“The man who conveyed a Zen-like calm on television saw a psychiatrist for decades.” So writes Pittsburgh-based nonprofit CEO King at one of many points in which he emphasizes that the beloved star of Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood was a sometimes-contradictory fellow.
Fred Rogers (1928-2003) was no saint, given to occasional outbursts of anger and not above a little deception in order to get out of sticky situations, as when he tried to separate himself from a company he effectively owned during a strike. Raised in the hardscrabble Rust Belt, Rogers escaped, going to work as a floor manager in the early days of TV and making a mark with the 1951 production of Amahl and the Night Visitors, “a high point in NBC’s creative period.” He could have followed a path to an executive role with the network, but he returned to Pittsburgh and pioneered a different kind of TV aimed at children—different because, King writes, it actually respected its audience. Rogers was an emphatic and empathetic Christian who wanted to impart those values to his audience, but by the author’s account, he saw the world—or at least the show he built—with the eyes of a child and insisted that those who worked for him do the same. As a former producer noted, whenever anyone was reading aloud onscreen, the camera showed the words and tracked from left to right to mimic the path of the eyes in reading: “All those little tiny details were really important to Fred.” Though indifferently written and sometimes scattered, King’s book is resolute on the turns Rogers took in order to be sure that his show not be the usual pandering, cereal-selling child’s fare, passing up a fortune in the bargain. A bonus: the author’s revelation of the role Rogers played in getting Monty Python on the air in America.
Serviceable overall, but strong in its demonstration that Rogers was not just a good neighbor and a good friend to children, but also a very good man.