A New Documentary Traces Mr. Rogers’ Unlikely Path to Stardom

Mr. Rogers
Portrait of American educator and television personality Fred Rogers (1928 - 2003) of the television series 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,' circa 1980s. (Photo by Fotos International/Courtesy of Getty Images)Fotos International / Contributor/ Getty Images

Fred Rogers had gall. He wasn’t an inked-up war hero, contrary to a popular urban legend. But a stirring new documentary, Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, makes clear that the cardigan-clad ordained minister used his long-running children’s program, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, to radically yet discreetly champion for good, and address life’s weightiest issues.

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In a scene from 1969, Rogers invites a black policeman to soak his feet with him in a kiddie pool, while offscreen the nation’s public swimming areas remained a hotbed of racial unrest. In another, from 1987, Daniel Tiger, Rogers’ puppet proxy, repeatedly wonders aloud whether he’s a mistake, as Lady Aberlin tries to assure him otherwise.

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Won’t You Be My Neighbor? drives home that, with these scenes and others, Rogers hoped to teach Americans, young and old, how to show mercy; temper hatred; and, above all, preserve their childlike sense of wonder in the face of pain and suffering.

The tragedy is that too few people seemed to have listened.

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