Won’t You Be my Neighbor? is now on DVD, having made it’s South Florida debut at the 35th Miami International Film Festival. Using clips and outtakes from his long running PBS television series, this documentary features the story of Fred Rogers, a seminary student in his last year who gets interested in this newfangled contraption called “television.”
Fred goes to work for the public television station (PBS) in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Being the pioneering days of television, Rogers is both producer and live music director for a children’s show. Technical difficulties often interfere with live telecast, but Fred learns how to save a scene by using a tiger puppet to save the day.
Finding his life’s calling, Rogers returns to the seminary, becomes a minister and creates Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which runs over 40 years. Despite being a show that features the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, the first show that aired in February 1968 features puppets talking about war. Five months later when Robert Kennedy is killed, Daniel Striped Tiger, the puppet, asks one of the grownups, “What does the word assassination mean?”
If one goes to learn something scandalous about Mister Rogers, he will be extremely disappointed with Won’t You Be My Neighbor? The Fred Rogers who was on PBS is the same Fred Rogers that one saw on talk shows or speaking in front of the United States Congress. His wife, children, cast and crew members talk about Fred with such consistent fondness. The man seemed too nice to be true.
There are hints that he had a tough childhood and was bullied for being a rich kid known as “Fat Freddy,” but that is not the core drive of this documentary. By not dwelling on negativity, Fred spends his professional life being a problem solver and a strong advocate for children. A registered Republican, Mister Rogers was an open Christian who preached the importance of the Golden Rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
Comedian Dana Carvey once said that his George H.W. Bush impression was a cross between John Wayne and Mister Rogers. Won’t You Be My Neighbor? is a sweet lesson that children today need to learn and adults need to remember about their own childhood. This documentary about Mister Rogers is one of the best movies to see this holiday season.