When director Morgan Neville first asked Joanne Rogers for permission to film a documentary about her husband and “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his influential children’s television show, she laughed.
“Fred never wanted a movie made about him, because he thought he was the most boring person on earth,” Neville recalled Friday night on the red carpet of the Sundance Film Festival before the Salt Lake City premiere of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“He was such a warm, moral character,” Neville said after spending more than a year watching Rogers on tape. “He had no agenda other than goodness. I can’t think of any voice that I wanted to hear in this day and age more than his.”
For the screening, Neville was dressed Fred Rogers-style, in a gray cardigan sweater, in honor of the TV entertainer who was once considered the most famous man in America. For nearly 40 years, Rogers talked directly to the nation’s children — including, of course, Utah’s families — on his Public Broadcasting Service show.
Using rare archival footage and interviews with Rogers, family members and the show’s cast and crew, the documentary explores Rogers’ legacy — as well as his serious mission to create a safe and comforting space for kids and families. “Not something that makes for necessarily high drama, but it did make good television,” says “Be My Neighbor” producer Caryn Capotosto.
The film sparked enthusiastic applause from the packed Rose Wagner Performing Arts Center theater filled with movie industry people and politicians ranging from Gov. Gary Herbert to Salt Lake City Council Chairwoman Erin Mendenhall.
The governor offered his annual welcome to moviegoers, mentioning the 71,000 people who visited the state for the festival last year, which pumped $151 million into Utah’s coffers along with $14 million in state and local taxes. The festival employs about 3,000 people, Herbert said, and it will prompt more than 50,000 news stories with a Utah tagline over the next nine days.
“Welcome to our neighborhood,” said Scott Anderson, vice president of Zions Bank, one of the premiere’s sponsors. Anderson, also wearing a cardigan, told a story about his grandmother who, at 86, was losing her memory.
She told Anderson about the nice gentlemen who visited her home every day. When Anderson visited at 2 p.m., he realized her visitor came through the television and seemed to be speaking directly to her. He was Rogers.
After the screening, Neville, an Academy Award-winning director, recounted the movie’s origin.
As he was working on a film about Yo-Yo Ma and the Silk Road Ensemble, 2016’s “The Music of Strangers,” Neville asked the famed cellist how he learned to be a celebrity.
“Mister Rogers,” Ma answered, which made Neville laugh until he realized it wasn’t a joke. Ma explained that he had appeared on the show as a young musician, and its host became his mentor. From Rogers, the cellist learned he could use his name recognition to be an influence for positive change in the world.
Ma’s son, Nicholas, a producer on Neville’s team, introduced the filmmakers to Joanne Rogers, and the team eventually gained the trust of the family and the nonprofit company.
Filmmakers had unprecedented access to the show’s archives, which included about 900 episodes, as well as scores of Rogers’ media interviews and commencement speeches. Also included are interviews with the family’s two children and show cast members.
Rogers modeled love and kindness, says David Newell, who for more than 30 years appeared on the show as Mr. McFeely, usually shouting “Speedy delivery.”
“He said that attitudes are caught, not taught,” Newell said, speaking recently to television critics in Pasadena, Calif., to promote the Feb. 19 50th anniversary of the first “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” telecast. “And I think that’s what Fred did on the program.”
Filmmakers drew ideas about Rogers’ methods from his interviews, and then, like following bread crumbs, searched through the archives to find examples.
They explored his forthright approach to talking to children about serious issues, including war, assassination, divorce and death. The film also considers Rogers’ anger in later years, when others in television parodied his low-key style. “He purposefully talked about the issues kids and families were facing,” Capotosto said. “As times changed, his messages changed.”
The documentary offers a personal look at Rogers, as well as his mission of talking to children. Over the years, he wrote about 200 songs for the show. In 1962, he earned a divinity degree and was ordained as a Presbyterian minister to serve children and families through television.
The show drew upon his interest in puppetry and his musical training. An early version launched on Canadian television in 1963, aired regionally before its American public television debut in 1968 and continued airing on the PBS until August 2001. Rogers died in 2003.
To mark the 50th anniversary of Rogers’ show, PBS will air a tribute, “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,” on March 6. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is slated for a June theatrical release.
Through the years, the show remained popular with Utah viewers, who were quick to write letters whenever its time slot was changed, recalls Scott Chaffin, a former KUED program director who retired in 2009. “It was a quiet little workhorse in the schedule for children’s programming. I think Fred’s values were admired by many parents, and kids really enjoyed it.”
Wendy Whiteley, a Utah County resident and Rogers fan, added: “He taught my kids to be kind.”
Reporter and columnist Scott D. Pierce contributed to this story.
This story was informed by sources in the Utah Public Insight Network. To become a news source for The Salt Lake Tribune, go to bit.ly/PINTribune.