Documentary on Fred Rogers’ legacy is released
July 2, 2018
During the heyday of PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood even a lot of Presbyterians did not know that the mild-spoken host of the popular PBS children’s program was a clergyman and the most famous living Presbyterian in the world.
As Morgan Neville shows in his new documentary — Won’t You Be My Neighbor? — while still in college, Fred Rogers intended to study for the ministry, but put it off when he became fascinated by the new medium of television. He saw it as a great tool for building community but was appalled by its misuse, especially in the exploitive programs then beamed at children.
Neville engages a room to talk about Rogers, while others, including Rogers, speak through well-selected archive footage from the Neighborhood series, interviews and a couple of college commencement addresses.
Many of the interviewees were quite close to him, including his concert pianist wife Joanne, sons John and James, and his sister Elaine Crozier. Others worked with him for years, including producer Margy Whitmer; Hedda Sharapan, child development advisor; Joe Negri, who played Handyman Negri; David Newell, known as Mr. McFeely and publicity director; and Francois Clemmons, the black singer cast as Officer Clemmons.
Journalist Tom Junold, whose friendship with Rogers during the last five years of the latter’s life, appears throughout the film, and minister friend the Rev. George Wirth provides the rare theological comment so important to fully understand Mr. Rogers as more than just a humanitarian concerned for the welfare of children.
As Wirth explains, Rogers managed to preach Christian values without using the doctrinal language of a sermon. Better than most ministers and any other children’s program host, he understood and shared Jesus’ concern for children, evident in such passages as Mark 10:33–35.
The film shows that Rogers took on tough topics ignored by most children’s TV, such as violence and anger, war, the environment, death and racism.
The film also includes Rogers’ 1969 six-minute testimony before Congress in response to President Richard Nixon and Sen. John Pastore’s intent to cut the $20 million allotted to PBS in the federal budget. The senator knew little if anything about the witness or his program and had expressed being tired of the witnesses reading written statements, so Rogers, saying he trusted the senator’s word that he would read his, laid it aside and spoke of his concern for the welfare of the nation’s children, closing by reciting the lyrics of his powerful song about “the mad” inside and the need for the child to be able to stop it. Rogers’ simplicity and sincerity so touches the usually gruff senator that he immediately tells him that PBS will get its $20 million.
The filmmakers end with Rogers telling his listeners that when the world seems so bad they should “think of someone who has helped you.” We see a series of faces of the people who have spoken previously, each of them thoughtful, each of them touched by the love of this gentle man.
Dr. Edward McNulty, Movie Critic for Presbyterians Today
Dr. Edward McNulty has written of his personal encounters (including three of his children) with Mr. Rogers at readthespirit.com/visual-parables/wasnt-it-nice-in-the-neighborhood.
- For a list of topics introduced by Rogers and much more, see The Neighborhood Archive — All Things Mister Rogers at Neighborhood Archive.
- During McNulty’s first interview with Rogers and David Newell, aka McFeely, he learned of his role in bringing Gian Carlo Menotti’s opera Amahl and the Night Visitors to the television. You can see Rogers speaking about his experience as a studio floor manager for this at emmytvlegends.org/interviews/shows/amahl-and-the-night-visitors.
- The spiritual biography Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers, authored by Michael G. Long and published by Westminster John Knox Press, is written by and for believers. Long points out that while Rogers did not march with anti-war protesters, his programs and songs subtly dealt with issues of justice and love. More information is available at com/products/0664260470/peaceful-neighbor.aspx.
Today’s Focus: Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood
Let us join in prayer for:
PC(USA) Agencies’ Staff
Let us pray:
Most gracious God, protect and strengthen your children, especially in times of crisis that they might see your face, feel your grace and love, and be living examples of Jesus Christ. Amen.