Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville explores the life and legacy of beloved minister and TV icon Fred Rogers in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” a revealing documentary that shares his faith, impact and how he handled controversial issues such as homosexuality.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” was released on Blueray and DVD in September, and it shares the vision Rogers had for people, especially children, which informed his classic show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The popular children’s show was described as a gentle, thoughtful educational series in which Rogers treated children like intelligent people who deserve respect. The show ran on several networks across the United States and Canada from 1968 to 2001.
Neville highlighted the fact that although Rogers worked in television for over 30 years, he was very devoted to his Christian faith.The ordained Presbyterian minister died in 2003 at age 74, but his legacy continues.
Below is an edited transcript of an interview with Neville who considers himself a “first generation Mister Rogers fan.” He explained the TV icon’s impactful legacy and the power love had in shaping everything Mr. Rogers did.
Christian Post: In the documentary, we discover that Fred Rogers considered himself a “TV Evangelist.” From your experience in the industry and his life, would you say all visual media evangelizes one way or another? Please explain why or why not?
Neville: It’s interesting, this comparison between Fred Rogers and televangelism because Fred never explicitly preached on his program. A devout Presbyterian who read the Bible every morning, often in Hebrew or Greek, he would not mention religion on his show. He was often asked why not, and he would reply: “We hope God’s love and peace comes through our work.” Looking at his influence today, across three generations of Americans, I think that decision had a deep wisdom to it.
Today, television often seems to target smaller and smaller niches with specific interests. Mister Rogers is a reminder that there were, for many years, messages that were both strong and unifying — and we hope this film demonstrates that those messages are not old-fashioned, but still speak to us deeply today.
CP: The film touched on homosexuality in regards to Rogers’ friendship with François “Officer” Clemmons, who was gay. While Clemmons was told he could not be “out” while on the show, Rogers made sure to let him know he still loved and valued Clemmons despite his lifestyle. What was the message you were hoping to share by including that in the film?
Neville: He believed in embracing change with a full heart. So when he realized that the environments children were living in had evolved, he decided to come back and make programs that addressed those new circumstances. After never mentioning divorce early on, he then did a week of programs on it, helping children understand what it was, why it might happen, and what it meant for them. I think his evolution on homosexuality was similar: through his friendship with Officer Clemmons, he was able to embrace change and the unfamiliar with a full heart.
CP: How was having the real-life family and friends of Rogers discuss his life? What was the common thing they all shared about him?
Neville: Joanne, his widow, is such a perfect complement to Fred, as chatty as he was taciturn, but with the same zest for life and capacity for love. By talking to his family and friends, we were able to see a three-dimensional view of this man, whom most of us only ever met in two dimensions on a television screen.
Their recollections, while often surprising, were never shocking, and I am so grateful they participated.