Has American television ever produced a secular saint like Fred McFeely Rogers?
In Morgan Neville’s emotionally touching new documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” Rogers is shown as a man whose life was devoted to random acts of kindness to the most vulnerable group in the world, children. An ordained minister, he used TV as a pulpit, making his long-running show to educate his young viewers with patience, kindness and sympathy. Insightfully informed about child psychology, he said that “love is at the root of everything, all learning, all relationships, love or the lack of it.”
Beginning in 1967 on local cable TV in Pittsburgh, “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001. It calmed down kids, with Rogers acting as the nation’s surrogate teacher. When tragedies entered the news, he would ease youngsters’ worried minds with gentle, straightforward explanations of our confusing world. He was that one caring adult who every child needs. His use of simple songs and uplifting stories was part mentorship, part entertainment in the way that a sermon can lighten parishioners’ hearts.
The show was a sort of personal missionary for Rogers, a Presbyterian minister. Growing up as a pudgy, often unhealthy and frequently bullied son in a wealthy family, “fat Fred” developed a passion for defending children and pursuing their best interests. He continued that undertaking in adulthood as religiously as he swam a mile of laps in a public pool daily, keeping his weight at a trim, unvarying 143 pounds.
In an interview quoted in the film, Rogers says his goal was “making goodness attractive in this next millennium.” In his view, a society that mocked concern for others as weakness, courtesy as political correctness and respect as superficial pandering was engaged in a form of sin. As he put it, “You might as well go against the fundamentals of Christianity.” His widow, Joanne Rogers, says, “His ordination was as an evangelist for television. It was pretty way-out.”
Appalled by the pie-in-the-face indignities of early 1960s kids’ programming, he set out to create a program that spoke to them calmly, quietly and compassionately. He used his puppet character King Friday the 13th to represent vanity and pomp in our national leadership and to make subtle and telling references to social issues from racism to disability. He would change his show at a moment’s notice to address lessons that could be learned from America’s war in Vietnam, Robert Kennedy’s assassination, the Challenger disaster and the Sept. 11 attacks.
His advice often returned to his mother’s motto: Look for the good, there’s always someone trying to help.
The person Rogers was on-screen was who he was in life: a sincere, dorky, eccentric square who inspired scoffing from hipsters. (NBC was especially mocking, as clips of Johnny Carson, Eddie Murphy and Tom Snyder point out.) But even in this skeptical age, which expects every hero to have an Achilles heel, Rogers never lived a scandalous moment or caused a controversy.
Neville quotes Fox News as trying to stoke resentment over the lifelong Republican, denouncing him for what it called the “narcissistic society he gave birth to,” and notes the harsh picketing from Westboro Baptist Church at his 2003 funeral. The protesters brought signs declaring “God Hates Fags” and that heretic Fred Rogers hated nobody.
Neville focuses a bit on Rogers’ personal life, and more on his humanitarian worldview. He gracefully edits archival footage and animation with insightful interviews among family, colleagues and friends (including classical cello superstar Yo-Yo Ma, whose recollections hit surprisingly funny notes). The revelations of the film aren’t hidden misdeeds, but unseen acts of kindness. We learn that Rogers wasn’t a puritan, but capable of laughing when a wiseguy member of his TV crew sneaked a self-portrait of his butt cheeks into Rogers’ camera, and thoughtful about how to return the prank.
You don’t need a strong nostalgic connection to Rogers’ show to feel genuinely moved by the man’s essential goodness, all the more as Neville contrasts it with today’s public discourse. Is it too on the nose for the film to note that self-important King Friday the 13th tried to separate his kingdom from the world with a big barbed-wire wall, or simply a case of art predicting life? Light on lecturing and deeply poignant, Neville’s film lets you decide.
The unarguable point of it all is that with his cardigan sweaters, sock puppets, soft voice and kind spirit, Fred McFeely Rogers touched countless lives in 865 TV shows over 31 years. See this film. Bring your tissues. You’ll be needing them.