“Discovering the truth about ourselves is a lifetime’s work, but it’s worth the effort,” Fred Rogers wrote in his 2003 book, The World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember. And while we all know how everyone’s favorite neighbor helped raise generations of kids via his classic show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the tenderhearted TV personality kept whatever insights he had into his own life to himself.
So who was the ordained Presbyterian minister, the man who preached simple messages of love and kindness from his PBS pulpit for more than 30 years? Academy Award–winning director Morgan Neville’s new documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? attempts to fill in some of the blanks. Though the deeply affecting documentary about the beloved children’s advocate is more reverential than revelatory, we picked out the film’s most illuminating details.
1. Mr. Rogers grew up a sickly, plump, bullied rich kid whose parents weren’t very supportive.
According to Rogers’s wife, Joanne, a preadolescent Rogers didn’t have an easy time making friends. “He got a good taste of what bullying was all about,” she says in the film. And while the doc doesn’t give a lot of info about Rogers’s childhood, we’re told that he was a “fat” kid (and see a picture of a pudgy boy). “I’ve often wondered if there hadn’t been a fat Freddy, would there have been a Mr. Rogers,” muses Mr. McFeely, a.k.a. David Newell, in the film.
In an archival interview, an older Rogers says he had “every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever.” Often bedridden and quarantined, Rogers had to “make up a lot of my own fun” — with little parental support: “As a young boy, I felt that the adults around me were pressuring me to what I couldn’t be yet,” he says in a Neighborhood clip, as he puts on a phonograph record of recorded laughter. “‘Act like a grown-up,’ I’d hear them say. Well, I was afraid they’d laugh at me when I tried. So I found a record like this, and I could make the laughs start and make them stop whenever I wanted to. For someone who hated to be laughed at, it was a good feeling to be in charge of at least this laughter.”
2. The format for the kids’ show that became Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood was accidental.
The man with plans to become a minister put off the seminary after seeing what passed for children’s TV — men getting hit with pies — and figuring he could produce something better. But when one of the free films his local Pittsburgh program Children’s Corner featured broke mid-show and host Josie Carey was left with dead air to fill, Rogers took the tiger-puppet station that manager Dorothy Daniel had given him, pushed it through a painted mural clock, and said, “Hi, Josie, it’s 5:02 and Columbus discovered America in 1492.” That was the beginning of Rogers’s puppetry. “There’s so much of it that was the necessity being the mother of that invention,” Rogers says in the film. (Here’s when Daniel Striped Tiger made his official Neighborhood debut.)
3. Rogers’s sons say Neighborhood puppets’ personalities mirrored family members — especially their dad’s.
“Queen Sarah is obviously my mom,” Rogers’s older son, John, says in the film, adding that witchy Lady Elaine Fairchilde was his aunt Elaine Crozier. (“What can I say?” Crozier replies in the film.) At the dinner table, when Rogers wanted to say something snippy, he would say it in Lady Elaine’s voice. “That was our cue that this was the alter ego speaking now and just letting off a little steam,” says his younger son, James. Rogers’s wife says Daniel was the “real” Rogers. “Daniel is articulating the fears and anxieties and feelings that Fred had as a child,” adds Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center. “It was efficacious, to say the least,” Rogers says about using Daniel as his mouthpiece. Crozier says her brother started out as Daniel, “soft and quiet and shy, but developed into King Friday.”
4. At their first meeting, Rogers scared the crap out of famed cellist — and soon-to-be friend and protégé — Yo-Yo Ma.
In the film, Ma recounts how, when Rogers came to interview him, he “put his face about three inches away from my face and says, ‘It’s so nice to see you, and to be with you’ — it scared the living daylights out of me … And he doesn’t say anything. It’s a perfect interviewing trick.”
