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Mister Rogers: An unlikely candidate for a career resurgence

Fred Rogers is, in the pop culture parlance, having a moment.

Of course, the legendary children’s television host — whose first name will always be “Mister” — shuffled off this mortal coil a little more than 15 years ago. But with what would have been his 90th birthday just past, and the 50th anniversary of the start of the nationwide version of his beloved “Neighborhood” having been celebrated in February, Mister Rogers has re-entered the zeitgeist with impeccable timing.

The ordained minister in the cardigan sweater, who always hung up his jacket and stopped to tie his shoes, was just this past week honored with a postage stamp … pictured alongside King Friday from the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

He’s currently the subject of not one, but two documentaries — “Mister Rogers: It’s You I Like,” which premiered recently on PBS; and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor,” which will be shown in theaters beginning in June.

The television streaming service Twitch, meanwhile, is in the early stages of a “Neighborhood” marathon … consecutively airing all 856 episodes of the series (Twitch previously offered similar tributes to “Mighty Morphin Power Rangers” and “The Joy Of Painting.”)

Meanwhile, it’s been announced that a feature film, tentatively called “You Are My Friend,” will go into production. It’s the story of the relationship that developed between the TV host and a reporter who came to interview him.

Mister Rogers is set to be portrayed by Tom Hanks … because, well, of course he will be.

This all probably would take Mister Rogers himself by surprise. During his heyday, the most outside attention he received was from the “Saturday Night Live” takeoff called “Mister Robinson’s Neighborhood,” set in a decidedly unfriendly tenement building.

(Rather than be upset at the parody, he was a fan, and surprised star Eddie Murphy backstage at the SNL studios to have a photo taken.)

The subject of countless urban legends — no, he was not a sniper for the Navy SEALS who wore sweaters to hide his service tattoos — Mister Rogers would not fit into today’s landscape of television reality “stars” for whom celebrity is the goal in and of itself.

“Fame is a four-letter word,” he said during his induction into the TV Hall of Fame, “and, like ‘tape,’ or ‘zoom,’ or ‘face,’ or ‘pain,’ or ‘life’ or ‘love’ … what ultimately matters is what you do with it.”

What Mister Rogers chose to do with it was to care for children, treat them like they mattered and teach them that they were “special” as individuals. That latter point became the subject of a short-lived controversy after a professor at Louisiana State University claimed that Mister Rogers was a primary factor in a growing sense of undeserved entitlement among children.

The professor backtracked almost immediately, but the story made the rounds of national media … and the idea of a “Mister Rogers child” still hasn’t completely faded.

As with the case of “Sesame Street,” another PBS stalwart, there was never a reluctance to have reality intrude on the “Neighborhood.”

The show premiered in February 1968 during one of the most volatile moments of the Civil Rights Movement. Almost immediately, Mister Rogers was visited by an African American teacher and an interracial classroom of students. Less than two months into the series, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated — and, against a backdrop of violence and turmoil — as cities across the country were being set on fire, Mister Rogers added the character of an African American police officer to the series.

The iconic image from that relationship was the two men sharing a quiet moment while soaking their bare feet together in a wading pool.

“Neighborhood” also famously provided counter-balance to one of the most celebrated TV movies of all time, 1983’s “The Day After.”

In response to the depiction of the aftermath of a nuclear missile strike in Middle America, Mister Rogers and his staff built a five-episode arc (the seldom seen “Conflict” episodes) that depicted what would happen to a community in the Neighborhood of Make-Believe should it decide to go to war by jumping to conclusions from what it sees.

Airing in the midst of Cold War tensions with the Soviet Union, it once again showed that the host of a show for children wasn’t afraid to do something constructive with his fame.

“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” went off the air 12 days before the terrorist attacks of 9/11. In retrospect, the coincidence seems noteworthy — another bastion of lost innocence overshadowed by harsh realities. The TV landscape itself, particularly for children, has morphed into a land of superheroes and aging-before-their-time scripted series.

The children who grew up visiting the Neighborhood are adults now accustomed to seeing those desperate for fame, dystopian dramas that make “The Day After” seem like a passing storm, and cable screamers who’d rather unleash a tsunami of vitriol than share a wading pool with someone different than themselves.

“I went into television because I hated it so,” he once said in an interview. “I thought there was some way of using this fabulous instrument to nurture those who would watch and listen.”

Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why Mister Rogers is having a moment back in the spotlight; maybe we should wonder why it took this long.

Mail Tribune senior designer Robert Galvin can be reached at rgalvin@rosebudmedia.com

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