Whenever I tell people that my dad worked for Fred Rogers and that I met the children's TV star when I was young, they always ask the same question: “Was he really like that in person?” By “like that,” they mean the qualities that we associate with Mister Rogers: gentleness, patience, wisdom and empathy. The insinuation is that it must have been an act – that no person could be so nice, so unflappably compassionate all the time.
A new documentary posits the same question. “Won't You Be My Neighbor?” directed by Morgan Neville, who won an Oscar for “20 Feet From Stardom,” delves into the PBS star's upbringing and his advocacy for children's television, including times when he used the medium to teach kids about political assassinations, racism and terrorism.
“He's just an incomparable figure. And when somebody is incomparable,” Neville said, “it really makes you ask questions.”
But the answer is yes: He was like that. Even if it's hard for people to believe. But ask anyone who knew him, and you'll hear stories.
“There was an adult Fred and there was Mister Rogers, but there wasn't a whole lot of difference,” said Margy Whitmer, the former producer of “Mister Rogers' Neighborhood.”
“He's even a better version of who he seems, in real life,” Neville said. “The entire process of making this film was one of discovering more and more dimensions of the man. And the thing is, I never discovered anything that was truly dissonant with what I thought he was.”
People certainly worried that he would. Neville said that when he was starting the documentary, people begged him not to spoil their image of one of their childhood heroes. And there are rumors – long ago debunked, but they persist – that Rogers was a sniper in Vietnam or that he wore sweaters because he was covered in tattoos. In reality, he was a mild-mannered ordained minister who saw television as a medium that could help children understand how to process complicated emotions, and learn to relate and empathize with each other.
“I think it says far more about us than it does about him” that people would invent such explanations, Neville said. “I think it's because we live in a time where we tend to view such grace with suspicion.” Grace “was the idea Fred talked about all the time. You know, grace is defined in the Bible as doing good to others, whether or not they deserve it.”
My dad, Jim Judkis, is a photographer, and Mister Rogers and his company were among his clients for more than 20 years. He took the photographs for many of Mister Rogers' children's books, including “Going to the Dentist” and “When a Pet Dies.” He also took the iconic 1978 photograph of Mister Rogers with a disabled child, at what was then called the Memorial Home for Crippled Children in Pittsburgh – a photo that went viral after the Newtown school shooting in 2012 and now appears in the documentary.
He recalls Mister Rogers' kindness, but also his precision: No detail was too small to be a teachable moment. One day, when my dad was on the set, Mister Rogers did a flawless reading of some dialogue for the show. But someone accidentally ran the trolley from right to left and Mister Rogers insisted that they redo the whole thing. My dad asked why.
“They said, he's very particular about consistency for a child,” my dad recalled. “When you read, your eye tracks from left to right. He was trying to reinforce that.”
That kind of subtlety was typical, Whitmer said. She recalled a time when Rogers flubbed the lyrics to the children's song “Head Shoulders Knees and Toes” but insisted on using the bad take, “because kids need to know that adults make mistakes,” she said.
Over the years of my father working with him, Mister Rogers met my family. When my brother was sick with brain cancer, we learned that Mister Rogers prayed for him. And when I was a 1-year-old – too young to remember it – I appeared on the show. A cameraperson followed me as I played in a park, later using the footage with an iteration of Mister Rogers' song about body positivity, “Everybody's Fancy.” But meeting him later, I remember that he would ask me questions about myself, and would crouch down to my level, and look me in the eye.
It's something that Nicholas Ma, one of the film's producers, remembers, too. He appeared on the show twice, when he was 6 and again when he was 16, to play music with his father, the cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who was a friend of Rogers' and appears in the documentary.
Rogers “was very, very gentle and sort of letting me take my time to come to him,” said Ma, who added that both appearances were initially frightening for him, because he disliked comparisons of his musical talent with his father's. Because Rogers set him at ease, Ma “knew this was the right thing to do if he knew it was the right thing for me to do.”
But the documentary doesn't deify Rogers. It shows him as someone who struggled at times – with his lonely upbringing, and with the enormity of the problems that he hoped to explain to kids, such as the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
“He wasn't ... this being of pure goodness who sort of existed on some other plane,” Ma said. “He was someone who said, OK, well, what's the best version of me that I can bring to the world, and how do I really make sure that I create that?”