Between the hit documentary about him and the upcoming feature film starring Tom Hanks, the late Fred Rogers is definitely having a moment.
However, Morgan Neville — the director behind the documentary “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” — remembers a time not so long ago when that wasn’t the case.
“For the past number of decades, he’s kind of the quintessential cultural punchline, and if you look at how he’s mentioned, it’s often as a punchline and he’s kind of this two-dimensional milquetoast character,” Neville said during a recent Envelope Live screening at the Montalban theater.
“Like most people, I did not think about him for decades [after watching his show], and if I did, it’s because I was making fun of him too.”
That all changed when a friend sent Neville the link to a commencement address given by the “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” host and creator.
“It was late at night and I watched it,” he recalled, “and at the end of it, I was like, ‘Oh, my God, this is the voice I’m missing. Nobody is advocating for these things.’ ”
After staying up to watch several more similar speeches by Rogers, he woke up the next morning determined to do a project about the late host, who died in 2003. “I started bringing it up to other people. For the most part, there was an overwhelming enthusiasm that I did not expect.”
Despite the enthusiasm from friends and family members — it helps that his wife is a children’s librarian — Neville still needed to fully convince himself there was enough for a documentary. Then he watched the 1968 special Rogers did that aired just two days after presidential candidate and former attorney general Robert Kennedy was assassinated.
“His funeral was televised nationally on Saturday and [Rogers] said, ‘We have to get something on television before the children of America are sitting at home this weekend watching it and not understanding what happened,’” Neville said.
The special, which aired during Rogers’ first year on the air, was broadcast just one time. Naturally, it was the first episode Neville watched when he visited archives.
“At the end of that half an hour, any doubts I had about being able to make a film — I didn’t know exactly what it was — but any concerns about depth or tension or dimension, I was like, It’s going to be in there. I know it now,” he said. “That’s when we decided, yes, absolutely let’s make this film.”
It was the first of many such events Rogers had to tackle on his show over the next 33 years (it went off the air in August 2001). Despite these darker moments during his long TV tenure, Neville says Rogers was able to maintain a sense of optimism — a central question poised during the documentary.
“I think one of the questions is: Did he die with his hope intact? It’s what [his widow] Joanne is asking. I think 100 percent, I believe that he died with his hope intact, and I felt like that was the gift I wanted the film to reflect,” Neville explained. “I didn’t want people to come out feeling hopeless.”
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