Most good films revolve around some kind of drama. It doesn't matter if the movie is a documentary or fiction, you've generally gotta have some kind of conflict to keep it interesting.
Won't You Be My Neighbor?, a new documentary about the late Fred Rogers and his long-running PBS program Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, provides an exception to that rule. The movie paints a portrait of Roger that shows just how kind and sensitive he was as it tells the story of how his TV program came to fruition in the '60s and then forged its remarkable legacy. The film opens at the Cedar Lee Theatre on Friday.
Other than mentioning that his childhood peers used to call him "Fat Fred," the film doesn't provide much background about Rogers' childhood. It does, however, explain how Rogers, an ordained minister who studied childhood development and childhood care in college, came up with the concept for Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, which originally aired on WQED Pittsburgh.
While working at WQED, Rogers realized he often had to fill time when the tape reels holding children's programs broke. So he developed a puppet show to as a placeholder while the broken reel was getting spliced together. Eventually, he had enough material to merit his own show, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood made its debut on WQED in 1968. It began airing nationally on PBS in 1970, and became a huge hit with both kids and parents.
In each episode, Rogers would walk into his home and change from his sports coat into a sweater and tennis shoes as he sang the show's title song in his remarkably soothing voice. Rogers, who says that kids could easily spot "a phony," advocated talking bluntly to children about topics such as the Vietnam War. He had a calmness about him that served as an antidote to the violence and conflicts of the late '60s and early '70s.
Rogers continued to be relevant and remained a mainstay on PBS until 2001, albeit with a short break in 1976 when Rogers explored another unsuccessful program.
While Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood included a cast of characters who inhabited the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe," it was rooted in real life. It wasn't by accident that Rogers asked François Scarborough Clemmons, an African-American singer, to play the role of Officer Clemmons, the neighborhood policeman who'd often stop by Rogers' home for a chat. He wanted children to see some diversity on his program, and Clemmons became one of the first African-Americans to have a recurring role on a kids' TV series. Interviewed numerous times in the film, Clemmons admits that Rogers initially told him to not disclose his homosexuality for fear of losing the show's major sponsors. While that might be seen as a blemish on an otherwise spotless track record, Rogers' wife Joanne says that she and her husband had many gay friends and that Rogers wasn't homophobic.
In one pivotal scene, Rogers appears before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications to advocate for funding for PBS. Right as Rogers is about to testify, chairman John O. Pastore says he's grown tired of hearing prepared statements. In response, Rogers speaks off the cuff. His good-natured charm wins Pastore over, and the curmudgeon declares, "I think it's wonderful. Looks like you just earned the $20 million [in funding]."
Through archival footage, present-day interviews and even behind-the-scenes clips that show Rogers had a good sense of humor, director Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom) depicts Rogers as a true humanitarian who put the interests of others before his own.