‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Documentary examines the hero in a zippered cardigan

Fred Rogers with the puppet Daniel Stripèd Tiger. Photo/courtesy of Focus Features

By Pamela A. Lewis

Fred Rogers hated television. That is, he hated the kind of television where, in the first TV show he had ever seen, it had “something horrible on it with people throwing pies at one another,” he once recalled.

It was into this television programming environment that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” made its debut on WQED-TV, Pittsburgh (later PBS), on Feb. 19, 1968. In “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” the touching, respectful and carefully crafted documentary that honors the 50th anniversary of the beloved program, Director Morgan Neville explores the ideas of the man who transformed children’s television.

Rather than unfurling a year-to-year biography of his subject, Neville emphasizes the philosophy that informed “Mister Rogers,” first alluded to as the film opens with a grainy black-and-white clip of Rogers composing a tune on his piano. Turning to the camera, Rogers explains that, as in music, where one key modulates to another, children need help moving through life’s different and sometimes difficult modulations.

Trained in music (he held a B.A. degree in music composition from Rollins College in Winter Park, Fla.), Rogers composed and performed many of the songs on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (most notably its famous theme). Although Rogers wonders aloud whether his idea is “too philosophical,” this musically based outlook on childhood development lay at the show’s core.

Neville’s mission is to show what manner of man Rogers was and continued to be, beginning from his early life until his death in 2003. A striking example of this occurred on May 1, 1969, when an obviously nervous yet quietly determined Rogers, then 41, appeared before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications requesting $20 million to help support funding for PBS and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Like a gentle rain wearing down stone, Rogers succeeded in convincing the initially condescending subcommittee chair Sen. John O. Pastore (D-RI) to provide the funding.

Familiarity and formality, activity and repose, and reality and make-believe were some of the major themes “Mister Rogers” presented throughout its 895 episodes. Neville’s frequent references to these contrasting aspects suggest that they are as important to him as they were to the show’s creator. Rogers’ familiar entrance through the door of his “home,” where he removed his formal outer clothing and loafers and donned his iconic cardigans and sneakers, subtly communicated the importance of respecting the demarcation between work and home lives. And the red trolley car, endowed with its own distinctive tune, moved along its track into a tunnel that led to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

While Rogers was the star (a label he would have scoffed at) of the show, he was surrounded by a host of human neighbors and friends. In the documentary, they reminisce about working with Rogers, as well as alongside adorable fuzzy and felt-clad puppets he made, which actually were alter egos of Rogers himself. Characters such as Daniel Stripèd Tiger, Henrietta Pussycat and King Friday XIII embodied an array of human behaviors and emotions that often baffled and challenged young viewers, while also showing how to contend with them. Through footage of actual children talking about their fears, angry moments and doubts with the puppets, who empathize and encourage, Neville highlights Rogers’ point that “feelings are mentionable and manageable.”

Celebrities often showed up on “Mister Rogers.” Some of the film’s most affecting moments include conversations between Rogers and the famous (or soon-to-be), such as the then-very young trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, violinist Yitzhak Perlman and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. Neville adds more personal touches through on-camera interviews with Rogers’ wife, Joanne, as well as with their two sons, John and James, who share cherished memories of a beloved husband and father.

Ordained in 1962 as a minister in the United Presbyterian Church, Rogers put his faith and seminary training into action in front of the camera and directly into his young viewers’ hearts while combating what he called the “bombardment” of animated television. In the words of his friend the Rev. George Smith, Rogers displayed the “spiritual dimension without specifically identifying it.” But in a brief clip, Rogers faces the camera and asserts forthrightly the Christian ethos, saying: “Love is at the root of everything; all learning, all relationships; love, or the lack of it.” Love was arguably the banner that flew over “Mister Rogers,” signifying that everyone was loved and capable of loving.

Rogers intrepidly, yet delicately, addressed the thorny social and political issues of the 1960s and 1970s, and Neville honors this facet of “Mister Rogers.” At a time when the country was in the grip of racial tensions, Rogers rose above those conflicts in his typically quiet way.

Fred Rogers, right, addressed the country’s racial tensions by sharing a footbath on his show with “Officer Clemmons,” played by François Clemmons. Photo/courtesy of Focus Features

In one episode, he invites François Clemmons, an African-American actor and singer who played a policeman on the show, to share a foot bath on a hot day. Minutes later, Rogers dries Clemmons’ feet, evoking Christ’s action toward his disciples that is re-enacted in the Maundy Thursday service. Preceded by a chilling 1964 clip of a white motel manager pouring acid into a swimming pool to make black and white integrationists leave, the Rogers-Clemmons pool scene makes a powerful visual statement.

Rogers had his share of debunkers, and Neville gives them their space, more in the interest of fairness to the opposition rather than out of shared conviction. These critical voices (ostensibly from the conservative and right-wing press) decried what they saw as Rogers feeding children a narcissistic myth of their specialness, which they believed engendered a sense of self-centered entitlement. Neville also includes comedians such as Eddie Murphy, who made Rogers the butt of send-ups on “Saturday Night Live” and other shows — bits that ranged from affectionate to tasteless.

In this 50th year since the lilting theme music of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first played, those old enough to remember the show concur that the zeitgeist is such that we need Mister Rogers — or anyone who could be a Mister Rogers — more than ever. Neville’s film succeeds most by reminding us how one person can make a difference, especially when it is a truly good person who does that.

The film inspires a deep nostalgia for a program that was enjoyable, caring and honest, but also proved that it was possible for television to be a medium in the service of the good. As Rogers explained, we are called to be “tikkun olam” — Hebrew for “repairers of creation.” He understood what that involved, and Neville’s film is all about how he did that so well.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is rated PG-13. Church group bookings can be arranged by contacting Group Sales at 877-399-7474, by e-mail to Mr.Rogers@2656Marketing.com or via www.mrrogersgroups.com.

Pamela A. Lewis writes about topics of faith. She attends St. Thomas Episcopal Church, New York.