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Mister Rogers Talked Frankly With Kids About 'Grown-Up' Issues That Weren't

Jun 9, 2018
Originally published on June 8, 2018 6:50 pm

It's hard to imagine anyone sending hate mail to Fred Rogers, but there was one episode of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood that brought the beloved children's TV star a bit of blowback: "He did an episode about Santa Claus," explains filmmaker Morgan Neville. "And he didn't like the idea that there was somebody who snuck into your house in the middle of the night ... so he told kids the truth ... and a lot of parents wrote a lot of angry letters."

Santa aside, Rogers generally flew "under the radar," Neville says, even when he was engaging kids in conversations that some adults considered well beyond their years. With a toy trolley, talking puppets and a simple set, the show had low production value, but the host was "cutting edge," the filmmaker explains, in respecting the emotional intelligence of children; helping them grapple with "grown-up" issues such as death, divorce and disturbing current events.

Aimed at toddlers and preschoolers, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood made its nationwide debut in 1968 and aired for more than three decades. It's now the subject of a new documentary called Won't You Be My Neighbor?, directed by Neville.

"Most of us have a relationship with Fred Rogers that predates our memory ..." Neville says. "It's very deep in us and he speaks to us almost like our own inner child."


Interview Highlights

On how Rogers discovered television during a visit home during college

He came back to visit his parents for spring break in 1948 and his parents had gotten a television — one of the first televisions in the neighborhood — and he watched it on this spring break and said: My God, this is an incredible invention and I can't believe how it's being misused.

And he really changed his entire life course. ... He realized that television was going to be this device that was going to be transformative and also that there were going to be generations of children being raised by this device and somebody had to use television to do something more than just sell sugar and toys to kids.

On being "cutting edge" in respecting the emotional maturity of children

What he's doing is not just providing joy for children but really trying to allay fear. When he looked at children what he realized is that most adults condescend to children. When bad things happen they say, "Don't worry about it," or "It wasn't anything." And kids are way too smart and intuitive to not know when those things are happening. So what he decided to do is to level with kids — to really speak to them honestly and say, "Yes something bad happened, but let me tell you why, and let me explain it in age-appropriate terms." Because he really felt that fear was was the most destructive force in our society.

On whether he was as nice as he appeared on television

This is the the question I get more than any other question. ... There's a letter that I found from a 5-year-old boy to Mister Rogers that said, "Dear Mister Rogers, Are you for real?" ... and I think that's the fundamental question we all have. ... And the reality is: Yes, he is 100 percent for real.

If there's a difference between Mister Rogers and Fred Rogers the man, it's that Fred's actually more amazing than Mister Rogers — he's a more profound, deep, willful, intellectual person than Mister Rogers. ...

We've seen so many of our cultural figures fall and there's almost this expectation of somebody who is really promoting kindness ... that there has to be something dark behind him. And, in fact, the miraculous thing is that he is exactly who he seems.

On the episode when Mr. Rogers invited an African-American police officer, played by François Clemmons, to rest his feet in a wading pool on a hot day

He was, in his own quiet, subtle way trying to model how we should treat each other. It's really the thing he's doing over and over with: Won't you be my neighbor? What he's asking is: How do we treat each other? What kind of neighborhood are we going to have? What are the rules by which we live in a society together?

That's his subtle way of saying: There's nothing wrong with sharing a pool with a person of a different race. In fact, at the end of that scene, Fred takes his towel and dries François' feet, you know, as Jesus did with the disciples ... and none of that was by accident. It was all by design. Fred knew exactly what he was doing.

On not shying away from difficult topics and current events

He dealt with divorce and death. ... He knew that children experience these things and he felt like his mission was not to tell kids that everything's all right, but to tell kids that bad things do happen and this is how you can process them. ...

[After Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1968] Fred knew that children would be home and they would know that this bad thing had happened. And so he quickly put together an episode that aired [ahead of the televised funeral] ... where he could explain to people how to speak to their children about something as horrific as an assassination.

And that was really Fred in a nutshell. ... He did it again and again. He did things around the Challenger disaster, the Gulf War, 9/11, Reagan's assassination attempt. ... He really felt like it was in those moments he was really doing the best of what he wanted to do. That that's when people really needed him.

On remembering that Rogers was human

He wasn't a saint. He was a human who had insecurities and doubts and made mistakes. And, really, throughout his entire life, from his earliest days to his deathbed, was wondering if he had done enough. ... I think it's important to understand that he was human and not a saint, because if you sanctify somebody like Fred Rogers it means that we don't have to try and live up to him.

Fatma Tanis and Mallory Yu produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

When I was a kid in the '70s and my mom needed a few moments of peace, she would plunk me down in front of the TV, adjust the rabbit ears and turn on Mr. Rogers.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

FRED ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Hi, neighbor. I'm glad we're together again.

KELLY: "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" made its nationwide debut in 1968. It was aimed at toddlers and preschoolers, although Mom often watched, too.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers, singing) It's a beautiful day in this neighborhood, a beautiful day for a neighbor. Would you be mine? Could you be mine?

KELLY: Fred Rogers with his trademark cardigan, his blue sneakers, his trolley to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe is now the subject of a documentary. It is called "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" And it is directed by Morgan Neville, who joins me now. Welcome.

MORGAN NEVILLE: Thanks for having me.

KELLY: So one of the many, many things I did not know about Fred Rogers when I was a 4-year-old watching his show is that he was an ordained Presbyterian minister. One of the people you interviewed in the film talked about how they saw his show as him preaching, in a way, trying to connect right to his audience, which in this case was kids.

