Ten years after his death in 2003, Fred Rogers -- aka Mister Rogers -- is back in the news. First, his quote about how his mother told him “always look for the helpers” in the face of tragedy went viral in the aftermath of the Boston Marathon bombing. Now, Deadline Hollywood reports that a full-length biopic on Rogers is in development. What is it about Rogers and the earnestness of his life and career that keeps him relevant?
In 1999, I had the honor of interviewing him for the Archive of American Television at his studio at Pittsburgh’s WQED. Everyone asks if he was different off-camera. The answer is no. He didn’t kick the cat, swear at his staff, or show off the tattoos he allegedly received while serving as a Navy seal (all urban myths). But he did put his career philosophy into words:
Television can teach.
“When I was a senior in high school, a friend taught me to fly in a little Piper Cub. He was so enthusiastic about flying, I know that’s why I wanted to learn. The best teacher in the world is somebody who loves what he or she does and just loves it in front of you. I love to have guests and present a whole smorgasbord of ways for the children to choose. Some child might choose painting, another might choose playing the cello. But there are so many ways of saying who we are and how we feel -- ways that don’t hurt anybody. That’s a great gift. Television can do that all the time. It can present enthusiastic teachers.”
Do what you’re passionate about.
“When I heard that educational television was going to be starting in Pittsburgh, only 40 miles from where I grew up, I told my friends at NBC that I thought that I'd apply. They said, ‘You are nuts. That place isn't even on the air yet and you're in line to be a producer or a director or anything you want to be here.’ I said, ‘No, I have the feeling that educational television might be, at least for me, be the way of the future.’”
Don’t underestimate the power of the medium.
“Television has the chance of building a real community out of an entire country. It has the wonderful opportunity of doing that. We see that in times of crisis. It
can really bring people together.”
Play through the pain.
"My greatest challenge? I suppose to walk through the door and sing ‘It's A Beautiful Day In This Neighborhood’ when I have had a real sadness in my life. I had to go to Miami one hour after my father's funeral because they were having a Mister Rogers Day there that could not be cancelled. We had 23 fifteen-minute performances in one day. I had to sing ‘It's A Beautiful Day In The Neighborhood’ for each one of them.”
Little epiphanies of life matter most.
“The major dramas in life are never center stage. And they’re rarely under the bright lights. They’re always happening off-camera. The best things of life are, are way offstage, never highly touted. It’s the little epiphanies of life that matter most. It’s those moments when somebody will tell you, ‘You really did help me in a way that you could have never known. Just by being there and just by being you.’”
Embrace your legacy.
“I'd just like to be remembered for being a compassionate human being who happened to be fortunate enough to be born at a time when there was a fabulous thing called television that could allow me to use all the talents that I had been given.”
One last thing. After the four-and-a-half-hour interview, Rogers escorted our videographer (sans camera) and me to a studio down the hall. He sat down at the grand piano and played the most beautiful arrangement of “Isn’t it Romantic” we’d ever heard. “I always come here and play this after we wrap a show,” he said. It was a great gift, and, like the small epiphanies of life, completely off-camera.