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Why Mister Rogers was ‘the least likely TV star of all time’

Millions loved Fred Rogers and his neighborhood. Filmmaker Morgan Neville watched the iconic PBS show as a kid, and then rewatched it as an adult. He found something worth celebrating, a voice that he says he doesn't hear in our culture anymore. Jeffrey Brown takes a look at his new film, "Won't You Be My Neighbor."

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Millions of children grew up with Mister Rogers and his neighborhood.

    So, now a new documentary explores his life and lessons.

    Jeffrey Brown has more.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The trolley, the cute puppets, the cardigan sweater — millions loved Mister Rogers and his neighborhood. Others found it all a bit, well, too nice.

    Filmmaker Morgan Neville watched as a kid and, looking again as an adult, found something worth celebrating today.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    When I started digging into him, I just felt like this was a voice I don't hear in our culture anymore. It's a voice that needs a place at the table. And it's a voice that speaks up for a lot of things that nobody else is speaking out for.

    It's a grownup voice that's empathetic and that's looking out for our own cultural long-term well-being.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Neville, who won an Oscar for his documentary "20 Feet From Stardom," has now made "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" a new, fuller look at the life and work of Fred Rogers.

  • NARRATOR:

    A television program for children made its inauspicious debut on station WQED in Pittsburgh. Its host, Fred Rogers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" had its national debut on public television in 1968. Original episodes and reruns would air until 2001.

    The show quickly hit a chord with children across the country.

  • CHILD:

    Mister Rogers?

  • FRED ROGERS:

    Yes?

  • CHILD:

    I want to tell you something.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    What would you like to tell me?

  • CHILD:

    I like you.

    (LAUGHTER)

  • FRED ROGERS:

    And I like you, my dear. Thank you very much for telling me that.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    A Presbyterian minister who studied child psychology, Rogers was on a mission, says Neville, to harness the power of television to reach and teach children, but without any high-tech glitz.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    I have always felt that I didn't have to have a funny hat or jump through a hoop to have a relationship with a child.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    For Fred Rogers, television was almost the necessary evil to do what he wanted to do with his mission.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    Children have very deep feelings, just the way everybody does.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    He knew that from the moment he first saw television and really changed his life's course.

    But, at the same time, he hated television. So, in a certain way, he's the least likely TV star of all time.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    Did you ever know any grownups who got married and then later they got a divorce?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    The program didn't shy from addressing tough issues of the day.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    There is Officer Clemmons. Hi, Officer Clemmons. Come in.

  • FRANCOIS CLEMMONS:

    Hi, Mister Rogers. How are you?

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Francois Clemmons, who played a friendly policeman in the neighborhood, recalls a seemingly benign scene intended to send a bigger message.

  • FRANCOIS CLEMMONS:

    Around the country, they didn't want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools. My being on the program was a statement for Fred.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    I think Fred Rogers made this decision very early in his career, that what he was going to do was to level with children, because I think the adult instinct we have — and I as a parent know this — you want to tell your kids not to pay attention to bad things or don't worry about things.

  • FRED ROGERS:

    A dead fish would be one that isn't swimming or breathing or anything at all. Look down there and see.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    And the fact of the matter is, children are way too smart to not worry about things. They know when bad things happen.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    There were spoofs and mockery, including Eddie Murphy on "Saturday Night Live."

  • EDDIE MURPHY:

    I have always wanted to live in a house like yours, my friend. Maybe, when there's nobody home, I will break in.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    And many wondered, is this guy for real?

    I think the question a lot of people always had was, is this an act? Is it a performance? Surely, there's other some dark side to Fred Rogers.

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    Without a doubt, the most common question I got was some version of, is this guy for real?

    And the conclusion I came to, after years of working on this, is, he is 100 percent for real. And, in fact, that's kind of the surprise. The reveal is that he is even more Mister Rogers-like in real life than he is on the show.

    So the difference between Mister Rogers and Fred Rogers is, Fred was a more dimensional, more willful, more intellectual version of Mister Rogers.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    More willful and tougher than those colorful cardigans might suggest, but also hints of doubt and fears that he wasn't fulfilling his mission.

    It is moving to watch Fred Rogers and think how television and the world were, in the end, not what he wanted them to be. How did you come to think about this?

  • MORGAN NEVILLE:

    He was somebody that believed in the potential of television and dedicated his life to it, because he believed it could be a place where we could build communities.

    And there are times when television has done that, but, more often than not, we live in an era where television is incentivized to do the opposite, to actually divide us.

    And I think Fred found that very painful. But it didn't mean that he stopped believing. And I think, if he were here, he would still be trying to figure out ways to us these messages positively. And I think it's part of why I made the film.

  • JEFFREY BROWN:

    Fred Rogers died in 2003. The film "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" is now playing in theaters nationwide.

    For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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