When Fred Rogers died in 2003, he left behind an incalculable legacy. He was, of course, the star of his eponymous TV show. But “TV star” is too small a phrase to describe the impact of Mister Rogers. He was a tireless advocate for children–their feelings, their ability to process the world around them. As such, he affected our own world in ways you may have never realized. Some of those ways were revealed in last year’s documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? But with the upcoming Mister Rogers movie starring Tom Hanks, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, he’s finally getting the hero treatment.
What Was Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood?
First up, in case you’re too young to remember or you’re not an American, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a show that aired original episodes on public broadcasting in the United States from 1968 until 2001. The format was deceptively simple. Mister Rogers would enter his home, take off his jacket and put on a sweater, and then exchange his dress shoes for sneakers. All the while, he’s singing the show’s theme, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The rest of the episodes had a loose format. Sometimes Mister Rogers would demonstrate a craft or take kids on a kind of virtual tour of a factory. Oftentimes he would visit with people from his “neighborhood,” who would talk about the work they performed. And there was always a visit to the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, a kingdom of hand puppets.
Starting in the late 70s, the show turned more toward theme weeks, where Mister Rogers would explore an issue in depth. These were issues, mind you, that were of particular interest to children. This was how he helped them process complex emotions and experiences and it was really nothing new for the show. From the first season, he’d been willing to explore the tough topics with kids. So while it is a little jarring to see Daniel Striped Tiger, a hand puppet, chirp, “What does assassination mean?” Lady Aberlin’s response makes the scene clear. “Have you heard that word a lot today?” she asks. The episode aired two days after the assassination of Bobby Kennedy. The children who were watching had probably heard that word a lot, and Mister Rogers was, as always, thinking of them.
So he helped them confront their fears, whether he was discussing assassination, divorce, or bad dreams. There were no big or small fears–for children, any fear could be overwhelming.
His Superpower Was Love
“I read about a million reasons that the Manson murders took place. LSD. The sixties. Failed record deals. Racial unrest. Paranoid schizophrenia. And who knows? Who knows if they could have been stopped? I’m sure there’s no simple way that everything could have been erased, made better. But if I had to write a memo to America on what to do to improve the future, on how to go back and correct the past, it would be simple: Dear America: Please give your daughters sturdy bedroom doors that lock from the inside. And when they are hungry, give them a place at the table.
“It wouldn’t solve everything, but it would definitely be a start.“
This idea was also central to Mister Rogers’s thinking. He once said that “…love, or the lack of it” was “the root of everything.” So what he and his show offered was love. Not an airy-fairy intangible concept, but the idea that love is a verb–it’s something you do. Mister Rogers may not have been the traditional definition of a hero or a superhero. He didn’t rush into burning buildings or fight crime from the rooftops. But he was a hero. He offered a gentler, quieter heroism than we’re used to. And his superpower was love.
He went on television every day for decades and told the impressionable little humans watching that he liked them “just the way .” He then modeled that philosophy for them in the way he interacted with others. And it was never performative. He was the Christian who actually lived in a Christlike manner, but he did it without proselytizing. It was just the way he was.
Mr. Rogers Movie to Showcase His Impact
When Tom Junod wrote a profile for Esquire about Mister Rogers (published in 1998), it was for the magazine’s “Heroes” issue and Mister Rogers made the cover. The piece now stands as one of the definitive written works on Fred Rogers and it is the inspiration for the new Mr. Rogers movie, which will focus on the relationship between Junod and Rogers. In the film, Junod is renamed Lloyd Vogel and he’s played by Matthew Rhys. Playing the role of Mister Rogers is, perhaps, the only actor who could–the only actor Americans would accept: Tom Hanks. He’s not only been named in recent polls as America’s favorite movie star, but also the most trusted person in America. So who else could be our hero, baby?
The first trailer for the Mr. Rogers movie, seen above, was released earlier this week. You need only visit the comments–or the comments for any video of Mister Rogers–to get his impact. Over and over again, people tell their stories and you can see a common theme among them: Misters Rogers’ Neighborhood was an escape for many. For the abused and the neglected, here was a place they could find love. As Max King says in Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, “A neighborhood was a place where–at times that you felt worried, scared, unsafe–would take care of you.” It’s a lesson, like so many of Mister Rogers’s lessons, that we would do well to remember.
Because often when the subject of Mister Rogers comes up, people will say that we didn’t “deserve” him. All I can think in response is, what a disservice to his life’s work. He spent his entire adult life trying to impress upon us, his neighbors, that we were enough. The least we could do is take his words to heart and put them into action. We could be heroes, too. Or at least, good neighbors.
Salomé Gonstad is a freelance writer who grew up in the swampy wilds of south Alabama. She now splits her time between the Appalachian wilds (of Alabama) and the considerably more refined streets of New York City. When she's not yelling about pop culture on the internet, she's working on a supernatural thriller about her hometown. Also, we're pretty sure she's a werewolf.