The director of the new documentary ‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ on how the iconic TV host was almost too good to be true
Could there be anybody dorkier than Fred Rogers? The creator and host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, which debuted nationally in 1968 and introduced kids to a world of make-believe populated by sentient puppets and kindly mailmen, has often been branded as the ultimate wimp: a smiling, unassuming pushover with the soft voice and conservative haircut. Mocked by Eddie Murphy on Saturday Night Live, Rogers was a devoutly religious man with a simple message: That childhood is precious, and we need to protect our youngest by showing them that they’re loved and valued. Most kids grew up watching his show, but eventually, we get too old and rejected him and his long-running program, moving on to more adult fare.
One of those kids was Morgan Neville, the 50-year-old Oscar-winning documentarian of 20 Feet From Stardom, who later in life began to consider the subconscious power that Rogers’ gentle message of love had on people like him. After speaking with Yo-Yo Ma, the subject of his 2015 documentary The Music of Strangers who was a fierce Rogers advocate, Neville wondered if there might be a movie to be made about the man, who died in 2003 at the age of 74.