Won’t You Be My Neighbor is a film that’s rife with inspiring moments.
Just seeing Fred Rogers on screen again and hearing his voice is enough to make your heart swell. But there is one moment that really proves just how special and affecting the children’s television host was.
This sequence revolves around Fred Rogers speaking before the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee and its chairman Sen. John O. Pastore to request funds for national public television.
The speech Rogers gave, which was mostly about his ambitions for his show, was so convincing that Pastore responded with, “I’m supposed to be a pretty tough guy, and this is the first time I’ve had goose bumps for the last two days. Looks like you just earned the $20 million.”
I recently had the chance to speak to “Won’t You Be My Neighbor’s” director Morgan Neville, who admitted that the film originally “had a lot more” on Rogers’ testimony.
“I actually interviewed the son of the senator, John Pastore Jnr. What I found out was that the senator Pastore had been a child of the depression and had grown up very poor.”
“He started working when he was 11 or 12. So he didn’t have much of a childhood himself. So in that context you see what Fred is talking about. He is speaking deeply to the senator’s own experience.”
Neville also made the stunning revelation that Pastore and Rogers remained friends after the hearing, too. “After that Fred and Pastore started a correspondence that lasted for years. They wrote letters and stayed friends. I have read all the letters that they wrote back and forth. So it was a very genuine connection.”
The scene is even more remarkable when you consider how the incident would likely unfold today. “Now a senator would say, ‘I’ll take it under consideration.’ And then quietly unfund it the next day,” Neville insisted.
Neville also noted that this was the first time that Fred’s ability was seen on a national scale. “Fred, at that point, was really the only famous person on PBS. It was only a year old, and ‘Sesame Street’ hadn’t started yet. Fred was all they had. And he was the last person to testify.”
“Fred wasn’t super famous at that point. Kids knew him. I don’t even know how much attention adults paid to it. But it did put him on the map in a number of ways.”
“A lot of news coverage came out of it. People asking, ‘Who is this guy? We need to figure out what it is all about.’ You can almost make a whole film about everything coming out of that.”
It is also the prime example of just how charming and powerful Rogers could be. “I think his super-power was this penetrative emotional honesty that disarmed people. You see it in the senate hearing, you see it with Tom Sneider, the TV host, and the sock puppet.”
“He did it again and again. He could take these hardened and cynical people and he could make them come to him, meet him on his emotional terms. That was an unbelievable quality.”
“He was so confident that he could pause, he could challenge, he could control. That was to me his super-power.
“Fred wasn’t playing other peoples’ games. There’s another clip I didn’t use of Fred with Joan Rivers, when she was hosting ‘The Tonight Show.’ She was hard-hitting and brutal. And he went on with Daniel and talks to her and she just melts."
“It was just another example of Fred taking control of a situation. And that is a super-power. Fred always aimed for peoples’ emotional bulls-eyes. And people would always try to hid and skirt. But, ultimately, he is going to find it. I feel like that’s the experience of the film. Ultimately, his voice is going to find something about your emotional core.”
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor” is now in cinemas across the country.