If ever there was a word to describe Fred Rogers—the host of the long-running PBS show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood—it would be “kind.” Not a word you hear a lot these days. I suppose that’s why so many look back and think life used to be simpler, the people friendlier, and the world more comprehensible. They call them “the good old days” for a reason, right?
But the world wasn’t simpler, the people weren’t friendlier, and the daily news made even less sense than it does now. Sure, you may shed the baggage of today when you sit down to watch Won’t You Be My Neighbor?—Morgan Neville’s heart-warming and well-made documentary about Rogers and his famous TV show—but you enter a past pocked with intolerance, bigotry, and hatred. From the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy to a man so intolerant of integrated pools, he poured bleach on black swimmers.
Not exactly high times in American history, but with a guide like Rogers, we somehow come to understand, maybe even empathize, with those who frustrate and confuse us.
Born March 20, 1928, in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, Fred McFeely Rogers was the perfect age to witness the “golden age of television,” though it pleased him little. In the TV programs and advertisements aimed at children, Rogers saw only contempt. He wondered, was this medium capable of a different message?
His answer: a daily children’s program. Misterogers launched in 1963 and, after a couple of iterations, morphed into Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. By 1971 it became a household staple.
Each show opened the same: Rogers entered the house, switched his sport coat for a cardigan, loafers for sneakers, fed the fish, chatted with Mr. McFeely and Officer Clemmons, and visited the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, where the puppets King Friday XIII, Daniel Striped Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat, X the Owl and others interacted with actors to teach children valuable lessons. Most were benign—lessons in sharing and listening—while others directly addressed the horrors of the world. And he always did it in a calm and measured manner that neither spoke down to a child nor claimed any aspect of life was over their heads.
This ability to communicate was Rogers’ greatest gift. Listen as he talks to children: he neither pitches his voice nor resorts to cutesy language. Watch him physically lower himself to see them at their level. Take note as he reinforces his love and admiration for everyone he meets. François Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons, recalls one episode where Rogers told him those simple words: “I like you just the way you are.” Slightly taken off guard, Clemmons told Rogers that was the first time anyone said that to him. Rogers smiled and replied: “I’ve been telling you that for two years, and today you heard me.”
We don’t always get things right away. Often we must be reminded over and over before it starts to sink in. That’s why Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was structured with pleasing familiarity. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is similar; you can watch it over and over again and discover something new. It may not be a complex or a complicated idea, but its directness will surprise you. Now streaming on HBO Max.