For more than 30 years, Fred Rogers — the beloved host of the long-running children's educational series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" — taught the world the simple yet powerful magic of kindness. Now, nearly 20 years after his show ended, Fred's back in our stream of consciousness thanks to "It's A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood." The movie, which hits theaters on Nov. 22, 2019, is based on the unlikely friendship that developed between Fred (played by Tom Hanks) and cynical journalist Tom Junod (renamed Lloyd Vogel for the film) and serves as a reminder of Fred's legacy of empathy and caring for others. In honor of the movie's release, Wonderwall.com is remembering some of the biggest moments of this gentle TV giant's life and career. Keep reading for more…
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Fred Rogers, who was born in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, in 1928, grew up to become a talented musician who discovered his passion for television while in college. When he was 21 in 1949, Fred got his first chance to work in the entertainment industry as a floor manager for the musical series "The Voice of Firestone," which had been a long-running radio series that migrated to TV the same year.
After transferring from Dartmouth in 1949 to Rollins College in Florida, Fred graduated magna cum laude in 1951 with a degree in musical composition. The same year, Fred landed his second TV job, once again as a floor manager, this time for the musical-comedy series "The Kate Smith Evening Hour." Not long after, Fred was hired as an assistant at a production company in New York. These early experiences behind the scenes helped give Fred powerful insight into what made successful television.
While at Rollins College, Fred Rogers met the woman who'd become his wife, concert pianist Sara "Joanne" Rogers. The pair married in 1952 and welcomed son James in 1959 and son John in 1961. In 2018, Joanne visited the "Today" show and shared the completely adorable way Fred proposed to her — via a handwritten letter — while he was in New York and she was finishing up her studies in Florida.
After spending his college years in New Hampshire, Florida and, after graduation, in New York, Fred Rogers found a job that brought him and his new wife, Joanne, back to his home state of Pennsylvania. The job was with WQED Pittsburgh, where he was hired to work in the programming department for the country's first-ever community-supported TV station. The new job would open the door for Fred to explore other avenues of television.
In 1954, Fred Rogers took a major step toward his ultimate TV destiny when he co-produced and co-created the WQED-Pittsburgh series "A Children's Corner." Although Fred never actually appeared on the show (it was hosted by Josie Carey), he did develop several of his most beloved puppet characters while there, including King Friday XIII (seen here), Daniel Striped Tiger, Lady Elaine Fairchilde, X the Owl and Henrietta Pussycat. The series was later picked up by NBC and remained on the air until 1961. According to Fred, the series had an operating budget of just $30 at the time of its creation.
Following the end of "The Children's Corner," Fred Rogers received the chance of a lifetime — an opportunity to host his own children's series. The only problem was that it meant he had to relocate his family to Canada. Taking a chance on his career, Fred and his family moved north to Toronto in 1961 so he could host "MisteRogers" — a series featuring 15-minute episodes that would provide the blueprint for his future TV work. The show remained on the air for six impressive years before being canceled.
In the 1960s, Fred Rogers wasn't just working on his TV show, "MisteRogers." He was also taking courses in theology. In 1962, Fred earned his master's degree in divinity and just a year later was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian church. A perpetual student, Fred then turned his attention to his other great love — children — and in 1963 began studying childhood development and meeting some of the leading authorities on the subject at the time including Dr. Benjamin Spock and Dr. Margaret McFarland. Their influence helped shape Fred's understanding of what children needed to grow into happy, healthy adults. Over the course of his life, Fred would go on to earn an impressive 40 honorary degrees.
Following the end of Fred Rogers' Canadian series "MisteRogers" in 1967, he and his family were eager to return to the States. Back home in Pennsylvania, Fred laid the groundwork for a new TV show, borrowing elements from his previous series to create what would ultimately become "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Produced by National Educational Television — which later became the Public Broadcasting Service, known as PBS — the show debuted on Feb. 19, 1968, and featured his puppet friends and original music written by Fred himself, including the beloved opening song "Won't You Be My Neighbor."
The same year Fred Rogers launched his iconic series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," he received his first two Primetime Emmy nominations for outstanding achievement in children's programming in both the individual and program categories. Just a year later in 1969, Fred earned yet another Emmy nod. He wouldn't be nominated for an Emmy again for five more years, when, in 1974, he received his first of 57 Daytime Emmy nominations. By 1980, he'd finally won the award for outstanding individual achievement in children's programming. Over the next 21 years, he'd win four more Daytime Emmys and in 1997, a 69-year-old Fred was honored at the Daytime Emmys with a lifetime achievement award, presented by Tim Robbins, for his many incredible contributions to television.
No one could have guessed just how much a show featuring a cast of puppets and a kind-hearted host would mean to so many so early on. In 1968 — the same year "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted on television — the series was given the prestigious Peabody Award for youth and children's programming. Years later in 1992, Fred Rogers was also given a Peabody, recognizing his quarter-century of excellence in children's programming.
A little more than a year after "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted, Fred Rogers took on a new role as a political advocate for public broadcast television. On May 1, 1969, a cool, calm and perfectly poised Fred appeared before the Senate — which was, at the time, planning to cut a $20 million grant meant for PBS — and delivered a six-minute speech imploring lawmakers to change their minds. Discussing budgets and the need for quality educational programming, Fred was able to convince the senators, saving PBS in the process.
