François Clemmons: From Mozart to Mister Rogers AMA heads to the Nantucket Film Festival with François Clemmons. Known for his role as Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he reflects on his life and the film Won't You Be My Neighbor?
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François Clemmons: From Mozart to Mister Rogers

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CECIL BALDWIN: This is ASK ME ANOTHER, NPR's hour of puzzles, word games and trivia coming to you from the Nantucket Film Festival. I'm Cecil Baldwin here with guest musician Julian Velard. Now here's your host, Ophira Eisenberg.

(APPLAUSE)

OPHIRA EISENBERG, HOST:

Thank you, Cecil.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: It's time to welcome our special guest. He played Officer Clemmons on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for 25 years. Now he appears in the documentary about Fred Rogers "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Please welcome Francois Clemmons.

(APPLAUSE)

FRANCOIS CLEMMONS: Greetings, greetings. Thank you.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: So I grew up on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." And now watching the documentary - actually, even before I watched the documentary - watching the trailer, I cried.

CLEMMONS: Aw (ph).

EISENBERG: I cried reading interviews about it. When I was in the theater, too - I'm not alone - everybody was just wiping their eyes.

CLEMMONS: Well, I cried, too.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

CLEMMONS: Yes.

EISENBERG: I mean, why do you think it's so impactful at this moment?

CLEMMONS: Well, we need a little love in our lives.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

CLEMMONS: We do. We do.

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: I think it's important for people to express care for one another. People are having serious disagreements, and those disagreements are separating us rather than saying our humanity is more important than some of those disagreements. Yeah.

EISENBERG: Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Well, you know, and in the beginning of the documentary when it starts talking about some of the more difficult subject matter that the show that was aimed at small children was dealing with...

CLEMMONS: Well, children feel anger. They feel fear. They have to deal with death, separation, divorce. And kids do need someone that they can talk to about those things. I had to deal with black men being killed by white policemen. It's a serious subject. And my parents, my aunts, my uncles, my mother - I was being told by everybody how to survive.

EISENBERG: And then he convinces you to come on his show to play a policeman.

CLEMMONS: Well, he had the money.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: I actually - I think many people did as a child - I just thought you were a policeman. Is this common that a lot of kids that grew up on the show just actually thought you were a police officer?

CLEMMONS: Yes. Yes. And I did have people over the years write letters to me saying to me, I became a police officer because of you.

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: They did. They did.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Can you just speak to how your role as playing a police officer on that show actually really impacted racial stereotypes?

CLEMMONS: Well, first of all, I was the first black American to have a reoccurring role on all of children's television. I can remember how much I wanted to see another black person doing something on - if you look on Saturday morning television, there were no black people. And so Fred had his way of doing these things without causing, you know, a big explosion. He just invited me on the program, invited me to sing and to be a part of his neighborhood.

It seemed sometimes easy for him to do the right thing. You know, come on, Francois, sing a couple of songs. You're in the neighborhood. And other people made it seem like it was such a difficult damn thing to do. But he didn't.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) And he was sort of like, why not?

CLEMMONS: Yes, exactly.

EISENBERG: And you worked on the show for 25 years. Now you are writing a memoir about your time - about this time in your life called "Fred Rogers & Me." What made you decide that you wanted to put this into the world now?

CLEMMONS: Well, I decided - first of all, it is 50 years. We started the show in 1968. It's a very important milestone, I think. I thought it was important to write a book about him. And the things that I know you can only know if you spend a lot of time with him.

He adopted me, in the purest sense of the word, as a spiritual son. I traveled all over the country with him. His wonderful wife Joanne - they took me in as a third son. He has two boys, and there I was. I stayed at their home. He was like my guru.

He took me into - I was a poor kid. I'm from the other side of the tracks. I'm openly gay. He knew that. Those were issues that we dealt with. They're serious issues. And he did not say, get away from me. He said, come; let's talk; let me listen to you. He was the first one who said, I love you. My father did not say it. My stepfather did not say it. And there were members of my family that said, you cannot be gay.

And it made a huge impact on me that he loved me in spite of those things. And so I decided to write the book to show you this man had the most wonderful - he didn't see race negatively. I didn't say he didn't see race. He did not see it negatively. And so when I was with Fred, I felt black could be good. I could be myself.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And before you started as Officer Clemmons, you were pursuing a career as an opera singer. You won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1968. You've performed over 70 roles. You've won a Grammy. What...

CLEMMONS: Yes, I did (laughter).

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: Thank you, thank you.

EISENBERG: What made you decide to make space for Mister Rogers?

CLEMMONS: (Laughter) Here I go again - money.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Oh, yeah. Right, right, right.

CLEMMONS: No. I was in grad school, and I was working part time in church. The Jewish synagogue hired me in Jersey City. I did all oratorials with orchestra. I did solo stuff. You put a many different jobs together in order to pay the rent.

