If you believe what the experts say about success in television, then Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood never should have been a hit.
It had a low production value, a simple set, and an unlikely star.
But from 1968 through 1991, millions of American children grew up watching the soft-spoken and thoughtful Fred Rogers teaching them everything under the sun — from how to make friends, to how mail gets delivered.
His underlying message: You are unique and loved.
“It worked because he was saying really, really important [things],” the show’s producer, Margy Whitmer, said.
The documentary film Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (PG-13), which is showing in select theaters nationwide, gives Americans a behind-the-scenes look at one of the most unique people the country has produced.
Rogers graduated from Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and was set to be a Presbyterian pastor until he had a change of heart, believing he could use his ministry skills and his knowledge about child development to help America’s children. He rarely discussed his faith on the program but brought many of the teachings of Scripture into nearly every segment, especially its commands on love and forgiveness.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? isn’t 100 percent kid-friendly, although adults (like me) who watched it growing up will find every scene fascinating. It follows his trajectory, from a humble man of the 1960s who wanted to redeem television, to a man who retired in 1991, having seen his likeness parodied on Saturday Night Live.
He believed “love is at the root of everything” in a child’s life. The more love a child receives, the more likely he or she would be to have a successful adulthood.
“Fred’s theology was love your neighbor as yourself,” said his friend, the Rev. Fred Wirth, in the documentary.
The film includes interviews with Wirth, family members (Rogers’ wife and sons Jim and John), crew members, and cast members, too: the actress who played Mrs. McFeely (Betty Seamans), the actor who played Handyman Negri (Joe Negri), and the actor who played Officer Clemmons (François Clemmons).
Rogers was ridiculed by society’s cynics, but my guess is that Jesus would want us to learn a few things from Mister Rogers.
He stood up for civil rights. When he learned that black families weren’t being allowed to swim in pools with white families, he added a subtle-yet-brilliant segment to his show. It showed Rogers washing his feet in a kiddie pool on a hot summer day and inviting Officer Clemmons – an African American – to do the same. Clemmons did.
He taught children they were special and loved. Rogers famously invited Jeff Erlanger – a quadriplegic child in a wheelchair – on the show to teach kids about disabilities. They sang a duet, It’s You I Like.
He taught kids about grief. Rogers had special programs following RFK’s assassination, the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, and 9/11. He was so discouraged after the terrorist attacks of 2001 that he initially didn’t know what to say – and didn’t know if it would make a difference – but after a pep talk from his producer he told the audience that we all are called to be “repairers of creation.”
Rogers, though, wasn’t always right, and eventually rejected the Bible’s teachings on homosexuality – that is, if we believe his family.
The documentary details how Rogers told a gay cast member to stop visiting a gay bar. If the cast member went back to the bar, he would be off the show. Rogers, though, eventually “came around” on the issue, his wife says, although the film doesn’t quote him on the subject.
Still, we can learn a lot from Mister Rogers – about civility, about friendship, about forgiveness, and about love, too. His theology wasn’t perfect, but millions of children got a small glimpse of Jesus’ teachings, even if the Bible wasn’t quoted. That’s light years ahead of what’s on television these days.
Violence/Disturbing – Minimal. We hear the Vietnam War discussed, and we see soldiers and war planes. We see the aftermath of RFK’s assassination and hear discussion about it. In TV clips, chemicals are poured into a swimming pool to force black citizens out of it. We see two people in a boxing ring.
Sexuality/Sensuality/Nudity – Minimal. A cast member discusses divorcing his wife and coming out as gay. A friend discusses whether Rogers himself was gay. (He wasn’t.) We see a picture of a male cast member’s bottom when, as a joke, he “mooned” the camera.
Language – Minimal: a– (3), misuse of “God” (2), f-gs (1), “negroes” (1), ba—ard (1), d-ck (1), b—ch (1). (If you’re curious, we never hear Rogers curse.)
For a list of theaters where it’s playing, visit focusfeatures.com/wont-you-be-my-neighbor.
Entertainment rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars. Family-friendly rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars.
— by Michael Foust
Foust is the father of four small children and has covered the intersection of faith and entertainment for more than a decade.