Visit with old ‘Neighbor’ holds surprises
Documentary shatters myths about Fred Rogers
Fred Rogers and his trademark cardigan sweater are back for the 50th anniversary of his beloved children’s TV show Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
Besides being portrayed by Tom Hanks in the upcoming movie You Are My Friend (expected in fall 2019), Rogers also is the subject of Oscar-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? (in theaters June 8 in a dozen cites, including New York, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Boston, Washington and Atlanta; expanding nationwide through July).
Here’s what we learned about Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74, from watching Neighbor:
Mr. Rogers was Daniel Tiger
Rogers voiced all the hand puppets in the “Neighborhood of Make-Believe” segment of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, from X the Owl to King Friday XIII. But he was most similar to the sensitive Daniel Striped Tiger puppet (the inspiration for PBS’ animated Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood).
Through Daniel, Rogers was able to show his inner feelings and use them as teaching moments.
“He did all the voices. But Daniel was the real Fred,” his widow, Joanne Rogers, says in Neighbor.
Lady Elaine was his anger outlet
Rogers is shown in a TV interview talking about his inability to express inner feelings like anger since childhood: “I didn’t want to be a bad boy; I didn’t want to tell people I was angry.”
He would release the anger constructively on his show through songs performed on his piano. At home, Rogers would break into the voice of his outspoken and cranky Lady Elaine Fairchilde puppet when vexed.
“That was our cue that this was the alter ego speaking now, just letting off a little steam,” says his son, Jim Rogers.
The number 143 had mystical importance for him
For the numerologist Rogers, the number 143 was exceedingly important. On the show, Rogers’ characters pointed out that it represented “I love you”: One for the letter “I,” four letters in “love” and three letters in “you.”
The message was reinforced in his personal life. After swimming a mile each day at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association, Rogers would jump on the scale to check that he weighed precisely 143 pounds — which he proudly maintained for decades.
He was not gay
Interviewer Tom Snyder asked Rogers, “Are you straight?” in an oncamera interview. Rogers’ answer to the persistent question isn’t shown, but Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Neighborhood, addresses it.
Clemmons, who is gay, says Rogers was not: “I spent enough time with him, if there was a gay vibe, I would have picked it up.”
Rogers had many gay friends but was concerned when word got back to him in the early days of the show that Clemmons was spotted at a gay bar.
“If I came out publicly, (Rogers) said, ‘You are not going to be on the show anymore,’ ” Clemmons says. “‘The sponsors, Johnson & Johnson and Sears, they are not going to support an openly gay man.’ ”
He was definitely not a Navy SEAL
The urban myth that Rogers was a Navy SEAL, hiding tattoos on his arms with his cardigan sweaters, endures today.
Friends say that untruths like this persist because people can’t believe Rogers, with all his eccentricities, could be as good as he was.
Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood stage manager Nick Tallo laughs about the SEAL rumor: “He didn’t know how to use a screwdriver, let alone kill a bunch of people.”
Fred Rogers stars in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.”
Fred Rogers’ widow, Joanne, says Daniel Tiger was most like the man himself.