And so I did this concert that Easter time on Good Friday. And Fred came to that. And he heard me sing. And he had never heard something that deeply meaningful before. And that's when he asked me to come on his program. And then he talked to me about being Officer Clemmons. And I said, well, the police officers frequently were the villains in the ghetto, in the black community. And I can't talk on this kind of a program about some of the things that I knew that policemen were doing. But he convinced me to try in order to change the image of policemen so they were seen as helpers instead of villains.

EISENBERG: That's amazing.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Francois, could I - do think you could sing a little bit for us?

CLEMMONS: Oh, girl, yes. I thought you (laughter)...

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: All right.

CLEMMONS: I'm always ready.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEMMONS: (Singing) He's got the whole world in his hand. He's got the whole world right in his hand. He's got the whole world right in his hand. He's got the whole world in his hand.

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Clapping in unison).

CLEMMONS: (Singing) He's got that little-bitty baby in his hand. He's got the little tiny baby right in his hand. He's got that little tiny baby right in his hand. He's got the whole world in his hand. He's got you and me right in his hand. He's got you and me right in his hand. He's got everybody right in his hand. He's got the whole world in his hand. He's got everybody right in his hand. He's got everybody right in his hand. He's got everybody right in his hand. He's got the whole world, Lord, in his hand.

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: Wow, thank you.

EISENBERG: So that was pretty good.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: It seems ridiculous to do more show, quite frankly.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But we have we have a fun game for you. Francois, are you ready to play an ASK ME ANOTHER challenge?

CLEMMONS: I sure am.

EISENBERG: OK. Francois Clemmons, among your many talents you are an opera singer, so we have created a opera quiz for you.

CLEMMONS: Oh, I see.

EISENBERG: So our guest musician Julian Velard is going to play interpretations of some opera classics on a baby grand piano that he brought with him on the plane from Brooklyn.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: Julian, what's your opera background?

JULIAN VELARD: Ophira, I have zero experience with opera.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEMMONS: (Laughter) Oh, dear.

EISENBERG: OK, so Julian is really out of his depth.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: So your challenge is to figure out what opera he is trying to perform. And if you do well enough, Amanda Arena (ph) from Bayville, N.J., will win an ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cube.

CLEMMONS: OK.

EISENBERG: OK.

CLEMMONS: I'm going to help her.

EISENBERG: OK, Julian, let's hear some opera.

VELARD: (Singing) Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro, Figaro.

CLEMMONS: Do I have to ring this?

EISENBERG: Well, you're just playing against you.

CLEMMONS: Oh, myself. The...

(LAUGHTER)

CLEMMONS: All right. It's the - Rossini's "Barber Of Seville."

EISENBERG: That is right, "The Barber Of Seville."

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Rossini.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Let's hear another one, Julian.

VELARD: (Singing in Italian).

CLEMMONS: That's "Turandot" by Puccini.

EISENBERG: That is right, yes.

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: One of my favorites. Aretha Franklin sang it also.

EISENBERG: OK, so here's your follow-up question. In the second act, the princess Turandot asks a commoner riddles. If the commoner gets them all right, he can marry her. OK, do you know the answer to this riddle - what is born each night and dies each dawn?

CLEMMONS: The moon.

EISENBERG: I was going for hope, but you're right.

CLEMMONS: Oh.

(LAUGHTER)

CLEMMONS: Oh, dear. Hope, OK (laughter).

EISENBERG: It is weirdly worded.

CLEMMONS: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: I'd be like, what dies? Hope. You know, anyways.

CLEMMONS: Oh, dear.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: What flickers red and warm like a flame yet is not a flame?

CLEMMONS: Well, I would say her heart. Let me think.

EISENBERG: It's the thing that courses through her heart.

CLEMMONS: Love.

EISENBERG: Oh, sorry, I mean not metaphorically. I mean, not...

(LAUGHTER)

CLEMMONS: Oh.

EISENBERG: Scientifically.

CLEMMONS: Oh, would that be blood?

EISENBERG: Yeah, blood. Yeah.

(APPLAUSE)

CLEMMONS: OK. You're making me think.

EISENBERG: (Laughter) all right, well, let's hear another one. Julian, go ahead.

VELARD: (Playing piano).

CLEMMONS: Oh, I already know that one.

EISENBERG: (Laughter).

VELARD: (Singing in Spanish).

CLEMMONS: That's from Carmen. It's the "Habanera."

EISENBERG: That is correct.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: And here's your follow-up question. This is an opera spoiler. I'm sorry, everybody.

CLEMMONS: (Laughter).

EISENBERG: What object does Carmen use to foretell her own death at the end of the opera?

CLEMMONS: Cards - she plays cards.

EISENBERG: Yeah, a deck of cards. That is correct.

CLEMMONS: Right (laughter).

EISENBERG: Yeah.

CLEMMONS: You could tell I never played the role.

(LAUGHTER)

EISENBERG: But you did great. Congratulations, Francois. You and listener Amanda Arena both won ASK ME ANOTHER Rubik's Cubes.

CLEMMONS: Oh, all right.

(APPLAUSE)

EISENBERG: Francois played Officer Clemmons on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" for 25 years, and he's featured in the documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Give it up one more time for Francois Clemmons.

(APPLAUSE)

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