How Mister Rogers’ Life of Quiet Grace Turned Him Into an Unlikely Pop Culture Hero

Watch: Tom Hanks Hopes Mr. Rogers Will Be a Reprieve From Cynicism

Fred Rogers isn't your typical pop culture icon.

As the host of the long-running PBS children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, he wasn't slick or sarcastic, hip or cool. He was sincere to a fault and spoke with a slow determination and a pure warmth uncommon for TV. Had his show still been on the air in the social media age, there's every reason to believe that Twitter trolls would've dunked on him any chance they got.

There's a whole generation of children who've come of age not even knowing who the man was, considering his show went off the air in August 2001 and he died only a year and a half later. And for the whole generations of children who did spend their formative years taking trips with the man into the Neighborhood of Make-Believe one half-hour episode at a time, well, they became adults, as all children hopefully do, and a fast-paced world full of distractions and cynicism pulled focus, forcing Rogers and his innate goodness to become something of a distant memory—twinkling, yet fleeting.

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And yet, at a time when civility and kindness seem like four-letter words you can't say on TV, in a world gone stark raving mad, Rogers has emerged to be one of the unlikeliest pop culture heroes of our time. With a rapturously-received 2018 documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor? followed by a well-reviewed 2019 biopic starring Tom Hanks as the beloved figure, entitled A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood, Rogers' story continues to return exactly when we need it most, bringing with it a beacon of hope amid a sea of indifference and a gentle reminder that it doesn't have to be this way.

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Before Fred Rogers became the hug of a man generations of children knew him to be, he was first, as all adults are at one point in time, a child. And like all those children who Rogers sought to comfort and make feel special as an adult, his childhood was a lonely one. Only, without a Mister Rogers of his own to turn to, the shy, introverted and overweight young Rogers, taunted by his classmates as "Fat Freddy" and often made homebound by childhood asthma, was left to his own devices. 

"It was a lonely childhood," Won't You Be My Neighbor? director Morgan Neville told Entertainment Weekly. "I think he made friends with himself as much as he could. He had a ventriloquist dummy, he had [stuffed] animals, and he would create his own worlds in his childhood bedroom."

He also spent time with his maternal grandfather, Fred McFeely, who he was named after and who would go on to inspire the Mr. McFeely character made famous on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood—and who was also responsible for patiently imbuing in Rogers a sense of self-esteem. "You know, you've made this day a special day just by being yourself," his grandpa would tell him.

All superheroes have their origin stories, and that potent mix of childhood pain and gentle grandfatherly guidance was the blueprint for all that Rogers would become.

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