Imagine the biggest summer blockbuster, jam-packed with the most explosions, gunplay and violence possible.
Then replace all that with radical displays of kindness, empathy and tolerance, and you have “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? opens at the Manor Theatre in Squirrel Hill on June 8, and goes wider after that. There’s a special screening (free if you wear your favorite sweater) with David Newell (Mr. McFeely) at the Hollywood Theater in Dormont on June 5.
Be prepared to cry a little. Or a whole lot of big kid tears, if necessary. Mister Rogers would never judge you.
It might affect us a little more here in Pittsburgh, long-time home to the world’s greatest neighbor, Mister Fred Rogers. But the documentary aims unerringly at the heart, even if you grew up elsewhere watching “Captain Kangaroo” or “Pokemon” instead.
Be prepared, as well, for a compelling look at a Pittsburgher who impacted and perhaps even shaped the lives of generations of Americans.
Filmmaker Morgan Neville — an Oscar winner for Best Documentary (“20 Feet from Stardom”) — didn’t go looking to make a movie about the star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.
“I loved watching Mister Rogers as a boy, but didn’t think about it for decades,” says Neville. “I was talking with Yo-Yo Ma, and hearing him talk about Fred. He had struggled with fame, and Fred had counseled him: ‘Fame is a four-letter word, like tape or zoom or face or pain or life or love. What ultimately matters is what we do with it.’ That’s profound.”
So he started watching videos of Fred Rogers. Luckily, there are lots and lots of them.
“As a filmmaker, it was as rich a subject as you could hope for,” says Neville. “Sometimes, you have to make do with very little. Here, the biggest problem was digesting mountains of material. We watched every episode, every outtake, speeches, home movies.”
As a young man, Rogers pondered entering the seminary. His turn towards television shocked his parents.
“They asked what he knew about television,” says Neville. “He replied, ‘I’ve seen enough.’”
Rogers took children — their fears, conflicts, feelings — seriously, and approached them with the gravity that they deserved. It was a rebuke to the vast majority of children’s television that came before, summarized in the film as a series of hosts repeatedly splattered in the face with pies.
Childhood issues weren’t something he took lightly. He took five years to think about how to present the subject of divorce to his young audience, says Newell, who played Mr. McFeely. When he learned that many children were terrified of “The Wizard of Oz,” he invited the Wicked Witch of the West onto the show.
“My favorite is Margaret Hamilton, and how afraid everyone was of her and the flying monkeys,” says Newell. “He said, ‘If you can find the Wicked Witch, I’ll write the script.’ And she became a friend.”
He helped children deal with death delicately and gracefully.
“I was working in props at the time. He said, ‘David, go to the pet store and get me a dead goldfish,’” Newell remembers. “They were pretty confused. They didn’t charge me.”
Although the documentary brings back a bygone era, you can feel its relevance: Much of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” seems as applicable to the problems today as it did in the early ‘70s.
“It was both ahead of its time, and out of time,” says Neville.
There’s one episode where King Friday rages against too many things changing and vows to build a wall around the Neighborhood of Make-Believe, for instance.
“When Beirut was blowing up, there were all these kids out on the street playing with guns,” says Newell. “Fred said, ‘I’d be worried if they didn’t (play with guns).’ Children play out whatever is scary to them.”
In many ways, Mr. Rogers became the conscience of a nation. When tragedy struck — like the assassination of Robert F. Kennedy, or many years later the Challenger space shuttle disaster — he was asked to interpret it for children. It’s amazing to see the puppet Daniel Tiger asking tentatively, “What does assassination mean?”
Though Rogers’ benevolent demeanor rarely wavered, there were moments where his steely tenacity peeked through. When defending public television before Congress, in particular, Rogers showed the kind of grit that Pittsburghers usually associate with linebackers and defensemen.
He was also pretty critical of television in general.
“He said he had ‘a healthy disdain for TV,’ says Newell. “‘We have this wonderful medium, and we just use it to sell Corn Flakes.’”