In 15 years at MTV News, I've interviewed some of my biggest rock heroes: Bono, The Edge, Michael Stipe, Neil Young. But it's a sensitive septuagenarian singing "It's a beautiful day in the neighborhood" who I count as my most rock and roll hero.
See, Mister Rogers summered in a modest, gray, shake-shingled house on the edge of Nantucket Island. My mother rented the cottage next door. So Mister Rogers — cardigans and Keds, King Friday and all — really was my neighbor.
I had an awesome, inspiring conversation with him just a few weeks after he taped the last of some 900-plus episodes of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" in 2001.
"Deep and simple," he said, "is far more essential than shallow and complex."
The phrase stuck, and inspired "Mister Rogers & Me," a documentary I wrote, produced, directed, shot, edited and scored with my brother, Christofer. Today, more than 10 years after meeting Mister Rogers, our film is premiering on DVD, iTunes and select PBS affiliates.
There was nary an amplifier, sampler or MacBook Air in sight when I met him or on any of the episodes he helmed over 30 years, but in some ways, Fred Rogers was one of the most rock and roll of anyone I've ever interviewed. To wit:
» He Was an Innovator. Rogers didn't play it safe after graduating college in 1951. He jumped into the brand-new world of television — the cutting-edge technology of his day — and took this radical innovation one step further by moving quickly into what would eventually become the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS), the original commercial-free torrent site.
» He Was Completely Himself, and Encouraged Us to Be the Same. In a world that tells us, "Buy This, Wear That, Be More," he told us, "There's no one else in the world like you. And you make today a special one by just being yourself." No shtick, no stylist, no pyro: He just was. That's cool.
» He Took On the Man. When the U.S. Senate wanted to pull stakes on his show, Mister Rogers hauled ass to Washington, D.C., to stare down the infamously cantankerous Senator John Pastore to win funding. In just a few minutes of savvy testimony that puts Pearl Jam, Dee Snider and George Clooney's attempts to shame, Rogers turned Pastore to Jell-O, won the day and saved not only the show, but also the network.
» He Invented "Punk'd." For a few months in the early '80s, Eddie Murphy's "Mister Robinson's Neighborhood" — a foul-mouthed, inner-city parody of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" — was the darling of "Saturday Night Live" and America. Murphy's "Kill My Landlord" one-upped (heck, 10-upped) Rogers' "Won't You Be My Neighbor?" Rogers could have loathed Murphy's parody or ignored it outright. Instead, while visiting 30 Rock Studios one afternoon, he arranged to surprise the comedian: tiptoeing toward his dressing room, knocking on the door and saying, "Eddie? The Real Mister Rogers is here!" Murphy was flustered. Rogers was amused.
» He Tackled Tough Subjects. Rock music tends to approach tough issues — death, divorce, addiction, violence — through metaphor. Rogers was gently and intelligently and directly informing kids and parents "that which is mentionable is manageable" a generation before Rolling Stone interviews, confessional rock bios and Barbara Walter specials brought rock dysfunction onto the mainstream airwaves.
Make no mistake, I'm down with distortion. I dig leather pants. And I'm all for guyliner. But sometimes rock and roll comes in a cardigan. And sometimes, that's the most rockin' move of all.
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