In the early 1990s, I gathered in Los Angeles with 100 or so other television critics from across North America for the usual biannual pitch from networks and cable channels promoting their upcoming shows. The TV industry people are all too often shameless shills, bombarding critics with an overload of glitz and bags of "gifts" ranging from clocks to tea kettles in an effort to earn favorable reviews. These twice-yearly rituals last two weeks and are round-the-clock, with previews continuously piped into critics' hotel rooms and publicity materials slipped under their doors even as they sleep (if they can).
Understandably, the cumulative effect of all of this frequently results in just the opposite of what the TV folk seek, with the critics disliking (hating) much if not most of what is put in front of them as they become progressively more and more exhausted, crabby and jaded.
At least this was the predictable cycle until one Saturday morning in a Beverly Hills hotel ballroom when Fred McFeely Rogers _ the public television host and children's advocate known as "Mr. Rogers" _ stepped up to address this beleaguered and suspicious throng of critics, who by now were ready to start throwing their plates of salmon at anyone who took to the podium.
Rogers calmly took their measure, and instead of immediately diving in and beginning to talk, stood there silently and motionless until not a sound could be heard in the cavernous room. Then, with all eyes on him, he began to talk in a whisper.
He told a story about how during the Great Depression, his mother would bake pies and leave them on the window sill of their home for passing hobos. The pies would consistently disappear, and sometimes, rarely, the hobos would leave a penny or two, at most a nickel, as payment. Rogers explained that his mother didn't want anything in return, but accepted the money because it helped the hobos retain their dignity.
By the time Rogers finished his talk, the critics were completely won over. More than a few coughs could be heard reverberating around the hall, masking the embarrassed sobs of critics who were being paid to be above it all.
It was with this memory in mind that I went with my family to see Morgan Neville's new documentary "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", which tells the story of Rogers and his iconic children's show, which ran on PBS from 1968 to 2001.
An ordained Presbyterian minister, Rogers, who passed away 15 years ago, had a simple mantra: "Love is at the root of everything."
That certainly sounds good on paper and when addressing children, you think, but how does it play in the real world? As it turns out, pretty damned good.
In an early appearance before Congress as he helps seek funding for the newly created Public Broadcasting System, Rogers faces a steely and adversarial U.S. Sen. John Orlando Pastore (D-R.I.), who had already made up his mind to pan PBS. Pastore stares. And stares. Rogers explains, in a shaky voice that would make Jimmy Stewart blush, that the best way to illustrate the value of PBS would be to recite the words to a song he had written for his show. As he does, Pastore's eyes become moist. He blinks. "You've just earned your $20 million!" he blurts abruptly, and the room erupts in applause.
Rogers, upset with breakneck cartoon violence and frantic children's fare designed to sell products rather than to educate, made his half-hour show completely different, singing, offering gentle advice (often delivered by a cat puppet on his hand delivered in a falsetto voice), and having thought-provoking conversations with series regulars like David "Mr. McFeely" Newell, Francois "Officer Clemmons" Clemmons and Joe "Handyman" Negri, as well as occasional celebrity guests like cellist Yo-Yo Ma (who admitted that meeting the TV icon "scared the hell out of me").
In one segment, Rogers, visibly angry that children were injuring themselves by trying to emulate superheroes like Superman, carefully explains the difference between pretending and real life.
Rogers refused to duck tough subjects like death (of humans and pets), assassinations (in this instance, of Robert Kennedy), divorce, physical handicaps _ and even racism. Clemmons, an African-American, confides that he was reluctant to play a cop on the show. Not only did Rogers convince him, he took a shot at racists by staging a routine in which he invites Clemmons to soak his feet alongside his own in a small wading pool, and even shares a towel with him. (To illustrate just how risky this was for the time, director Neville intercuts footage of white lifeguards pouring bleach into a pool where black youngsters are swimming.)
We also learn of Rogers' own biases. Clemmons tells of how Rogers reacted when someone from the show discovered that the then-closeted Clemmons had been to a gay bar. "I had a good time!" says Clemmons, who was then told that any future bar visits would result in his termination from the show. Clemmons says that Mr. Rogers "eventually came around" to acceptance.
In a straightforward yet somehow understated way just like you-know-who, "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" effectively spikes a lot of ridiculous rumors that sprang up about Rogers, like the one that he had a "torso full of tattoos" _ in this instance, we see Mr. Rogers swimming his daily mile in the local pool. So there.
Alas, we also are shown "parodies" of Rogers performed by the likes of Johnny Carson and Jim Carrey, which, especially now, come across as clumsy, mean-spirited and unfunny, bits that clearly hurt Rogers, whose only response to them was that "some" were humorous. Some things never change.
I find it remarkable that a documentary like this can be found in theaters also screening slam-bang, big-budget fare. But it is, and drawing a surprisingly tidy number of viewers at that.
I recommend this for everyone, not only those who remember watching Mr. Rogers' show, but young people who probably don't realize what all the fuss is about. It's an important reminder that goodness rises to the top even in the worst of times.