NEVILLE: Yeah, absolutely. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister. And when he was ordained in 1963, he had already been doing local children's television in Pittsburgh. And his ordination assigned his ministry as television. So I would wager a bet that he was the first official televangelist in America.

KELLY: That's a funny way - I'd never thought of him way.

NEVILLE: I know.

KELLY: But you're right.

NEVILLE: But what he was really doing was not trying to, you know, speak purely as a Presbyterian. In fact, he pretty much never mentioned God in the entire run of the show. He was looking for the kind of common humanist elements that exist in all religions and trying to impart those. And in fact, he studied all the world's religions throughout his entire life and I think looked for what the messages were that united religions. And that undergirds really his message of the show.

KELLY: It's striking that Fred Rogers saw such opportunity for joy in a children's television show, for educating children through a TV show because it's so different from how we think about kids and TV today. I mean, the parenting advice today is get your kid away from the screen. Don't just plunk them down in front of the TV. He saw it as this real opportunity to reach them.

NEVILLE: Absolutely. And he also had done a lot of work in graduate studies in childhood development. And he was really cutting-edge in his thinking about the emotional maturity of children. And really what he was doing is not just providing joy for children but really trying to allay fear. And when he looked at children, what he realized is that most adults condescend to children. And when bad things happen, they say, don't worry about it or it wasn't anything. And kids are way too smart and intuitive to not know when those things are happening.

So what he decided to do is to level with kids, to really speak to them honestly and say, yes, something bad happened, but let me tell you why and let me explain it in age-appropriate terms because he really felt that fear was the most destructive force in our society. And so he was really more about trying to, you know, allay fear and promote love.

KELLY: There was - I mentioned there was a lot about him that I didn't realize when I was watching this show as a kid, such as a scene you include where Mr. Rogers invites police Officer Clemmons, who is black, to join him and wash their feet together in a baby wading pool on a hot day. Let's hear some of that.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Well, there's Officer Clemmons. Hi, Officer Clemmons, come in.

FRANCOIS CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Hello, Mr. Rogers. How are you?

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Fine. Won't you sit down?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Oh, sure, just for a moment.

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) It's so warm. I was just putting some water on my feet.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Oh, it sure is.

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Would you like to join me?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) That looks awfully enjoyable, but I don't have a towel or anything.

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Oh, you share mine.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) OK, sure.

KELLY: Morgan Neville, this was, you know, in a moment in American history where that was radical, where the idea of blacks and whites sharing a pool, swimming together was radical. What was he trying to do?

NEVILLE: He was in his own quiet, subtle way trying to model how we should treat each other. I mean, it's really the thing he's doing over and over with won't you be my neighbor? You Know, what he's asking is, how do we treat each other? What kind of neighborhood are we going to have? And that's his subtle way of saying there's nothing wrong with sharing a pool with a person of a different race. In fact, at the end of that scene, Fred takes his towel and dries Francois' feet, you know, as Jesus did with the disciples. I mean, it's...

KELLY: I was going to say there's something almost biblical about it.

NEVILLE: Absolutely. And none of that was by accident. Fred knew exactly what he was doing. And those were the messages he wanted to promote.

KELLY: He didn't shy away from tackling a lot of truly difficult, truly sad things.

NEVILLE: No. I mean, he dealt with divorce and death. I mean, as I said, he knew that children experience these things. And he felt like his mission was not to tell kids that everything's all right but to tell kids that bad things do happen, and this is how you can process them.

KELLY: Let me play a little bit of a scene that you'll recognize.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MISTER ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As Daniel) What does assassination mean?

BETTY ABERLIN: (As Lady Aberlin) It means somebody getting killed in a sort of surprise way.

KELLY: That was right after Robert F. Kennedy's assassination in 1968. That was one of the other actors on the show we heard. And this was a show that was trying to talk to kids about something that they were surely hearing about. Every time they walked into the kitchen, their parents are discussing it and then probably hushed up at the moment that a child walked into the room.

NEVILLE: Yeah, exactly. And that episode in particular was really a touchstone for me. You know, the story behind it is that Bobby Kennedy was killed on a Wednesday night, and on Saturday his funeral was to be televised nationally. And Fred knew that children would be home, and they would know that this bad thing had happened. And so he quickly put together an episode that aired that Friday night, the night before, where he could explain to people how to speak to their children about something as horrific as an assassination. And that was really Fred in a nutshell.

KELLY: The last episode of the show taped on December 1, 2000, if I'm not mistaken. But his advice was much sought out after 9/11 as people tried to figure out how on earth to explain that to any of us but certainly to children.

NEVILLE: Yeah, and struggled with it. Something as horrific as 9/11 was something that he - even he doubted the efficacy of a message about kindness and grace. And you see him in our film struggling with it but then really kind of coming to terms with understanding what he wanted to say and then saying it. And I think one important thing to realize about Fred Rogers is he wasn't a saint.

He was a human who had insecurities and doubts and made mistakes and really throughout his entire life, from his earliest days to his deathbed, was wondering if he had done enough. And for somebody like Mr. Rogers, it's kind of remarkable to think somebody like that would have those kinds of doubts.

But I think it's important to understand that he was human and not a saint because is you sanctify somebody like Fred Rogers, it means that we don't have to try and live up to him. So I think that's what Fred wanted us all to take away, was all of us to understand that we have a responsibility to each other and to ourselves.

KELLY: That is Morgan Neville. He's the director of "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Thank you much for talking to us.

NEVILLE: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE TV THEME PLAYERS SONG, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD (WON'T YOU BE MY NEIGHBOR?)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.