Tomorrow, March 20th, would have been the 84th birthday of Fred Rogers. To commemorate the day, you’ll be able to find the movie “Mr. Rogers and Me” on DVD, local PBS affiliates, and iTunes. And if you are even remotely interested in the man and his work and his ongoing legacy, then I urge you to check it out.
I forgot I requested a screener for this one, so when I got home at 2:00 in the morning today from Austin, I was surprised to see it on the stack of things that arrived while I was gone. I had to wait up for a while for the new “Snow White and the Huntsman” trailer to go live, so I figured I’d watch a few minutes of the documentary while I was waiting.
Of course I watched the entire thing, and of course there were about five or six places that brought tears to my eyes and of course it’s a wonderful tribute to a wonderful person.
Benjamin and Christofer Wagner are the filmmakers here, and they actually knew Fred Rogers when they rented a house next door to his Nantucket summer home. That relationship blossomed over several years, and when he passed away, the brothers set out to make a film about the way Rogers touched lives for decades.
There are very few symbols of childhood innocence that remain untarnished as we grow older. How many times have you been disappointed to learn that a hero of yours has feet of clay? How many times has something been tarnished because of bad behavior or human weakness? One of the things that makes Mr. Rogers such a great and endearing icon is that he really was exactly as decent and open-hearted and kind as he appeared to be on TV. He was a Presbyterian minister, but I never once felt like he was pushing religious ideals on me with his show. Instead, he was determined to use TV as a force for good. He began his career as a reaction to what he saw as squandered opportunity. He believed that television could be a force for change, and that it could impart important values to children.
Have you ever seen the footage of Mr. Rogers testifying in front of the US Senate to try to convince them to fund public television? It’s an amazing moment:
Throughout his career, Mr. Rogers affected a preposterous number of people, and he won a preposterous number of awards for his work, all of them richly deserved. I was concerned at first that this was going to be a documentary about the Wagner brothers first, and Mr. Rogers second, but it’s quickly apparent that the film wants to show just how widely felt his influence was, and leans heavily on interviews with people like Tim Russert, Linda Ellerbee, Marc Brown, and more. These aren’t just fans, either. These are people who were directly impacted by their interactions with Rogers, and so the title is more inclusive than I thought it was going to be. Ultimately, it’s about the connection we all have to this man and his work, and it’s about the way he truly believed in changing the world one person at a time. When Tim Madigan shows up to talk about his time with Mr. Rogers, which he wrote about in his book “I’m Proud Of You,” it is lump-in-the-throat time. There’s a letter that Rogers sent to Madigan that gave him the title of his book, and it is such a beautiful, simple document, so packed with human decency and a love of people, that it makes me want to get evangelical about Rogers.
The film is punctuated by quotes from Mr. Rogers, and what comes through loud and clear is that Rogers not only had a strong personal philosophy, but he also found ways to express it that anyone could understand. That was one of his greatest gifts. I never realized until this film how much of his own worldview was shaped by his childhood as a victim of bullies. Shy and fat for much of his youth, he used music as an escape. One of the things he talks about that pushed him to get into television was seeing what he described as degradation, a wholesale cruelty to the media culture. Now, that was in the ’50s and ’60s, so can you imagine what today’s media landscape would do to him?
“Mr. Rogers and Me” is a lovely film, strong and simple and deep, and I have a feeling it would greatly please its subject. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
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