Fred Rogers first encountered a television in 1951 during his senior year at Rollins College in Winter Park, Florida. He hated it.
“I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces, and I thought: ‘This could be a wonderful tool for education! Why is it being used this way?’ ” Rogers said in a 1999 interview.
Intrigued by the medium’s potential, he told his parents that he wanted to postpone his plans to become a Presbyterian minister to pursue a career in television.
“They said, ‘You’ve never even seen it!’ ” Rogers said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ve seen enough of it here that I’d like to try.’ ”
His decision would have a profound effect. Rogers started in 1963 with a Canadian Broadcasting Corp. children’s program. Three years later, in Pittsburgh, he created a regional show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In 1968 it began its run of more than three decades on national public television, where it became a gently instructive, supportive safe harbor for generations of children.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the premiere, PBS will present a special on Tuesday called “It’s You I Like,” featuring celebrities like Michael Keaton, Sarah Silverman and others discussing Rogers’ legacy and influence.
The anniversary and special come at a time that finds Rogers, who died in 2003, re-emerging as a pop culture figure. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a documentary about his life, made its debut this year at Sundance, and a coming biopic, “You Are My Friend,” will star Tom Hanks as the genial host.
This month the U.S. Postal Service will release a stamp bearing Rogers’ portrait.
The key themes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” were kindness, civility and empathy, Margy Whitmer, a longtime producer, said. Another message: It’s OK to make mistakes.
“Fred thought it was important that kids understood that you’ve got to make mistakes so you get better and that making mistakes helps you grow,” she said in a phone interview.
Whitmer discussed some of the show’s most memorable moments.
A 10-year-old visitor in an episode on Feb. 18, 1981, led to one of the show’s most famous segments. The child, Jeffrey Erlanger, a quadriplegic, described his treatment for a tumor discovered when he was 7 months old, and Rogers asked him to demonstrate how his electric wheelchair worked.
“Fred was so intrigued with the fact that he was comfortable talking about what was going on with his body,” Whitmer said. “He really wanted the audience to see that.”
Many years later, Erlanger surprised Rogers by appearing onstage at Rogers’ Television Hall of Fame induction in 1999. Rogers jumped out of his seat, in a mixture of joy and shock, and ran onstage to greet him.
Erlanger died in 2007 at 36.
One of Rogers’ biggest fans was not actually human. Koko, the celebrity gorilla known for her ability to communicate using sign language, watched his show regularly, and the Gorilla Foundation approached Rogers about doing a segment. The piece ran on July 28, 1998, as part of a weeklong series called “You and I Together.”
Typically, only Koko’s trainers were allowed into her environment. But Koko recognized Rogers when he walked in and almost immediately warmed to him, unzipping his sweater and blowing on a harmonica that Rogers brought as a gift.
“He just accepted Koko and was very relaxed with her and really showed no fear,” Whitmer said.
After this visit Rogers met the writer Tom Junod for an Esquire magazine profile. The article is the basis for the biopic.
Al Worden, the command module pilot for Apollo 15, the fourth moon-landing mission, appeared on the show both before and after the moon trip. Worden proposed the segments to Rogers, the thought being that reaching children was essential to maintaining support for NASA.
“I explained my idea, and he replied that it fit perfectly with a series he was filming about parents going away,” Worden wrote in his book, “Falling to Earth.”
The first meeting was a 1971 field piece at Cape Canaveral, Florida, where Rogers interviewed Worden a few days before his prelaunch quarantine period. Worden displayed the inner workings of a spacesuit as “Fred worked through a long list of kids’ questions about astronaut experiences,” Worden wrote.
“I could answer many of them, but I had to confess that I couldn’t answer others until after my flight. I asked Fred to let me take the list into space,” he wrote. “I would think about them during the flight, I promised, and then answer when I returned.”
In follow-up segments Worden also shared space food and described flying for three days by himself in orbit while his other team members were on the moon.
“Fred was doing this when the space program was very new,” Whitmer said.
Yo-Yo Ma made several appearances on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” the first being in 1985, when he played a duet with Joe Negri in Negri’s Music Shop. Ma was not yet a household name, but Rogers had read a profile of him in The New Yorker and loved classical music, so Whitmer wrote Ma and asked him to appear on the show.
“Fred was a musician, so he understood how hard Yo-Yo Ma had to practice,” Whitmer said. “He understood the brilliant craftsmanship and the music.”
Other appearances by Ma would include a sweet Father’s Day segment, when he played a duet with his son in 1990.
In 1981, Rogers devoted several episodes to an unusual topic for a children’s show: divorce. His staff convinced him that parental separations had become common enough that children needed to understand how to deal with the experience.
During an episode on Feb. 16, McFeely — the postman from the Speedy Delivery Service played by David Newell — becomes visibly uncomfortable in discussing divorce and hurries out of Rogers’ house. At this point, Rogers, in his genial, friendly manner, explained the concept to children, a soft piano tinkling in the background.
“I know a little girl and a little boy whose mother and father got a divorce,” he said. “And those children cried and cried. You know why? Well, one reason was that they thought it was their fault. But, of course, it wasn’t their fault. Things like weddings and having babies and buying houses and cars and getting divorces are all grown-up things.”
Whitmer said: “For him, that was one of the really important things: People get married. They think it’s going to work, and it just doesn’t. Sometimes it just doesn’t work out and it’s nobody’s fault, and it’s especially not your fault.”
She added, “That was important for a lot of adults to hear, as well as kids.”