In the Hood: Morgan Neville's 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?' looks at the legacy of Fred Rogers

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A generation of youngsters in the late 1960s grew up with Fred Rogers, the host of public television's "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." In Won't You Be My Neighbor?, documentarian Morgan Neville opens a fascinating world behind the show and its star. A Focus Features release opening June 8, it's one of the most unexpectedly rewarding movies of the year.

Speaking by phone, Neville admits that he questioned his initial instinct to make a film about Rogers. "The original seed of the idea came from Yo-Yo Ma, probably six or seven years ago, just when I was getting to know him. I wanted to know how he figured out how to be a famous person.

"He said, 'Mister Rogers taught me.' I laughed, and he said, 'No, he really did. I went on his show when I was young and he mentored me. He recognized I was struggling with fame. And he showed me how I could use fame as a force for positive social change.'"

Neville watched the show as a child himself. Then, like many viewers, he left Rogers behind as he developed other tastes. While considering this project, Neville screened videos of commencement addresses Rogers had given, profound speeches that suggested the performer had a much deeper personality than his television persona.

"I started to feel that okay, maybe I'm not crazy thinking there's something to be said about Fred Rogers," Neville continues. "Here's this voice saying things that I don't hear anymore. He was an empathetic adult with no other agenda. It's a voice we're missing today."

That voice, and Rogers' show as a whole, was the result of years of work. An ordained minister, Rogers studied child development and child care with psychologist Margaret McFarland and other experts. He also had a degree in music. Working on children's television shows in New York was so discouraging that he set out to make his own in Pittsburgh. For almost 15 years he played supporting roles in live, unscripted programs.

Finally, in February 1968, Rogers premiered "Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood" on WQED, Pittsburgh's public-television station. The show ran until 2000, almost 900 episodes in all.

Each episode began the same way, with Rogers changing into a cardigan and sneakers while singing his theme song, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" From there he could go off into any number of tangents, telling stories, talking about serious subjects like divorce or indulging in mild slapstick.

Neville interviews Rogers' family and workers, who explain how he developed puppet characters from people he knew. One friend notes that Rogers' show was the "exact opposite of good production values." Sets and camerawork were simple, stories unfolded slowly, and Rogers maintained a calm, cool demeanor in a television landscape filled with flashing colors, noise and commercials.

That doesn't explain how Rogers connected with children, however. Neville and his crew found footage showing Rogers at work developing his communication strategies. Field pieces of Rogers in classroom sessions with children, raw footage from a 1967 documentary about Rogers and outtakes from his show paint a portrait of someone devoted to his work.

"When I first met with Joanne [Rogers' widow], she said to me, 'Don't make Fred into a saint,'" Neville remembers. "Not only are saints two-dimensional, but to sanctify Fred is to say that it came easy to him. The fact is he struggled his entire life about whether or not he was living up to his potential. I want my film to ask us to evaluate our own struggles trying to measure up."

So Neville includes some of Rogers' relative failures, like "Old Friends, New Friends," a magazine show for adults he developed for prime-time television. There we see Rogers talking with classical pianist Lorin Hollander, an excerpt that is both awkward and intriguing.

"He was trying to listen more than talk," Neville observes about the show. "It's strange, but I actually really like those episodes. He had some great people, like Hoagy Carmichael. Milton Berle gives this incredible interview talking about the shame and humiliation of being a clown for a living. They did about 24 in total. They're just sitting on the shelf right now, I hope they get re-released."

Unlike many documentaries, Neville—whose 2014 20 Feet from Stardom won both an Oscar and a Grammy—had almost too much to work with for Won't You Be My Neighbor? The crew pored over the "Neighborhood" shows, the existing entries of his previous shows, scores of commencement speeches, a million pieces of correspondence and annotated scripts for every episode.

"We decided in the very beginning we weren't there to make a film about the story of Fred Rogers, we were there to make a film about the ideas of Fred Rogers," Neville says. "We never felt like we had to check any boxes in terms of his biography. I said to my editors, 'This isn't like making a archival documentary, it's like making a verité documentary. The footage has to speak to you and reveal itself.'"

