For anyone who might not have noticed, we’re in the midst of a Fred Rogers moment.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor?, Morgan Neville’s film about the late children’s television pioneer, climbed above the $22 million mark at the box office over the weekend, continuing its run as one of the most successful documentaries of recent years. But the Rogers resurgence extends beyond the theatrical space to the television arena. The documentary Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like, which aired on PBS, has broken through with a couple of Emmy nominations, including one for Outstanding Documentary or Nonfiction Special.
It’s You I Like sprang from the Fred Rogers Company as a way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the debut of his show, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, on PBS in 1968.
“We had been talking about all the kinds of things we might do in 2018 for the 50th,” explains Ellen Doherty, head of production at the company and the Emmy-nominated executive producer of It’s You I Like. “Hearing that amazing list of everything that happened on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, all of the special guests…it just really hit me that to do this for PBS in the 50th year would be just perfect.”
Director John Paulson combed through hundreds of hours of Rogers’ shows, looking for key moments like the time the host bonded with Koko the Gorilla, the occasion he introduced his audience to a quadriplegic boy named Jeff Erlanger, and an episode from 1969 when Mister Rogers and African-American singer/actor François Clemmons, playing a policeman, washed their feet together in a plastic wading pool.
“It just gave me chills” to watch that moment, Paulson tells Deadline. “Or the Jeff Erlanger scene, the boy in the wheelchair, the power of the full and total acceptance by Mister Rogers of those people. And by showing it he’s teaching you, that is how you live. That is how you view other people; you accept them, and for who they are.”
Paulson enlisted Michael Keaton to host It’s You I Like, for good reason. Before he became a celebrated actor, Keaton earned $2 an hour doing various jobs at WQED in Pittsburgh, where Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was taped. He mostly worked behind the scenes, but once Rogers put him on the air with a bunch of boisterous co-workers who portrayed a sort of anarchic circus act.
“There’s that clip you see in our documentary, the Flying Zucchini Brothers performing their wild antics, Micheal Keaton at the center of it all,” Paulson comments. “He was terrific, a great host, really fond of Fred Rogers and just a great choice to lead us through all those Rogers memories.”
A slew of other stars appear in the documentary—some, like Sarah Silverman and Judd Apatow, who first watched Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood as kids, and others who appeared as guests on the show, like the violinist Itzhak Perlman and the cellist Yo-Yo Ma.
“He never lied to kids,” Silverman remarks in the film. “He’s willing to be vulnerable. He’s willing to be open and learn stuff. It was inspiring.”
Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding relates in the documentary how the show altered the course of her life.
“She was watching Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, she saw Yo-Yo Ma playing his cello. She ran to her mother and said, ‘That’s what I want to do,’” Paulson recounts. “I mean, that is like as direct an impact as you can possibly have.”
Paulson credits Rogers’ show for helping kids process their fears, to express their emotions, and to appreciate their boundless potential.
“You get a sense of what it is that’s possible in the world,” Paulson observes. “He would say over and over again that it’s important for you to talk about things. Mostly about feelings but also, what is life about? What is the world about?”
The current embrace of all things Fred Rogers does not surprise Doherty, E.P. of It’s You I Like.
“I think that the messages are timeless,” she notes. “People are drawn in by Mister Rogers and that connection they felt as viewers when they were kids, or parents—if it was their kids who were watching the show.”
Paulson voices a similar explanation for why we’re experiencing a Fred Rogers moment.
“I really chalk it up to nostalgia,” he concludes. “It’s the joy and sentimentality of feeling like there was a time when a good man was on television, taught our children good things.”