Visit with old ‘Neigh­bor’ holds sur­prises

Doc­u­men­tary shat­ters myths about Fred Rogers

USA TODAY Weekend Extra - - LIFE - Bryan Alexan­der

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.”

WALT SENG/FAM­ILY COM­MU­NI­CA­TIONS INC.

Fred Rogers stars in “Won’t You Be My Neigh­bor.”

THE FRED ROGERS COM­PANY

Fred Rogers’ widow, Joanne, says Daniel Tiger was most like the man him­self.

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