see scary things in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers,'” the quote goes. “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.”
But when he watched one of the many commencement addresses given by Rogers over the course of his storied career, a switch flipped. “It was late at night and I watched it,” he recalled, “and at the end of it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the voice I’m missing. Nobody is advocating for these things.'”
And those things he was advocating for? They’ve never felt more vital. During the course of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Rogers’ mission to make sure that each and every child watching knew, just as Grandpa McFeely made sure he knew all those years before, how special they were faced, at times, criticism that it was instilling an inflated sense of self-importance in the youth. But always, always, in his next breath, he reminded children that their neighbor was special too.
It’s easy to look at that sentimentality and write it off as mawkish, reduce it to a punchline. And for years, most of us have. But as unrest and division feel more like the rule and not the exception, it’s hard to listen to Rogers speak and not feel, like Neville did listening to that commencement speech, that this could be the way forward.
“I think to many Fred’s message does feel very distant from today’s world,” Nicholas Ma, one of Won’t You Be My Neighbor?‘s producers and son of cellist Yo Yo Ma, who was a longtime friend of Rogers, told Forbes in January. “But our belief is, when audiences hear it, it surges back into our consciousness, familiar and powerful. Because his ideas — that we all long to know we are loved and capable of loving, or that we are called to be ‘repairers of the world,’ not destroyers of it — are so fundamental and human that they can’t be silenced.”
“Our world hangs like a magnificent jewel in the vastness of space,” he told the captivated audience of graduates early in his 16+ minute speech. “Every one of us is a part of that jewel. A facet of that jewel. And in the perspective of infinity, our differences are infinitesimal. We are intimately related. May we never even pretend that we are not.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? makes its TV debut on Saturday, Feb. 9 at 8 p.m. on both HBO and PBS, while A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood makes it way to theaters on November 22.