‘Won’t You Be My Neighbor?’ Director on Showing Fred Rogers as a Human, Not a Character

Mister Rogers In Studio
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Only one movie caused Natalie Portman to weep so hard on a plane that, she admitted, a flight attendant had to come over and ask if she was OK. “It makes everyone cry!” director Morgan Neville says of his documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, which explores the life and impact of beloved minister turned public television host Fred Rogers, who died in 2003 at age 74.

Fans of all ages can sob at home when the acclaimed hit makes its TV debut on both HBO and PBS’s Independent Lens. “I’m excited for it to be in living rooms, because it’s a chance for people who didn’t grow up on Fred Rogers to watch and learn from it,” says Neville, a self-described “first-generation Mister Rogers fanatic.”

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Using archival footage and new interviews, the film illustrates the journey of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood from local Pittsburgh show in 1966 to national phenomenon. (Its last original episode aired in 2001.)

With his life-affirming messages and affinity for singing to the camera, “Fred treated the audience as individuals,” Neville says. And though he was a consummate professional, Rogers did have a sense of humor about his square, cardigan-wearing persona. He even got a kick out of Eddie Murphy’s Saturday Night Live parody!

Offscreen, Rogers was a devoted husband and father; his college-sweetheart wife, Joanne, and sons, James and John, all participated in the doc. Asked for her blessing, Joanne had one request: “She said, ‘Don’t make Fred into a saint,'” Neville says. “She wanted to present him as human because he did struggle. He wasn’t just a character.”

Rogers’s legacy remains as relevant as ever. “We live in times when divisiveness is the norm,” Neville says. “We forget that we have to nurture our neighborhoods and communities. We can’t take kindness for granted.”

Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Premieres Saturday, February 9, 8/7c, HBO and PBS (check local listings at pbs.org)