Mister Rogers Talked Frankly With Kids About 'Grown-Up' Issues That Weren't Filmmaker Morgan Neville says he gets asked one question more than any other: Was Fred Rogers as nice as he appeared on TV? Won't You Be My Neighbor? answers that question with an emphatic yes.

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

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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?)")

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