5. The minister subtly preached racial tolerance, but wasn’t as welcoming of gay rights.
“My being on the program was a statement for Fred,” says François Clemmons, whose Officer Clemmons was one of the first black characters on children’s TV. In one famous 1969 Neighborhood segment that aired when segregated public pools were still common, Rogers invited Clemmons to soak his feet with him in a plastic wading pool. (The two re-created the scene in 2015.) But when Rogers heard that Clemmons had been to a gay bar, he told his employee not to go back there, and to hide his sexuality. “If I came out publicly, he said, ‘You cannot be on the show anymore.’” Joanne says Rogers eventually came around, but “I think François came a little too soon.” Still, Clemmons says Rogers was the first person to tell him that he loved him “just the way he was,” and became his “surrogate father.” And, no, Rogers wasn’t gay: “I spent enough time with him that … I would’ve picked it up,” Clemmons says in the film.
6. Rogers loved a good prank — and wasn’t always the butt of the joke.
“Freddie was like the little rich kid that lived in the big house [and] we were all the goofball kids that lived across the alley,” Neighborhood floor manager Nick Tallo says about the crew in the film. “We could be ourselves around Fred … always having fun … [and] making jokes.” One recurring gag was to shoot a picture of Tallo’s ass anytime a camera was left lying around the studio — Rogers’s camera included. “He never said anything,” Tallo remembers about the time he took a photo of his tush and waited for a comment from Rogers after the film was developed. “And then months later, I think it was around Christmastime, he said to somebody, ‘Did you give Nick his present?’ And it was a poster of that picture of … my butt.”
7. Rogers’s 1978 prime-time PBS show was a failure.
After 590 episodes of Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, the star called it quits and tried his hand at a documentary-style series for grown-ups called Old Friends … New Friends. The show — in which he interviewed actors, sports stars, politicians, and poets, among others, about their “search for meaning in life” — didn’t catch on, and lasted only 20 episodes.
8. It took Superman to bring Rogers back to children’s TV — but he wasn’t sure he could do it.
After the 1978 Christopher Reeve Superman movie came out, kids began believing they could fly — one jumped off of a roof wearing a cape. Angry about the misleading message the movie sent and feeling kids were lacking adult guidance, Rogers decided to reboot his show. But a letter he wrote to himself ahead of its launch reveals his self-doubt about pulling it off again. He may have even been struggling with depression. In capital letters, he wrote: “AFTER ALL THESE YEARS, IT’S JUST AS BAD AS EVER. THE HOUR COMETH, AND NOW IS WHEN I’VE GOT TO DO IT. GET TO IT FRED. GET TO IT … But don’t let anybody ever tell anybody else that it was easy.” When Rogers ended the show for good (after 1,765 episodes) in December 2000, his wife says she felt he was depressed. “I mentioned it to him, and he said, ‘Well, I miss my playmates.’”
9. He didn’t love Eddie Murphy’s “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood” parody, but embraced the comedian nonetheless.
While Rogers mostly had a great sense of humor about parodies about him and the show, he didn’t necessarily like the Eddie Murphy SNL sketches, “Mr. Robinson’s Neighborhood.” Still, when Murphy met Rogers, the comedian threw his arms around Rogers, who was as gracious as you’d expect. “Some of [the parodies] aren’t funny, but a lot of them are done with real kindness,” Rogers says in the film. Joanne says the ones that made fun of his philosophy offended him.
10. Rogers’s sickly childhood caused a lifetime dislike of doctors, and possibly prevented him from getting a more timely diagnosis of the stomach cancer that killed him.
A friend and former colleague says he had stomach problems for several years before he ever sought medical help. When Rogers called Ma to tell him about his illness, the cellist serenaded him with a Bach sarabande over the phone. “It’s like sending a little loving message,” he says in the film.
11. Rogers’s dedication to the number 143 extended to his scale.
“I think that will is the great unseen and unacknowledged ingredient in Fred’s story,” writer Tom Junod says in the film. Junod, who met Rogers when he profiled him for Esquire in 1998, says Rogers brought determination to almost all phases of his life. There was “no better manifestation of that than [the number] 143,” which Rogers imbued with the meaning “I love you.” Maintaining his weight at 143 pounds — Rogers swam laps every morning, and reportedly didn’t drink or eat meat — “was a confirming quality for him,” says Junod, whose friendship with Rogers will be the basis of an upcoming film about the TV icon, starring Tom Hanks.