Remembering Mr. Rogers 20 years after the death of our favorite neighbor

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley remembers Mr. Rogers and the documentary 'Won't You Be My Neighbor?'

Forget “Make America Great Again.” How about we make America kind? What if we dial back the shouting, the bullying and the name-calling to embrace our inner goodness and truly become our brother’s keeper with the simple loving question: “Won’t you be my neighbor?”

That was the wish of Fred Rogers, who died in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, on this day 20 years ago on Feb. 27, 2003, at age 74. His legacy lives on as a father figure tossing his loafer from hand to hand, casually zipping up his sweater and inviting us into his home, always just a trolley away from the world of make believe on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” (1968-2001).

However, beneath the famous aw-shucks demeanor — hilariously spoofed by Eddie Murphy on “Saturday Night Live” — there was far more depth to Fred Rogers, as revealed in the tear-jerking documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” (2018) currently streaming on Netflix.

“There’s been a remarkable interest in Fred and his legacy, in particular his ability to craft over 30 years a message that unified Americans from all parts of the country,” producer Nicholas Ma told WTOP in 2018. “From the ages of 2 to 6, children would sit in front of his television and understand something profound (about) what it means to be a kind person.”

Directed by Oscar winner Morgan Neville (“20 Feet From Stardom”), the film follows Rogers from his meek childhood to his pioneering television ideas to his altruistic life philosophy.

“The first thing his widow said was, ‘Please don’t make him out to be a saint,'” Ma said. “He was someone who tried incredibly hard and took the work he did incredibly seriously, but it wasn’t that it was easy and it wasn’t that he was born that way. He said, ‘This is something that’s important — important for me and important for others — so I’m going do it.'”

Ma, who happens to be the son of cellist Yo-Yo Ma, paints Rogers as both a strong father figure to millions and a fragile man pulling inspiration from his own childhood insecurities.

“He was able with this small puppet to bring to the surface the fears that he had as a child,” Ma said. “One of my favorite moments (is) Daniel Tiger talking to Lady Aberlin about feeling like a mistake. … I think that shows the vulnerability he was willing to bring to the show at all times and also the doubt that spurred him to keep doing it for so many years.”

His philosophy was to never talk down to kids, but rather treating them with mutual respect and the assumption that they’re mature enough to handle any subject matter.

“Fred talked about all sorts of issues, from Bobby Kennedy’s assassination to divorce, anything a child might encounter in life,” Ma said. “He was one of the first people on television to feature children with special needs. … Fear is at the root of so many ills in this world. He wanted to give children for whom the world can be a scary place the tools to understand.”

Along the way, Rogers represented a cross-section of America that was hard to put in a political box. On the one hand, he was a devout Christian and lifelong Republican. On the other, he was subversively progressive, inviting his gay African-American co-star François Clemmons to wash his feet with him at a time when some swimming pools were segregated.

“He challenged an audience that perhaps had lost their faith to see faith as something that could be a source of strength,” Ma said. “He challenged audiences that perhaps were less inclusive to see inclusion as a core component of what it means to be human. … He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, but he never wanted to preach. He wanted to teach, elevate.”

That elevated conversation provides the film’s most inspiring moment, when Rogers testifies before Congress about the importance of children’s programming to save funding for PBS. It was a mission that he continued into his final years, televising messages of hope after 9/11.

“He would see hope in the future, but he would also see a responsibility on each of us, not just on our leaders, to bring the best of who we are to the world,” Ma said. “He put it so lovely in his commencement speech at Dartmouth at the end of his life, in which he asked us to thank those people who have encouraged us to be the best within us.”

It’s a message built into the fictional address of Mister Rogers’ home, “143,” which he chose because each digit represents the number of letters in each of the words “I love you.”

Prepare to shed 143 tears as you revisit this documentary on Netflix.

Hear our full conversation on my podcast “Beyond the Fame.”

Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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