The sweater. The sneakers. It’s easy to think of these things when your mind turns to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and the man who made that show feel like home.
But those things were just on the surface. The new feel-good documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? reveals there was so much more depth to Fred Rogers and his philosophy. For those in need of a giant, inspiring hug (as well as some laughs) this movie is a must-see.
The film’s Oscar-winning director Morgan Neville (20 Feet From Stardom) spoke with Entertainment Weekly about some of the other relics of Rogers, objects that represent Fred’s bravery, decency, and enduring legacy of kindness.
“That’s kind of the central question I get all the time. ‘Is this guy for real? What’s the deal? Is he really that way?’ And my answer is, yes,” Neville says. “He’s not only who he is on television, he’s actually even better in real life.”
Here are some of the items that tell the story of America’s favorite neighbor.
THE NUMBER 143
You could say this was Fred Rogers’ lucky number, but he ascribed a special meaning to it, almost like a coded message. The way Mister Rogers saw it, “I” has one letter, “love” has four, and “you” has three.
“I think just logically that the number came first and then he imbued it with meaning to kind of dedicate himself to it,” Neville says.
Rogers had that number stitched into his sweaters, and it was also the weight he maintained for practically all his adult life.
“I mean, it almost doesn’t seem possible or real,” Neville says. “It makes you kind of stop and think, ‘Is that something people can do?’ But it’s a window into his incredible willpower. He had such a strong devotion to everything he did from what he ate, to what he did every day, to his program. I mean, he was a man of incredible routine. He’d wake up at 5 a.m. and read the Bible every morning, often in Hebrew or Greek. He would go to the Pittsburgh Athletic Club and swim a mile every morning. He just had this very kind of almost monkish lifestyle.”
Kindness requires discipline. It’s easy to fly off the handle. But if you can control it — as he sang in his song “What Do You Do With the Mad that You Feel?” — then it can’t control you.
The weight thing has other motivations, too. Won’t You Be My Neighbor delves into Mister Rogers’ own childhood to reveal that he was viciously mocked and bullied as a little boy for being overweight.
In the film, there’s a sepia-toned image of the children’s TV star as a heavyset young boy. It was a time that caused him a lot of pain — and taught him how to feel the pain of others.
“People called him Fat Freddy and he made a very willful decision that that’s not gonna be who I am for the rest of my life and I never was,” Neville says. And he also never gave in to the urge to aggrandize himself by bullying others.
In the film, actor David Newell, who played Speedy Deliveryman Mr. McFeely, says that if there hadn’t been a Fat Freddy, there wouldn’t have been a Mr. Rogers.
THE DANIEL STRIPED TIGER PUPPET
“It was a lonely childhood,” Neville says of Fred Rogers’ upbringing. “I think he made friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy, he had [stuffed] animals, and he would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom.”
That — the director says — is what inspired the famed puppets in the Land of Make Believe.
“The original Daniel, which premiered back in the early ‘50s on The Children’s Corner, the precursor to Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, was a present that this woman, Mrs. Daniels, had given him,” Neville says. “She was like a wealthy benefactor of this new educational television station in Pittsburgh, WQED, the first educational station in the country. And she’d given him this puppet and he named it after her, Daniel. But it was a commercially purchased puppet.”
Later, when Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood became a phenomenon, that toymaker took issue with the furry costar. “When he started to get known, that company said, ‘You can’t use that. You have to make your own.’ So he did.”
There were two of these later Daniel puppets, a lead and a backup, that are now on display: one at the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the other at the Fred Rogers Center in Latrobe, Pa., where Rogers grew up.
A LETTER OF REGRET
In researching the film, Neville discovered that Rogers sometimes wrote letters to himself — almost like diary entries, and probably a reflection of that “learning to be his own friend” quality that he developed as a lonely child.
In one such letter, he expressed deep doubts about his skills as a writer. “Am I kidding myself that I’m able to write a script again? … After all these years, it’s just as bad as ever. I wonder if every creative artist goes through the tortures of the damned trying to create.”
“It was a memo,” Neville says. “It was in 1979, and he’s a tortured artist at this point. I mean, it’s extraordinary that he had that level of doubt. He had been on television for 25 years.”
The point of writing it to himself was just to get the thought out. How often do doubts and anxiety linger simply because we are afraid to confront them?
“I think he really tried to be in touch with his own feelings,” Neville says.
THE PRANK PHOTO
Yes, Mister Rogers really was “Mister Rogers” in real life, but…he did have a grown-up sense of humor. In the film, that’s represented by the story of a crew member from the show who liked to steal people’s cameras, get someone to snap a photo of him mooning the lens, then return the camera to where he found it.
When he did this to the boss, Rogers never reacted. Never said a word, almost as if it didn’t happen. Then, at Christmas, he gave that worker a special gift — a framed, poster-sized print of that bare-assed photo.
“I think the film actually gets a PG-13 rating because of that,” Neville says.
He could enjoy an R-rated joke, too. But he couldn’t tell them.
“The piano player, Johnny Costa, who was an amazing jazz pianist and was on the show forever until he passed away, he and Fred were really close,” Neville says. “Johnny was a really salty character, hard-drinking, off-color, and Fred loved him. Johnny would tell a dirty joke and Fred would laugh and somebody else would come in and Fred would never repeat the joke. He’d say, ‘Johnny, tell them that joke.’ Fred would never repeat anything.”
JEFF ERLANGER’S WHEELCHAIR
Jeff Erlanger was a 10-year-old quadriplegic who, in 1981, rode into the Neighborhood on his electric wheelchair. Mister Rogers asked why he was in the chair (spinal tumors) and had the boy demonstrate its maneuvers. Then they duetted on a familiar song, “It’s You I Like,” the lyrics focusing on the visitor and “not your fancy chair.”
“Fred often said that was his favorite moment of the show. It was normalizing the kind of thing that we tend to brush under the carpet in our society,” Neville says. “Fred felt that differences are all superficial, that underneath it all we all have the same fears and we all have the same hopes. He looked at people as humans first and our physical condition second.”
Erlanger died in 2007 at age 36 due to complications from his lifelong health issues. He outlived Mister Rogers by only four years.
But while they were both still here, they reunited one night at the Emmy Awards, when Mister Rogers was given a lifetime achievement award. At the end of all the celebrity tributes, Erlanger rolled out on stage in his electronic chair to present the trophy
You can see their reunion here:
THE PLASTIC POOL
The show launched in 1968 at the peak of the civil rights struggle, and Rogers cast singer-dancer François Clemmons, a black man, as the local police officer.
But a simple, plastic baby pool gave Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers the chance to make a point at a time when blacks and whites didn’t share water fountains, bathrooms, or pools. In a scene from 1969, Officer Clemmons stops by on a hot day, and Rogers invites him to literally cool his heels with him.
“It is so odd that they’re…sitting around singing songs to each other. But it’s so emblematic of what Fred did,” Neville says. “He decides to make a statement in his very quiet way, that it’s okay for black and white people to share a pool, to share a space, to share a friendship.”
The moment was later recreated by the men in 1993, for their final show together, seen at the top of this story.
“In a way, he’s reminding us of kind of the basic rules of neighborliness and civility,” Neville says. “That’s why the film is so oddly touching in this day and age. It’s talking about these basic agreements we have about what kind of society we want to live in together and how we should think about each other. And those things are the things that feel under threat.”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is in theaters nationwide this weekend.