For such an affectionate, authorized portrait, Morgan Neville’s Fred Rogers bio-doc Won’t You Be My Neighbor contains enough revelations to make you see Rogers in a new light. While multiple sources maintain that the soft-spoken, kind persona Rogers inhabited on his long-running children’s show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood reflected who he was when the cameras weren’t rolling, one of his surviving sons reports that he did occasionally make off-brand observations. When he did so at the dinner table, he’d do it in the voice of his puppet character Lady Elaine.
The doc also tackles rumors about Rogers’s sexuality head-on. Presumably because Rogers was both gentle in affect (soft, if you will) and a man, there was speculation that he was gay.
Peaceful Neighbor: Discovering the Countercultural Mister Rogers author Michael G. Long wrote on the Huffington Post in 2014 that people often asked him about Rogers’s sexuality when they discovered he was working a book about the children’s programming icon. Talk show host Tom Snyder asked Rogers if he was straight to his face (the movie features a clip of Snyder’s question but not Rogers’s answer).
“First of all, no, he’s not gay,” says François Clemmons in the film. For 25 years, Clemmons played Officer Clemmons on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I tell everyone who asks me, ‘No, he’s not gay.’ But I spent enough time with him that if there was a gay vibe I would have picked it up. Nope, not as far as I know.”
Clemons, though, is gay. Rogers knew this early on in Clemmons’s Neighborhood tenure—in the movie, he relates the story of Rogers confronting him about it:
I went to a gay bar downtown called the Playpen. Oh God did I have a lot of fun. But somebody told Mr. Rogers Neighborhood people about it and he asked me, “Were you downtown at that bar?” And I said, “Yes,” and he said, “You can’t go back there anymore.”
...If I came out publicly, he said, “You cannot be on the show anymore. The sponsors, Johnson & Johnson and Sears, they are not going to support an openly gay man.” Fred was not prepared to lose that market. My marriage failed miserably and I discovered you can’t pray it away.
At Rogers’s urging, Clemmons married a woman in 1968, only to divorce about six years later. Via Hornet, a quote from Clemmons in the above-referenced Peaceful Neighbor book adds some context to how Rogers regarded him during this time. Clemmons recalled being told by Rogers:
“I want you to know, Franc, that if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you’re going to be on the show, as an important member of the Neighborhood, you can’t be ‘out’ as gay. People must not know … Many of the wrong people will get the worst idea, and we don’t want them thinking and talking about you like that. If those people put up enough fuss, then I couldn’t have you on the program. It’s not an issue for me. I don’t think you’re less of a person. I don’t think you’re immoral.”
It’s a complicated issue, not in the least because it was being wrestled with in 1968, a year before the Stonewall Riots introduced a hostile general public to the notion of gay rights. Rogers, by Clemmons’s account, was remarkably moral, though his ethics here aligned with the status quo. His rationale was hard to argue with—an out gay man sustaining a career in showbiz (in the subcategory of children’s programing, no less) in the ’60s and ’70s would be unfathomable. You can see how Rogers thought having his co-star sacrifice a key feature of his humanity was a necessary evil for the greater good of having a platform that espoused general (albeit Christian faith-based) kindness. And clearly, firing Clemmons was out of the question.
But still, it illustrates the finite nature of Mr. Rogers’s ideals. “I like you just the way you are,” he often said, but in the case of Clemmons there was a caveat: “...I just need you to show less of the way you are.”
This information through the lens of contemporary culture, in which an employer legislating what an employee does with his body, love, and sexuality would surely be received with outrage by a vocal subset of the population, is rattling. It maybe even suggests Rogers’s rhetoric was flimsier than previously thought. But it works so well in the movie. Won’t You Be My Neighbor ever so slightly magnifies the cracks in Rogers’s facade and does something that all biographical documentaries should do: It exposes its perfect-seeming subject as fundamentally imperfect. It reveals Fred Rogers, finally, as human.
Rogers’s widow, Joanne Rogers, says in the doc that her husband “came around” on the gay issue. “I think François just came a little too soon, maybe,” she says. When she’s asked by a voice off screen if she and her husband had many gay friends, she replies, “Oh yes, heavens.”
On his show, Rogers and Clemmons waged war with at least one type of bigotry. Rogers invited Clemmons to bathe his feet alongside him in a kiddie pool during a 1969 episode of his show, a display of solidarity with protests over segregated pools.
In his interviews in the movie, Clemmons does not show any sign of carrying resentment for Rogers’s treatment of his sexuality. Instead, he shares a story to illustrate exactly how much Rogers meant to him regardless:
On the show, he would say, “I love you just the way you are.” One day I said, “Fred, were you talking to me?” And he looked at me and he said, “Yes, I’ve been talking to you for two years and you finally heard me today.” And I just collapsed into his arms. I started crying. That’s when I knew I loved him.
No man had ever told me that he loved me like that. I needed to hear it all my life. My dad never told me, my stepfather never told me. So from then on he became my surrogate father.