You’ve probably seen the viral video of Fred Rogers from 1969, testifying before a U.S. Senate Subcommittee in defense of public broadcasting. The video has been shared over a million times on social media, and is additionally featured in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? chronicles the television career of Fred Rogers and offers glimpses into his personal life through interviews with those who were closest to him. During the height of the Vietnam War, then-President Nixon had threatened to cut funding for public television shows like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and opponents of the proposal had thus far been unsuccessful in swaying Congress. That is, until Rogers took the stand.
His show, which became a staple of multiple generations’ childhoods, actually had quite meager beginnings. For instance, Rogers never intended to use puppets in the show; they were merely a way to create distractions when the free film they were using broke and interrupted the scene. When Daniel the Cat popped through the clock with an urgent message to share, viewers believed it was intentional. Even more impressively, Rogers voiced all the puppet characters in what would later become the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.
The film also shows a more melancholy side to Fred Rogers that perhaps could not be discerned through his programs. It speaks about his difficulties growing up in a household where feelings were suppressed, his experiences with bullying and his subsequent dedication to helping children learn to value themselves.
There is also plenty of humor to be found, such as an interview with cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who states that Rogers once “scared the hell out of him” when he leaned in about three inches from his face and thanked him for his time. But according to those who knew him, this was simply the type of person Rogers was — kind, caring, and true to his on-screen persona.
Rogers was also very progressive for his time, tackling such controversial issues as racism and the assasination of Robert Kennedy.
In the late 60s, Rogers invited his friend François Clemmons to play a police officer on the show. Having a black actor on the show at the time was a “public statement,” the producers say. Upon hearing that black families had been harassed out of public swimming pools, Rogers filmed an episode where he and Officer Clemmons both bathed their feet in a small pool together. The philosophy of Rogers was ultimately one of kindness and assistance to one’s fellow neighbors.
Overall, Won’t You Be My Neighbor? was both heart-warming and thought-provoking. Whether you’re looking for philosophy or simply to unravel the mystery behind those iconic sweaters, this documentary is a must-see for anyone whose life has been brightened by Fred Rogers in some way.