Lessons in Life from Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood

Documentary filmmaker Morgan Neville delves into the simple goodness of a man, and Madaket resident, who taught us how to be kind

by: John Stanton

It began the way documentary film projects sometimes do, with a conversation, with a simple question that seemed almost random at the time but which opened up the moment into something larger, something worth exploring.

Morgan Neville was making a film about cellist and classical-music superstar Yo Yo Ma, and his exploration of different cultures through the music of his Silk Road Ensemble. The film, which was released in 2015, was called “The Music of Strangers.” One day the two were having lunch.

Fred Rogers created and hosted the iconic children’s television show “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” It was a staple on PBS between 1968 and 2001.

“I asked him casually, how did you figure out how to be a famous person,” Neville said. “And he said it was Mr. Rogers who taught him. I laughed. He said, ‘I’m not kidding. He mentored me over the years and showed me how to turn being famous into a positive thing and not a weight around my neck.’ That blew my mind. I hadn’t thought about Mr. Rogers since I was 7 years old.”

You might remember “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood.” If you are of a certain age now, you remember the kind, soft-spoken man, who lived in a friendly neighborhood, the mailman stopping by, the songs, the quiet talk from a gentle grownup wearing a cardigan sweater. You remember Mr. Rogers.

It was the seminal public-television program, beloved, sane, very worthwhile, and something you just couldn’t find anywhere else.

After that lunchtime conversation, Neville began to surf the Internet in search of Mr. Rogers.

“I think people are thirsty for someone to speak up again about goodness. I think it’s dangerous to think kindness is naive.” Morgan Neville
“I just kept coming across little pieces of video or viral video that made me re-evaluate what I thought about him,” Neville said. “I found a commencement he gave, and it was just a voice I missed so much. Who today is talking about how we can look out for each other? Who is out there with all of our best interests at heart with nothing in it for him? I think we need to hear more of that.”

Fred Rogers welcomed children into the world of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood” over the course of some 900 episodes. The show ran from 1968 to 2001. He died in 2003. A number of magazine stories, books and films soon followed, many of them looking at the wider implications of his philosophy, or about how meeting him changed people’s lives.

Benjamin Wagner was one of those people. The story goes that to celebrate his 30th birthday he visited his mother on Nantucket. She had a house in Madaket. Her real-life neighbor was Mr. Rogers.

Rogers spoke with Wagner about his philosophy that simple and deep is much more essential to society than complex and shallow. Wagner decided that conversation changed his life. After Rogers

died, Wagner – an MTV producer – and his brother made the 2010 documentary “Mr. Rogers & Me.”

There is even a feature film about a journalist whose life is changed after he agreed to do an interview for Esquire magazine with Rogers. Tom Hanks has agreed to play the central role.

There is also a video you can find of Rogers testifying before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, trying to convince it not to cut funding for PBS. This is in 1969.

It is a bit jarring, at first, to watch Mr. Rogers, your friend from television, being Fred Rogers, the producer with a very definite philosophy on the worth of children’s programing. In the same tone as he would use with a child, he talks to a United States senator about the “animated bombardment” that defines children’s programming on commercial television. He even recites the verses of a song from the show. In the end, he gets the funding.

In one episode of “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he sits with Yo Yo Ma in the cellist’s living room with his son Nicholas. Rogers watches as father and son play the cello together, one playing the notes and the other working the bow. It is a sweet moment that Rogers allows to play out, with Nicholas at the center of it all.

Nicholas Ma grew up to become a producer on Neville’s film, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”

“Nicholas knew Fred, but I never got to know him,” Neville said. “The whole film is like an exercise in getting to know him. One of the questions everybody asks is was he for real. Was Mr. Rogers just an act he put on for 30 minutes every day? The resounding answer is no. It’s not an act. Mr. Rogers was exactly the same person if you ran into him on the street as on television.

“As a filmmaker, you ask where’s the dramatic tension, the character development. He is both the same person, but a much more dimensional person. He spoke many languages, was a vegetarian and pacifist, studied religions, was well-traveled. He was just a much more skillful thinker who worked incredibly hard to make something that is simple and deep.”

Neville won the Oscar for best documentary feature in 2014 for his film “20 Feet from Stardom,” about backup singers like Darlene Love, Merry Clayton, Judith Hill and others who added an extra dimension to the sound of performers like Ray Charles, Mick Jagger and Lou Reed, but took a back seat in the boy’s club of rock and roll.

He brought that film to the Nantucket Film Festival in 2013, and brought “Best of Enemies,” about a series of televised debates between William F. Buckley and Gore Vidal, which gets to the heart of our current inability to have coherent national debates, here in 2015.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival and was bought by Focus Features. It will be screened at this year’s Nantucket Film Festival, where Neville will be honored with its Special Achievement in Documentary Storytelling Award.

John Stanton is a writer and documentary filmmaker. His work appears regularly in Nantucket Today and The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.