If you were a child anytime in the last 40 years, or the parent of one, at some point you've had a moment with Mister Rogers. Perhaps many. And in those moments, through the lens of TV, he looked you straight in the eyes, and in his soft-spoken manner told you, in one set of words or another, that he liked you just as you are, and whatever you were feeling was OK.
That was the crux of his show, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood — the longest-running program on public television. It began in 1968, with almost 900 episodes produced through 2001, which continue in reruns today (Rogers died in 2003).
With the exception of a few hand puppets and dinging trolleys, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood had little in the way of bells and whistles. Its main function was not necessarily to entertain children, though most of the time it did. Mister Rogers had a way of being present with his young viewers, making them feel, as journalist Linda Ellerbee put it, “relaxed, and important.” A space was created in which children could let their feelings rise to the surface and no matter what, their TV neighbor, Mister Rogers, would accept them.
And as it turns out, he had a knack for creating this same feeling in many of the adults he encountered in real life, and some of the lives he touched were directly altered by simple words he uttered.
Those who knew Fred Rogers outside the TV screen found him to be just as present, just as caring and just as disarming as the character he played on television, if he can be called a character at all. The story of the profound effect he had on some of his friends, including filmmaker Benjamin Wagner, are assembled in a new PBS documentary out today titled Mister Rogers & Me, which screened last night at the Paley Center.
As the trailer above shows, Benjamin Wagner met Rogers on Nantucket island just two years before his death, and was stirred by a simple statement by the TV legend: “Deep and simple is far more essential than shallow and complex.” The MTV producer, fresh off his 30th birthday and the wreckage of 9/11, began a 10-year journey to discover what others who'd spent time with Fred thought that might mean.
In the film, Wagner interviews an array of Rogers' friends, including Tim Russert, the aforementioned Ellerbee, writer Tim Madigan and NPR contributor Davy Rothbart, as well as Bo Lozoff, the man who wrote the book, literally, Deep and Simple, that Mister Rogers referenced in that quote. In every friendship there was a common thread: Mister Rogers wanted everyone he encountered to know that they mattered. The substance of a person was important to him, many observed, and he lived in the belief that, as the book The Little Prince teaches, everything essential in a person is invisible to the eye.
Madigan, who would later pen a book titled I'm Proud of You: My Friendship With Fred Rogers, called Rogers' ability to seek out the “invisible essentials” almost “supernatural.” Madigan discovered this in the mid-'90s when he traveled to Pittsburgh to profile Rogers for the Texas newspaper he worked for. Upon leaving, Mister Rogers simply said, “I'm really happy that we're friends.”
Soon after returning home, Madigan found himself writing a letter to Mister Rogers that led with, “If you and I are truly to be friends, I think you should know the truth about what's going on with my insides.” He proceeded to pour out his troubles, including his struggle with depression and the difficulty he'd been having in his marriage, and ended with a small revelation — that he'd always wanted his father to be proud of him, but had never succeeded. He then made an almost childlike request, asking Mister Rogers if he would be proud of him.
Last night on the panel that followed the screening, Madigan admitted that to this day he has no idea how or why he signed, stamped and sent that letter.
But sure enough, just three days later, Rogers sent back a handwritten letter in which he wrote in capital letters, “YES. YES, I will be proud of you, I am proud of you, I've been proud of you since first we met.”
This was one of many thousands of letters Rogers wrote to both children and adults. Rothbart originally met Rogers as a young child, as he explained last night, because of a letter his brother sent after seeing an episode of the show in which a deaf person was featured. The Rothbarts' mother is deaf, so Davy's brother wrote a letter essentially saying just that. In response, Mister Rogers invited the boys to his Nantucket home for a visit, and it was there Davy saw the massive piles of letters, both incoming and outgoing, on Rogers' desk.
Madigan's letters would become part of that pile, and for each one he wrote, he received a response within days. When he later moved on to email, Rogers would respond within the hour, “as if he had nothing better to do than read my emails,” Madigan said. When Madigan once addressed that his letters may be a burden, Rogers replied, “Your trust confirms my trustworthiness, and your love, my ability to love.”
Which is not to say that Rogers did nothing but spew God-like truisms all the time without ever cracking a joke. Surprisingly, Madigan claims Mister Rogers' favorite word was “shit,” according to his wife.
Those close to him knew he had a sense of humor. During last night's panel, Wagner recalled a story told to him by David Newell, who played Mr. McFeely and has worked in PR for the Fred Rogers Company for decades, in which Rogers went out of his way to make Eddie Murphy squirm. At the time, Murphy did a parody of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood on Saturday Night Live. One day when Fred was at Rockefeller Center for meetings, he ventured down to the SNL floor to knock on the comedian's door. “It's the real Mister Rogers!” he apparently said, grinning at a visibly embarrassed Murphy.
We spoke with David Newell on the phone recently, and he had his own interpretation of what “deep and simple” meant to Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: “The program has a lot of depth in that [Rogers] went into subjects for children that a lot of people maybe gloss over, or don't deal with at all,” he said.
“Fred always said, 'Anything that is mentionable is manageable.' Whether on an adult level or a child level, it's manageable.”
And that, it seems, was the core of the program: if you can talk about it, you can deal with it. That in itself is deep and simple.
As for Wagner, today culminates what he calls “the imperative.” About a year after their initial conversation, he told Mister Rogers how much the idea of deep and simple had affected him, Mister Rogers simply said, “Spread the message.” With Mister Rogers & Me, rich with the same quiet profundity found in Fred's show, he's trying.
Mister Rogers & Me is available for purchase as of today, which would have been Fred Rogers' 84th birthday. Check local listings for airings on PBS.