Fred Rogers was about to enter the seminary when he turned on his first TV and saw a man get hit with a pie. He was aghast. How could he preach love and kindness when preschoolers were absorbing junk violence? So he changed career, trading a priest’s collar for a hand-knitted cardigan, and attempted to change the world. Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” follows how Rogers spent three decades hosting PBS’s “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” answering kids’ questions that other entertainers wouldn’t, including week-long episodes on death and divorce. Introducing the film at Sundance, Neville described his cheery documentary as therapy, only now for adults. At the first glimpse of the retro red trolley, a grown man in the audience moaned in joy.
It’s not a complex portrait. Rogers rarely talked about his personal life. He used puppets to confess his flaws. Tremulous Daniel Striped Tiger voiced his insecurities. Hard-headed King Friday XIII represented his stubbornness. One of his two sons admits that at the dinner table, Rogers would slip into the voice of witchy Lady Elaine whenever he complained. It wasn’t easy being raised by “the second Christ,” he adds. And it’s impossible to make a deep documentary when every interviewee worships the man so much, he gets to keep hiding his true self inside felt.
Yet, Neville’s fantastic archival footage reveals the man through his work — or at least, it reveals his philosophies, if not the childhood memories that gave Rogers the ability to understand a four-year-old’s brain, almost as if he still carried his in his cardigan pocket. He knew what kids needed to know. No, they weren’t going to get sucked down a drain. No, their noses won’t fall off in the shower. The day after Robert Kennedy was murdered, he defined the word “assassination.” Kids were hearing it anyway in frantic tones. They had the right to understand why their parents were sad, and as proof, Neville cuts to footage of grieving Americans watching RFK’s coffin pass by on a train, each holding a child who needed to know why he or she was there.
Rogers had an unshakable sense that he was always right. He assured his TV producers that their ratings wouldn’t suffer if he slowly peeled an apple, or set an egg timer and sat quietly to show kids the length of a minute. Even his voice never wobbles. It’s as deliberate as a hypnotist, and as soft as a shy child. In a third-act reveal, we learn that Rogers’ classmates used to call him “Fat Freddy,” thus triggering him to despise all forms of cruelty and teasing. He hated being laughed at, a foundational mindset that if presented earlier on, might have tied in to his rejection of “funny hats or jumping through a hoop.” When he became a slender, serious adult, he insisted that his weight never went above 143 (a number, he notes, is also code for “I love you”).
When Rogers died of cancer in 2003, the U.S. House of Representatives unanimously voted to honor “his dedication to spreading kindness through example.” He was a lifelong Republican, even though he became nationally famous in 1969 when he convinced the Nixon administration not to kill PBS by humming a song about anger to a senate subcommittee. That year, as segregationists hounded black families out of public swimming parks, he invited his onscreen neighborhood cop, played by a gay African-American named Francois Clemmons, to share his kiddie pool. However, Clemmons notes that Rogers asked him to stay closeted. A kids TV star spotted at gay bars would be pushing acceptance too far, despite Rogers’ tenet that everyone should be loved for exactly who they are.
Today, Clemmons might have an easier time being out. But Rogers might have a harder time being himself. Decades ago, a newscaster could cheerfully call him “an ordained minister with an abiding interest in children” — words that now ring an alarm. (As a punchline, Rogers’ middle name was “McFeely.”) Yet, of all Neville’s interview subjects, only cellist Yo-Yo Ma dares blurt that once, when Rogers leaned in three inches from his face and smiled, “It scared the living daylights out of me.”
Rogers didn’t act like a normal man — especially not the macho ideal that trains boys to bury their emotions so deep inside they rot. He wore pink and lavender and he told everyone — even other grown men — that he loved them. And he hated superheroes, which he found so phonily inspirational he brought his show back from hiatus solely to battle the influence of Christopher Reeves. A true hero wouldn’t make a kid throw punches and jump off roofs. They’d bring peace by being peaceful.
Not everyone thought he was a hero. A Fox News segment blamed him for millennial entitlement. How dare he tell children they were all special? Sniped one, “This evil, evil man has ruined a generation of kids.” Rogers wasn’t alive to see it, but “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is haunted by the question that despite his decades of work, he didn’t change the culture. The kids and parents he reached are now parents and grandparents and politicians who don’t unanimously agree on anything, especially how to spread kindness. The documentary’s refusal to scrutinize his legacy, and the man, means it’s best gobbled up as comfort food for an uncertain era. At Sundance, a standing ovation at the end seemed more for Rogers himself than the film. The image that lingers is a shot of Rogers hunched and cold in a tall field, a lone figure fighting the wind. He couldn’t control life’s storms. But he’d show people how to endure them.