In an era of tarnished heroes, cultural icon Mister Rogers never proved false. Endlessly parodied for his trademark sweaters and sneakers, his mild-mannered appearance and the slow, deliberate clarity of his speech, Fred Rogers, who died last year after a brief struggle with stomach cancer, was also revered as a force for good in the world and increasingly looked for reassurance in times of crisis.
A revelatory and humanizing documentary, "Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor," airing at 3:30 p.m. Sunday on KCET, offers a moving tribute to the man whose work on and off screen was shaped by a profound caring and sincere respect for his fellow human beings, especially children.
Hosted by Michael Keaton, whose own show-biz roots include a stint as a studio crew member on Rogers' show, the poignant and frequently funny documentary weaves together taped interviews with longtime colleagues, children's media observers and child development experts; Rogers himself and his wife of nearly 51 years, concert pianist Joanne Byrd Rogers, with home movies, family photos and behind-the-scenes film clips of the "Neighborhood."
Clips from his first show in the 1950s, "The Children's Corner," performed live with partner Josie Carey, not only reveal the origins of Rogers' "Neighborhood of Make Believe" puppets, but his unexpectedly robust sense of humor, as do many comical "Neighborhood" outtakes.
Here, too, is evidence of this ordained Presbyterian minister's off-camera, self-described "emotional archeology" work with groups of preschoolers, and the love of music that was at the heart of "The Neighborhood" -- Rogers wrote all of the show's songs, professional singers and musicians were frequent guests and respected jazz pianist Johnny Costa was his longtime music director.
Most notable is how apparent it becomes that Rogers' gentleness was rooted in strength and abiding faith. He could reduce politicos and Hollywood movers and shakers to tears, as he did when he was inducted into the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences' Hall of Fame in 1999 and spoke of the responsibility inherent in creating content for a communication medium with a global reach:
" ... through television we have the choice of encouraging others to demean this life or to cherish it...."
'Fred Rogers: America's Favorite Neighbor'
When: Sunday, 3:30-5 p.m.
Rating: TV-G (suitable for all ages)
Narrator and host: Michael Keaton
Executive producer, Jocelyn Hough. Producer, writer, Rick Sebak.