Won’t You Be My Neighbor

I’m surprised I enjoyed this documentary, because I was never a fan of Mr. Rogers. I was a kid when his show started airing, and even at the age of 4, I disliked it. I loved Sesame Street and Electric Company, but never liked Rogers’ voice, puppets, or production values (as a small child, I probably didn’t think “production values” as much as I just thought the show looked goofy).

When my daughter was 4 and 5-years-old, she didn’t care for him either. Yet she was obsessed with that purple dinosaur Barney, which imparted a lot of the same life lessons. In 1998, I took her to the theatre to see the Barney movie. It was a torturous hour and a half for me, but I loved the fact that she (and all the other kids that filled the Chula Vista movie theatre), were having a blast.

I’m not sure why I gave Barney a pass but always knocked Mr. Rogers. I think it’s the fact that…Barney was something I could see kids enjoying. It’s a friendly dinosaur costume with a nice voice. Rogers voice always…creeped me out. So, I wasn’t surprised to find out while watching this documentary, that this isn’t an act. He’s exactly the same way off camera as he was on camera, which…creeps me out still. For example, Yo-Yo Ma said in this that Mr. Rogers got three inches from his face, smiled, and “It scared the living daylights out of me.”

And when his wife talks about their relationship, something just doesn’t seem right. When he retired, she said he seemed sad so she asked him about it. He replied, “I miss my playground.”

It was surprising to find out that in Fred Rogers’ childhood, he suffered from many illnesses (including Scarlet Fever). He was also overweight, and kids made fun of him, calling him “Fat Freddy.” This is one of the reasons he despised children being picked on or feeling sad about anything.

When discussing this with my wife she said, “It reminds me of Michael Jackson. Since he didn’t have a normal childhood, it’s like he got stunted emotionally as a kid and doesn’t communicate very well with adults.”

Yet where Michael Jackson made millions and had inappropriate relationships with children, Rogers made it his life work to help children. And boy did he. There’s nothing more wonderful than seeing kids visit him on the set with huge smiles. One of those included a boy in a wheelchair that was about to have major surgery. Another scene shows a commencement address at a college. A graduate approaches him, crying, saying she watched his show and that was her preschool.

Part of the problem with this is we get glimpses that there’s a more complex person than merely a minister that went into television. At one point, we see one of his two children talking about the times it was hard to be his son. With his scraggly hair and look, I’m curious to know more about him and that statement. I would’ve also liked to hear his wife, who is featured often in this, talk about at least one argument they had. It seems the only time Mr. Rogers got hot under the collar (and sweater), was when a TV executive talked about some violent cartoons kids like, and he exclaimed, “I know what kids like!!!!”  

And it’s things like that that got him into this business. He was a recent graduate and ordained minister, that saw a pie being thrown into someone’s face on TV and found it disgusting. He felt kids could learn more from educational discussions, not pies in the face (Soupy Sales is rolling in his grave right now).

When he retired from Mr. Rogers Neighborhood in the mid-70s, he wanted to do a show for adults. Again, this is the stuff I want to see. Fred Rogers acting like a regular adult sometimes. Yet that bizarre interview show didn’t connect with people, and in a clip where you see him interviewing a world renowned pianist, you understand why. He just doesn’t talk to other adults normally. It’s as if they’re 4-year-old kids.

When Superman came out in the late ‘70s, and a few kids were hurt trying to emulate the superhero by flying with a red cape, Rogers got angry and brought his show back. He wanted kids to know they could be gentle, and they could be heroes without fighting and violence. Again, those are good messages, but isn’t there room for both Superman and Mr. McFeely?

Instead, he rants at us about Superman, and he sounds like the Church Lady, who is ready to tell us the red in Superman’s cape is the color of…..satan!! Yes, it’s safe to say, Rogers’ could be a bit maniacal when it came to his “message” and how kids should learn things.

Morgan Neville made the terrific documentary 20 Feet From Stardom, and I wish instead of just showing us the various things that happened in Rogers’ life, he would have delved a bit deeper with this. Sure, it’s interesting to see him securing $20 million for public television in the ‘60s. It’s also great fun to find out the cameramen played pranks on him (included mooning him, or replacing his shoes with much smaller loafers, that he couldn’t put on during filming). Watching him laugh hysterically, realizing he had been pranked, was priceless. Especially when we’ve all heard behind the scenes rants from people like Bill O’Reilly and Casey Kasem when things don’t go exactly as planned.

It was interesting to find out things I hadn’t known before. For example, Rogers wanted to tackle subjects that were in the news. That could be explaining the word “assassination” after Robert Kennedy was murdered, or an episode on divorce. One of the most touching scenes was when news clips in the late ‘60s showed a racist guy dumping cleaning supplies into a swimming pool that black and white kids were playing in. Mr. Rogers invited the black character on his show, Officer Clemmons, to join him soaking their feet together in a kiddie pool. It was a wonderful moment, and when later we find out a little more about their relationship, it’s equally touching.

My wife and I were pleasantly surprised that they talked about some of the parodies that made fun of Mr. Rogers. We got to see Johnny Carson as Rogers, pulling a hooker out of the closet. Jim Carrey on In Living Color, and of course the most famous — Eddie Murphy as Mr. Robinson. I had never noticed before that as Murphy walks down the stairs, there’s a velvet painting of a tiger on the wall, a goof on the tiger puppet Rogers had. [my all-time favorite parody wasn’t in the movie; it was a National Lampoon album with a young Bill Murray playing a stoned bass player and Christopher Guest as Mr. Rogers interviewing him.]

I would’ve liked to have seen what became of actress Betty Aberlin (who played the Lady Aberlin character). I Googled, and found out she became friends with Kevin Smith and appeared in a lot of his films.

Where was Michael Keaton, who was a stagehand on the show before becoming a famous actor (he once hosted a special on Mr. Rogers).

This documentary didn’t have enough diverse talking heads, it glossed over his early life, and fell into the usual documentary tropes.

That being said, it’s still entertaining, and everyone will enjoy it.

3 stars out of 5.