It might surprise you to know that one of the biggest moments in Fred Rogers' life happened in the early 1970s when he decided to become a vegetarian following the release of Frances Moore Lappe's book "Diet for a Small Planet." Maintaining the diet throughout the rest of his life, Fred was often heard saying, "I don't want to eat anything that has a mother," and in 1983, he linked his decision to quit meat (although he did consume eggs and dairy products) to his faith, saying, "I want to be a vehicle for God, to spread his message of love and peace." In the mid-1980s, Fred put his money where his mouth was by investing in the magazine The Vegetarian Times, becoming one of its minority shareholders.
In 1971, Fred Rogers launched the non-profit Family Communications, Inc. The organization, which focused on providing child-friendly media and materials, also served as a production company that would take over producing Fred's popular series "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The company was later renamed Fred Rogers Productions and is still in operation to this day.
Ten years after "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" debuted on TV, Fred Rogers launched a new show, this time catering to a more grown-up audience. In 1978, Fred's series "Old Friends… New Friends" aired on PBS. The show, which lasted for two seasons, was produced by Fred and featured him interviewing interesting people around the country, including comedian Milton Berle and actor John Carradine along with his three famous sons, actors David Carradine, Robert Carradine and Keith Carradine. The series ended in 1980 after it failed to catch on with adults.
Every episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" began the same way — with Fred Rogers walking through the door, greeting his viewers while singing "Won't You Be My Neighbor." As he sang, Fred would take off his sports coat and replace it with any number of colorful zip-up cardigan sweaters — all of which his mother knitted by hand — and finally, replace his loafers with comfy sneakers. The ritual was important to Fred, who believed routine and predictability helped children feel safe. After 22 years on the air, Fred's iconic sweater was so treasured, it became an exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington, D.C. Fred himself picked the sweater — a red one with his trademark zipper — to donate to the museum on Nov. 21, 1984 (seen here).
Throughout the 33 years "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was filmed, Fred Rogers invited numerous guests to appear on his show. Some of the most famous people to grace the "Mister Rogers" studio were chef Julia Child, astronaut Al Worden, Bill Nye the Science Guy, magician David Copperfield, "Reading Rainbow" host and actor Levar Burton and acclaimed cellist Yo-Yo Ma (seen here) who appeared on an episode with Fred in 1985. Fred also broke barriers by including guests and characters not often featured on TV at the time, including wheelchair-bound child Jeff Erlanger in 1981 and his African American TV neighbor, Officer Clemmons. In 1969, Fred famously invited the recurring character to soak his feet with him in a small pool as a form of protest against swimming segregation that was still ongoing in parts of America despite laws banning the practice taking effect in 1964.
Thirty years after his series debuted and more than 44 years after he first appeared on television, Fred Rogers was given a well-deserved star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Although Fred arrived wearing a jacket, he was greeted by numerous fans and even a few journalists wearing cardigan sweaters in honor of his big day, which inspired him to change into his own teal cardigan, just as he did each day on his show.
1999 was a big awards year for Fred Rogers. Not only was he given the inaugural Legacy for Children Award from the Children's Discovery Museum in San Jose, California, but he was inducted into the Television Hall of Fame. Adding to the excitement that evening was the presenter — old friend Jeff Erlanger — who'd appeared on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" back in 1981 to talk about his life in a wheelchair. Fred was surprised and clearly elated to see Jeff, who was by then an adult, and jumped onto the stage to greet him, saying, "I am so happy you are here! Thank you for coming!"
In December 2000, Fred Rogers filmed what would be the final episode of "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." The episode was the 895th Fred had taped and, in his signature fashion, he stuck to the usual routine of singing, changing his clothes and sharing his incredible wisdom and empathy with his young audience. At the show's end, before saying goodbye one last time, Fred smiled and said, "I like being your television neighbor. It's such a good feeling to know you're alive," before hanging up his cardigan for good. The episode wouldn't air until Aug. 31, 2001, marking 33 years and six months since his show began.
On July 9, 2002, Fred Rogers was invited to the White House to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President George W. Bush. Commending Fred's years of dedication to the parents and children of our nation through his show and through his national service as chairman of the White House Forum on Child Development, the president said, "Fred Rogers has proven that television can soothe the soul and nurture the spirit and teach the very young … The whole idea [of] 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood' is to look at the television camera and present as much love as you possibly could to a person who needs it. This message of unconditional love has won Fred Rogers a very special place in the heart[s] of a lot of moms and dads all across America."
Late in 2002 — the same year Fred Rogers was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom — he was diagnosed with stomach cancer. Committed to honoring a previously scheduled appearance at the 2003 New Year's Day Rose Parade in Pasadena California, Fred — who was noticeably in pain — flew home to Pennsylvania immediately after and underwent a gastrectomy to remove his stomach. After spending 10 days in recovery in the hospital, Fred was allowed to go home. Sadly, Fred passed away, surrounded by his loved ones, on Feb. 27, 2003, a little less than a month before what would have been his 75th birthday. Shortly before his death, Fred recorded a video message in the WQED studio for his website, in which he addressed the adults who'd grown up watching his show. Expressing his unconditional love until the very end, Fred said, "I would like to tell you what I often told you when you were much younger. I like you just the way you are. And what's more, I'm so grateful to you for helping the children in your life to know that you'll do everything you can to keep them safe, and to help them express their feelings in ways that will bring healing in many different neighborhoods. It's such a good feeling to know that we're lifelong friends."