In the long history of television, a medium of mostly interchangeable sameness, there has never been another creature quite like Fred Rogers. No one else built such an empire on kindness, on slowness and on a fundamental respect for young children — people who, by definition, don’t spend money and don’t vote and often don’t even get to pick the channel they’re watching. If you’re going to marginalize a group of television viewers, it would be kids. Yet from 1968 to 2001, there was Fred Rogers, inviting every little kid with access to PBS to be a part of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a low-budget program out of Pittsburgh that for a staggering 912 episodes was America’s most reliable universal pre-K education. If you were born in the second half of the 20th century you probably saw it plenty, and likely at an age when you didn’t quite realize what a truly bizarre feat it was.
Overdue, then, is “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” It’s a charming and not overly sentimental documentary about Rogers by Morgan Neville, whose feature doc subjects include other such singular characters as Johnny Cash and Keith Richards. It didn’t occur to me as a kid when watching “Mr. Rogers” just how strange the show was — humbly produced and plotted, obviously, a world where a grown man sings to you, changes his shoes, talks about your worth as a person, hangs out with a few other adult characters, and then yields the floor to a make-believe world of hand puppets that he predominantly controlled and voiced. The people who knew Rogers attest in the doc that each of these dozen or so characters, and in particular a sensitive little tiger named Daniel, were all manifestations of some part of Rogers’ personality, acted out for kids over, yes, more than 30 years of TV.
It amounted to an amazing run of psychological self-confession, and, in a sense, Rogers himself makes for a challenging documentary subject because he was, in practically every regard, an open book. The guy he was on screen, even as he inhabited King Friday XIII and Queen Sara Saturday and X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat, really was him. If you’re looking for dirt, this ain’t going to be your biopic. The closest thing we get to a dark reveal is that he at least one time used the word “ass” in conversation, and did, for a time in the ’70s, forbid a gay cast member from revealing his sexuality out of fear that corporate sponsors would pull funding from the show. That’s about it. Otherwise the piano-playing ordained minister, married to the same woman for nearly 50 years till his death, recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom, lover of cardigans and feeder of fish, was exactly the man you saw earnestly guiding small children through the perils of growing up. There’s a comfort in knowing that Fred Rogers lived up to the character he played on TV.
Rogers was no doubt an eccentric, in hindsight, and one who Neville tacitly argues tended to hit a wall when he tried to talk to adults, both in person and on other television shows. Something about the grown-up world seemed to wear him out. And past the age of maybe 7 or so, it was easy to leave Mr. Rogers behind, in turn. I saw the film with a friend from Pittsburgh who admitted to disliking the show as a kid; she intuited, even as a little kid, that Mr. Rogers’ messages of kindness and love and care weren’t actually preparing her for the real world. That line of thinking struck me as a canny one: Pretty early on, you could feel like Fred Rogers wasn’t going to make you sufficiently tough. Pushed around as a kid (he kept his baby fat well into adolescence) and at times bedridden with childhood illnesses, Rogers knew what it was like to be bullied. His advice to kids sort of accepted this as an inevitability, perhaps, rather than a call to other action. Don’t let them define you, he implored kids. In certain real-world neighborhoods, kids might be better admonished to learn how to deliver a right hook.
It’s not 1968 anymore, or even 2001, and we’re deeply into a world where bully politics have become a national crisis. The real world may have worn Rogers down, and this version of it would no doubt make him feel like his life’s work came to naught, as overtly cruel people now have more control over government than at any time at least since the Civil War. Mr. Rogers might have an opinion different from yours or mine on the ethics of, oh, say, whether to punch a Nazi. But this he would say, and this is worth remembering: You should also be telling the people you love that you love them, and sticking up for them. Gloriously screwed though it is, we’re all in this neighborhood together.