Mister Rogers Documentary: New Things We Learned About the TV Star

Fred Rogers was the beloved host of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, an American half-hour children’s education television program that taught a lot more than shapes and colors. Rogers taught (preached) such themes as empathy, understanding, respect, and love. He taught children how to deal with hardship–things like their parents getting a divorce, national tragedies, and death. He engaged children in a way they had never been engaged in before, and he did it on national TV.

With the release of Won’t You be my Neighbor, the documentary on Rogers, fans of the neighborhood were excited for a closer look at their favorite neighbor. The doc didn’t disappoint.

1. He was a religious man

Mister Rogers' Neighborhood promo photo.
Fred Rogers | PBS Television/Courtesy of Getty Images

Rogers was more than a TV star. He was an ordained Presbyterian minister, and he let his Christian faith heavily influence the show. In the documentary, we learn the show was more than just a show to him. According to many of the people who worked closely with him, Rogers saw the show as his “ministry.” Having a show on television was the best, most efficient way for him to spread the good word.

2. He was fascinated by child psychology

More than fascinated– he was passionate about child psychology. That’s something else the documentary touches on: his intense interest in the child brain. The show wouldn’t have, couldn’t have, been nearly as poignant and against-all-odds successful without an impressive understanding of child psychology and what children crave at their most primitive level.

3. Mister Rogers’ sons turned him on to Bob Marley

It makes sense when you think about it: they both certainly share a similar message of love.

To keep up with current music, and in an effort to be close with his sons Jim and John, Rogers would often go to his boys for music recommendations. It’s how he started listening to artists like Frank Zappa and, eventually, Bob Marley. The documentary did mention, though, that Jim was sure to not “give him the ganja songs.”

4. He was bullied as a child

Mister Rogers speaking to a child on set.
Mister Rogers had a rough childhood and understood what children go through. | Tremolo Pictures

The documentary doesn’t go too heavily into Rogers’ childhood, but it does tell us that he didn’t have a terribly easy time making friends as a kid. He was overweight and often very sick. In an old interview, Rogers said he had “every imaginable childhood disease, even scarlet fever.” This caused him to often be alone, only increasing the alienation he felt from his peers.

5. The Neighborhood puppets used in the show were inspired by family members

The beloved puppets Rogers used to vocalize different emotions and points of view were largely based on Rogers family members. John, Rogers’ older son, revealed that “Queen Sarah is obviously my mom,” and the sassy Lady Elaine Fairchilde was none other than his aunt Elaine Crozier. According to Rogers’ wife, Daniel was the “real” Rogers. “Daniel is articulating the fears and anxieties and feelings that Fred had as a child,” said Junlei Li, co-director of the Fred Rogers Center.

6. He was a Republican

Rogers was a lifelong Republican. We learned former U.S. Senators John Heinz and Arlen Specter are two politicians he respected and identified with. He did, however, cross party lines on occasion. One example was during the 1972 presidential election. Instead of voting to reelect Nixon, he voted for a third-party candidate who was a friend of the family’s: pediatrician-turned-politician Dr. Benjamin Spock.

7. Mister Rogers is who we saw on screen

Mister Rogers showing a puppet to children.
Mister Rogers was not just a character played on screen. | Tremolo Pictures

Perhaps the biggest reveal of the doc wasn’t new information at all–it was confirming what we already knew. Mister Rogers actually is the man we saw on screen. In a time when it’s easier to be skeptical of our idols than trust them, it’s almost shocking that Rogers is truly as good as he came off on his show.

“That we expect this so keenly (and fear it just as sharply) tells you almost everything you need to know about the times we live in,” says Vox. We need Rogers’ message (love) today now more than ever.

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