Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville joins us in the studio to discuss his new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” a film that tells the story of children’s television host Fred Rogers and the impact he had on the world.
Father Dave points out that each member of Team Busted Halo has been impacted by Mr. Rogers despite their age differences. Neville responds, “He is one of these people in our culture who is unlike any other figure. His show was really for 2 to 6-year-olds. I started watching when I was probably 1. And my relationship with him, like a lot of other relationships with him, predates my memory … I feel like our relationship with Mr. Rogers is, next to our families, one of the oldest relationships we have. And there’s something about thinking about Mr. Rogers that makes you visit a part of yourself that you haven’t visited in a long time.”
Father Dave asks what inspired Morgan to make this film, “I’ve made films about culture because culture is a language we can understand other people by. Television and film are all parts of culture, and Fred was such a powerful cultural figure who understood that television was this amazing medium that was going to change the world.
“The reality is he was a Presbyterian minister,” Neville says. Initially, he was going to go straight to the seminary after college. He saw television for the first time during his senior year of college in 1948 when he came home for spring break. His parents had bought one of the first televisions. He watched it for a couple of days and said, ‘This is what I need to do.’ So, he put off the seminary and moved to New York and went to work at NBC. … He understood that TV, in a way, was the most effective way of getting his message out and ministering. And eventually, he did go to seminary and was ordained.”
Father Dave asks what was surprising to Neville when making this film. “Mr. Rogers, in a lot of ways, became a cultural punchline. He was kind of a two-dimensional character who wore a cardigan and was the butt of a lot of jokes. But what I discovered, again and again, was that he was a really complex character. He was a deep thinker, a seeker, and had this iron will to do the show. He studied the world’s religions. He spoke Greek and Hebrew and French. He would read the Bible every morning often in Greek or Hebrew. … He was an unusual person. I don’t think there is anyone like him in our culture. … The question I get asked a lot is, ‘Was he real?’ Because he is kind of a bizarre character.
“The way he spoke to his audience was different,” Neville said. “He never said, ‘Hey kids, how are you doing today?’ It was always, ‘How are you doing?’ It was one-on-one. He always wanted to act as if it was a single child. So, whenever he encountered a child in the real world or a letter, he acted as if that was a real, pre-existing relationship. Because for the child, they already had a relationship with him. So, if he met a child he would say, ‘Oh, you’re my neighbor from the neighborhood!’ And he would spend a tremendous amount of time doing that work. At one point, he was getting more mail than anyone in America, and he responded to every letter personally. Because he felt that he had to honor those relationships as real relationships. And he didn’t find it a chore. He found it as important as the TV show because it was another way to minister.”
Father Dave points out that Mr. Rogers even tackled topics such as racism. He explains that during the time when African Americans were being kicked out of public pools, Mr. Rogers had an African American man on his show, and they put their feet in the same pool together. Neville responds, “What he did was try and model what he thought a good neighborhood should be. The format of the show was he would come in and address some issue he wanted to discuss, and then the trolley would come in and take us to the Land of Make Believe. And the Land of Make Believe was like this parable machine for him where he could act out these stories to help kid process and understand a narrative around what this issue was. It was so effective.” (Original Air 6-07-18)
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is playing now in select theaters. Click here to find a theater near you.