Won’t You Be My Neighbor?
by director Morgan Neville
Like most toddler fans, my childhood memories of Mr. Rogers are hazy. I was born in 1967 and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” went national in 1968, so I was part of the first generation of Mr. Rogers’ devotees. I never got to meet him, but when I thought back of him, there was a residual good feeling.
Starting about six years ago, Fred Rogers began appearing in my life again—through my children, through viral videos or through stories I heard.
Meanwhile, I had begun making a documentary with Yo-Yo Ma, the great cellist. One day at lunch I asked him how he’d come to deal with fame. He quickly responded, “Oh, Mr. Rogers taught me.” I chuckled, but he insisted that Fred Rogers had mentored him and taught him a lot about the responsibility of fame. “Fame,” Fred told him, “was a four-letter word, like door or room or face or pain or life or love. It all depends on what you do with it.”
Late one night, while looking at YouTube when I should have been sleeping, I stumbled across a video of Mr. Rogers speaking.
There was something in his words and tone that struck me: this is a grownup voice I just don’t hear anymore. He was talking about civility, about compassion and about how we can be our own worst enemies. He was talking to children, but it sounded like he was talking about the world today. I was hooked.
But was there a movie to make? Mr. Rogers seemed to exist in our culture either as the master of the huggable quote or as a punch line. Who was this guy?
In researching, I came across a book of letters that children had written to Mr. Rogers (he got thousands of letters a month and responded to every one!). The first letter was from a 5-year-old boy who wrote: “Dear Mister Rogers, Are you for real? Are you under a mask or costume like Big Bird? Are you for real? Are you for real or not? My birthday wish is I want to know if you are for real.”
This was the essential question that everyone—adult and child—has about Mr. Rogers. Are you for real?
(The answer, by the way, is YES.)