By WILL DIGRAVIO
This article originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on June 28, 2018. It can be found online, here.
When François Clemmons received an invitation from Fred Rogers to “come over” to his new public television show in 1968, he was puzzled.
“What am I gonna do over there?” he thought.
The answer: Help create one of the most influential children’s programs ever made.
For nearly three decades, beginning at age 23, he played Officer Clemmons, the neighborhood policeman on “Mister Rogers Neighborhood,” a staple spanning the childhoods of younger Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and even Millennials.
“I started at the top,” Clemmons said. “I started with the best.”
Clemmons revisits the experience and its impact on his own life and generations of American children in a new documentary, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
The film is directed by Academy-award winner Morgan Neville and premiered June 8. It debuts in Burlington on Friday and in Montpelier and Brattleboro on Friday, July 6.
It currently boasts a 99 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes, an online review aggregator.
In a wide-ranging interview with the Burlington Free Press, Clemmons, who lives in Middlebury (he is emeritus artist-in-residence at Middlebury College), discussed his life, the film and his friend, guru and surrogate father, Fred Rogers.
Becoming Officer Clemmons
Clemmons, now 73, met Rogers 50 years ago in Pittsburgh. A tenor soloist at a Presbyterian church, Clemmons first met Joanne Rogers, Fred Rogers’ wife, who was in the choir.
She kept insisting he meet her husband. “I don’t need to meet him. I like you,” he told her at the time.
Eventually, the two were introduced and Fred Rogers offered to buy him lunch. Then a graduate student at Carnegie Mellon University, Clemmons was in no position to turn down a free meal.
“I’m an extrovert, he’s an introvert. He listened, and I never shut up,” Clemmons said of their first meeting. “That was a magic combination made in heaven.”
It wasn’t too long later they were taping Fred Rogers’ ode to civility at WQED Studios, a Public Broadcasting Service affiliate in Pittsburgh.
“I practically fell through the floor when Fred asked me to be a police officer,” Clemmons said with a laugh. “I thought, ‘He doesn’t know what he is asking me.’”
Black, gay and playing a cop in 1968 America
Clemmons grew up a black, gay man in Youngstown, Ohio, where he witnessed abuse at the hands of police officers. “Some policeman,” he says, “are the devil incarnate.”
But, he recognized that not all police officers were bad; they were an essential part of a neighborhood, the first to arrive when calamity strikes and a child needs help. He and Rogers talked through what his character would be, and how he could be a force for good.
“It was a heavy load,” Clemmons said.
But, he said, he knew he had Rogers’ support. The two formed a bond both on and off screen, one that Clemmons described as a “deep spiritual relationship.”
Because he was gay, Clemmons said, his father and stepfather never truly embraced him. Rogers, he said, became his surrogate father, the one he could turn to for guidance and advice in times of need.
“It wasn’t long before I realized what a healing presence this man was,” Clemmons said. “Unlike my parents, he was not going to be judgmental, my parents were very, negatively judgmental, so I couldn’t share my deepest feeling of insecurity or inadequacy, but I could with Fred.”
On screen, the two used their bond to combat racism. During a famous 1969 episode, Clemmons and Rogers sat and soaked their feet in a miniature, plastic swimming pool. In the United States at that time, black people were barred and even assaulted for trying to enter public swimming pools in many communities.
Rogers then helped dry Clemmons’ feet.
“It was amazing how many people embraced it,” he said.
That moment proved to be just one example of the show’s willingness to challenge norms in the society it served.
A gentle radical
Google “Fred Rogers” and you will undoubtedly find him described as both “gentle” and “radical.” These two adjectives make for a nice oxymoron, but, in the case of “Mister Rogers,” what do they really mean?
The year that “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” first went on air was among the most turbulent of 20th century America. In 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy were both assassinated, the Vietnam War and protests against it intensified and the Democratic National Convention in Chicago devolved into a violent spectacle.
But, Clemmons said, this time also marked the emergence of what he called “the new masculinity;”of a generation who refused to go to war and kill to prove that they were men.
Rogers, Clemmons said, was its embodiment.
“Fred was radical in that he personified this idea that you could be gentle, kind, loving, understanding, patient, and still be a man,” he said. “I can’t help but feel he was a prophet ahead of his time.”
Instead of hiding the turbulence from his young audience, “Mister Rogers” served as a guide, helping children navigate everything from divorce to assassination. Rogers believed, Clemmons said, in treating children as thinking individuals.
“They have deep feelings. They have deep issues that are important,” Clemmons said. “We should give them the time, attention, and understanding they needed if they were going to grow up and be healthy.”
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” allowed children to see and hear from families and neighbors like their own. For example, while much of America tried to perpetuate the image of a nuclear family, or, as Clemmons called it, the fantasy of “Father Knows Best,” “Mister Rogers” talked about single parents and grandparents who served as a child’s primary guardian.
The show discussed working women and mothers, which, Clemmons said, was common for minority and immigrant families.
“He was trying to move us in a different direction,” Clemmons said.
‘Mister Rogers,’ today
About three weeks ago, Clemmons received a Facebook message from an African-American police officer, who said Officer Clemmons inspired him to become one too.
“It happens all the time,” Clemmons said.
While his role as a police officer had an impact that was maybe easier to see, his other role on the show, as a classical musician, had a more subtle one. For many black children, the show was their first introduction to classical music, Clemmons said.
In addition to the impact he had on the lives of individuals, Fred Rogers, as “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” explores, also had a tremendous impact on the culture, defining love and teaching its power and importance to children.
“Love means accepting people as they are when you’re with them, you try to change and grow with people,” Clemmons said. “Love is an active verb. You have to make the vow that I will be with you through these changes.”
To this day, Clemmons continues to play witness to the mutual love felt between “Mister Rogers” and his audience. When Rogers was alive, Clemmons remembered, fans would approach him and open up their lives to him.
“They felt like they knew him,” Clemmons said. “He had the ability to hug you without touching you.”
Today, fifteen years after Rogers’ death, fans approach Clemmons in the same way, he says, longing to be connected in some way to the man that taught them compassion and love.
“The love they felt for Fred, they’re transferring to me in the best sense of the word,” Clemmons said.
“I was there,” he said of the groundbreaking show and its radical host. “I’m a living witness.”