In a way, Neville and his crew adopted Rogers' methods to tell his story. Won't You Be My Neighbor? is comforting, reassuring, quiet and measured in its assessments and opinions.

One section addresses the cultural backlash against Rogers and his show. Comedians like Johnny Carson are seen mocking Rogers and his personality.

"I loved him when I was four, but then when I was sixteen I made fun of him," Neville adds. "As you get older, as you have children of your own, you come to realize how important he is. Because what he was doing was so unique. Those of us who know the media landscape for children understand that Fred was one-of-a-kind.

"I think the popular idea of Fred Rogers today is that he's kind of a cardboard wimp, a punch line," Neville continues. "I think the idea that there was something profound around a character like him might strike some as ridiculous. But what I came to realize is that he had this incredible profundity about him. He had the ability to reach children in ways that other people couldn't."

Rogers spoke to children about their fears, using simple words and examples. He addressed racism, terrorism, war and assassination, showing his viewers how to be kind and thoughtful—how to become adults.

"Kindness is not sexy," the director points out. "Kindness does not get a lot of traction in our culture. It's a lot easier to make money or to rule people through fear and anger than through kindness. Fred talks about it himself. Where is honest-to-goodness kindness? Not Pollyanna stuff, but how do we actually think about how to be good neighbors?"

In Neville's treatment, Rogers' beliefs are as important as his actual shows. And it turns out that Rogers' message is as relevant, and on some levels as controversial, now as it was 50 years ago. Rogers spoke to children at a stage of innocence, when they still believed in good, when they wanted to do what was right. As a friend, a surrogate parent, he showed them how to behave. More important, he accepted them for what they were.

Neville doubts that Rogers would be able to find funding for a similar show today. "He turned down every merchandising deal," the director notes. "He felt if he profited from toys and things that it would be polluting his relationship with his viewers. That's in and of itself radical. And he worried that being famous was a toxic byproduct of all the good he wanted to do. He was there to spread a message. He wanted nothing from television other than that relationship he could build with an audience."

Rogers might not have been able to fund his show today, but Neville had no trouble finding backing for his documentary when he pitched his idea at Sundance Catalyst.

"Other documentary filmmakers don't want me to say this, but this was the easiest fundraising I've ever done," Neville laughs. "We got all our money in 72 hours. I actually sold the film without showing anyone a frame."

Working on an accelerated schedule, Neville and his crew finished the documentary in 14 months. "I feel like a lot of documentary filmmakers will start with a six-hour cut and they'll cut it to three hours, then to two. We kind of did this the opposite way. We said what are all the things that need to be in there, and let's put that cut together. When we did, it was almost the finished 90 minutes."

Neville knew the final version would include two key sequences: Rogers' segment with Jeff Erlanger, and his appearance at a Congressional hearing about funding for PBS.

Neville includes a long piece from a conversation between Rogers and Erlanger on his show. (The entire segment is available on Vimeo.) Ten years old, Erlanger was confined to a wheelchair after an operation to remove a tumor from his spine. He's a lively and charming boy, but Rogers is a revelation, drawing him out with careful, compassionate questions. It is a remarkably powerful encounter.

In 1969, Senator John Pastore (D–RI) led hearings to potentially slash $20 million from the PBS budget. Neville includes Rogers' testimony before the committee, a sequence that shows how brilliantly he could judge character.

"It's an amazing moment," Neville says. "I actually filmed more about it. I found some backstory that we didn't put in the film. Pastore had grown up working as a child in factories in the Depression. So when Fred talks about the value of childhood, you can see how he spoke to Pastore on a deep level. Fred was so good at disarming people and cutting right to their core."

These two segments alone are proof that Neville's instincts about Fred Rogers were correct. Despite the jokes and putdowns, he was a crucial voice for his time. Won't You Be My Neighbor? makes us wish for someone like him today.