I've spent some time with Oscar winners, Nobel Prize winners, a U.S. president (and a good many president-wannabes), Super Bowl and World Series champions, a Supreme Court justice, a few dozen best-selling authors, two serial killers, David Letterman and hundreds of other men and women that I'm told are important. But I also met Fred Rogers. Now, I know that he's Mister to the rest of the world, but he told me I could call him "Fred." Sigh.
It was the mid-1980s and I was working for an NBC affiliate in Pittsburgh. One day, at the invitation of a colleague, I visited WQED-TV, where Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood was produced from 1968 through 2000. As if it were yesterday, I recall walking into the "Neighborhood of Make-Believe" and getting the kind of goosebumps that are exclusively reserved for Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny and Mister Rogers. Even now, part of me that believes the greatest castles ever built were made with construction paper and round-tipped scissors. I was surrounded by tiny castles, tree houses and yes, that famous track where the trolley transported us all to a better world. And then there he was, walking toward me with an arm outstretched to greet me. That smile. That sweater. He was so...well, so Rogersonian. He was exactly the same as he appeared on his television show, maybe even nicer.
"Please George, call me Fred," he said, smiling as I stammered through an explanation of how much he had meant to me as a kid.
So, you can imagine what a blubbering mess I was (for Pete's sake, I practically choked up during the opening credits) while watching Won't You Be My Neighbor?, an amazing new film from Oscar-winning documentarian Morgan Neville (20 Feet from Stardom). I'm guessing you might weep a bit too. Who didn't love that pastoral figure who looked into our hearts and said, "I like you just the way you are."
Won't You Be My Neighbor? is much more than a cinematic scrapbook of a bygone era. It's an expertly crafted examination of a man who understood that children needed to learn to speak honestly about feelings of anger, fear and other kinds of hurt. Appropriately, the film includes clips of interviews with Rogers where he spoke rather honestly about his own feelings.
"Love is at the root of everything: all learning, all parenting, all relationships," he said. But then he looked down for a moment, took a breath and lifted his head to continue. "Love, or the lack of it."
In one rather startling black-and-white clip from 1968, the first year Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood went on the air, a puppet kitten, who viewers would soon know as Daniel Tiger (voiced by Rogers himself) has a casual conversation with the very young Betty Aberlin (who appeared on the series for 33 years) about balloons and how nice the weather is. But then, things take a turn.
"What does assassination mean?" Daniel Tiger softly asks, in a voice similar to that of a 5-year-old child.
That same question was being asked by 5-year-olds across the U.S. in 1968, a year in which both Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy were assassinated.
"Have you heard that word a lot today?" Aberlin asks Daniel Tiger, explaining, "Well, it means someone getting killed in sort of a surprise way."
A short time later, in a separate black-and-white broadcast aimed at parents, Rogers said, "I've been terribly concerned lately about the graphic display of violence. There is just so much that a very young child can take."
Rogers pleaded with adults watching to take great care in monitoring children's exposure to violent images. Of course, not much has changed in the half-century since that broadcast, which is why we probably need Fred Rogers now more than ever. Yes, he died in 2003, but if my guess is right, Won't You Be My Neighbor?—a brilliant, must-see film—will rekindle his spirit and the ultimate lesson that love is indeed at the root of everything. Love, or the lack of it.