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.
CP: What do you think Mr. Rogers would tell children about the times we are in now with all of the social unrest and the current U.S. administration?
Neville: He reminds us of the power we have to love and to let someone know that he or she is lovable. I call it his commitment to "radical kindness." He reminds that every day, regardless of what is going on in Washington or elsewhere, we have the capacity to decide how we treat others in our neighborhoods. And that by building stronger more loving neighborhoods, we can build a stronger and more loving country.
We often think of Fred as being a nostalgic figure, but he was at the vanguard in so many ways, and remains there, reminding us that love is too powerful a force to be threatened by change — instead, it can allow us to embrace it.
CP: Why is the message "I love you just the way you are" so important, although some tried to peg it the reason a generation is entitled?
Neville: "I love you just the way you are" is an essential credo for Fred, in his life, his songs, and his programs — and one he felt essential for a young child to internalize. It's pretty antithetical to the message of protesters at his funeral — and to the fundamental teachings of kindness in the Gospel!
As children grew up, he would elaborate on that message. In his final commencement address, at Dartmouth, he reminded these adults, many of whom had grown up with The Neighborhood, to be "true to the best within them" — not just true to themselves, but to the best of themselves. He reminded them that those qualities already lay within them, there to be found and brought to the world. "I love you just the way you are": It was never an entitlement, but an encouragement.
CP: Is there anyone on TV now that you think is the modern day Mr. Rogers?
Neville: As I have traveled with this film and met audiences, I've been struck by how many people were inspired by Fred to be courageous, in overcoming struggle, in demonstrating kindness, in raising families. Some of those people follow his example on television: Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood, of course, draws deeply from the legacy of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. But more than anyone on television, I think we all have the opportunity to be heirs to Fred's ideas, especially in the way we treat the children of this world.
CP: How did the experience of working on this documentary impact your life?
Neville: As a father myself, each time I watch the film I think a little more critically about how I talk to my children and engage them openly, honestly, and lovingly. And as a citizen, I feel perhaps a little encouraged and empowered to make the world a kinder place.
We're all very glad to bring this film beyond theatres, and especially into the homes of those who may not have had a chance to see it there.
The Focus Features docu-film "Won't You Be My Neighbor" is now available. For more information, visit the website.