The Man Behind Mister Rogers, Away From The Neighborhood Of Make-Believe

Feb 9, 2020
Originally published on February 9, 2020 10:51 am

Mister Rogers is clearly having a moment — the children's television icon has been the subject of two documentaries and a biopic movie, A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. But Fred Rogers is timeless.

For more than a decade, Lynn Johnson photographed the gentle host of Mister Rogers' Neighborhood: first for The Pittsburgh Press, then for Life magazine, and then for years after the assignment ended. She was fiercely committed to documenting the man who could deeply connect with the hearts and minds of children. "It was a delight being in his energy field," Johnson says.

She photographed him in the studio, on vacation, on out-of-town trips for the show, and in his own neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in the city where both lived: Pittsburgh. You might say that Johnson was his neighbor — or at least a nearby one.

Fred works on the set for a Mister Rogers episode about cows, which included filming in a milking barn in western Pennsylvania.
Lynn Johnson

In an interview, Johnson spoke about sharing time and space with the man who believed that love, compassion and tolerance could be spread through the medium of television. The interview is edited for length and clarity.

How did your experience of Fred Rogers match up with the man in the red cardigan and sneakers we know from his television show?

Fred had these amazing eyebrows. This is one of the delights of being a photographer — you give yourself permission to get close to see and record a person's unique characteristics.
Lynn Johnson
Fred loved to photograph and would adopt the classic photographer stance. Part of it seemed to be his appetite for the experience; part for the small prints he would gift to the people he photographed, note attached; and part self-defense. People were always stopping him on the street to ask to be photographed with him — and he was always gracious, but it must have been exhausting.
Lynn Johnson
In Fred's office at WQED in Pittsburgh, he spent a good deal of time studying, writing and corresponding with dozens of people, including parents and children, who reached out to him.
Lynn Johnson

The person you saw on set was what you saw off the set. I saw him stop in the middle of Los Angeles airport to get on his knees to talk to a child.

He knew the importance of bringing yourself to a child's level — to speak with children, never to them.

That eye-to-eye contact was critical for him. It's about understanding and recognizing the child as an individual.

The entire "family" of Family Communications (now known as Fred Rogers Productions) was invited to a community picnic on the family property in Latrobe, Pa., where Fred grew up. Fred is momentarily stumped by a game in which he has to unravel string from a nest of other strands.
Lynn Johnson
Fred was forever changing his shoes, his signature process of moving from reality to fantasy.
Lynn Johnson

You said that Fred Rogers taught you so much. Tell us about lessons learned.

I met him at a time in my career before I learned to work deeply as a photographer.

He helped teach me how to value others, how to work with people so that they don't feel taken advantage of and how to work in that extremely delicate and fragile space that allows you to tell their story with integrity and causes no harm. Recently, I led a conversation with a group of women photographers. I asked everyone to begin the conversation in the way that I heard Fred do so. He'd ask everyone to close their eyes for a minute and think about those who have been helpers in their lives. It is about gratitude and love, and I think that's the essence of who he was.

Fred, puppet still on hand, confers with musician and Neighborhood regular Johnny Costa in 1992. The two had a deep friendship and creative relationship for years on and off the set.
Lynn Johnson
During a Family Communications project about Heroes, Fred traveled the U.S. in search of adults whom he considered to be the "helpers," and on the way, he found children who touched his heart and told him the secrets of their lives. In Chicago, this child is telling Fred about the time she was shot.
Lynn Johnson
Fred made it a practice to be at eye level to speak to children and adults alike at WQED studios in Pittsburgh.
Lynn Johnson
In Nantucket in 1992, the word is out that Fred is in town, and fans large and small stop by for a sighting and a chat.
Lynn Johnson

"The heart was made for love," he told you in a conversation you keep on your cellphone.

When I am truly drained or used up by something I've seen, like the darkness of what we face in the world because we refuse to accept each other, I listen to that recording.

Did you ever see him angry?

Only once. We had flown from Pittsburgh to Los Angeles, and he was a bit out of sorts because of the time change. But even when he was short with someone, it was not toxic. You could feel him holding on to that space of civility.

Fred often had to dash behind the scenes in between being himself and working the puppets.
Lynn Johnson
Fred worked with the puppets under the scene.
Lynn Johnson
In Nantucket, Fred and his wife, Joanne, enjoy the wind on the beach in 1992.
Lynn Johnson
Fred and team ponder the quality of the most recent take in 1992.
Lynn Johnson

What did you think of how Tom Hanks, nominated for an Academy Award in the role, portrayed Fred Rogers in the movie [A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood]?

Tom Hanks has a lot of his cadences as well as the silences. He really studied the man. It felt very near the truth. In the scene when they are all in a Chinese restaurant and the camera scans the diners, I realized that all the people there were his original production people I'd met. His wife, Joanne, was there, too.

You spent more than a decade documenting his life. Were there aspects of him that remained a mystery?

He had that deeply private pain that everyone holds. In his case, it was the pain of being bullied as a chubby kid — the kind of poison that can sit in you and has to do with the darker emotions based in fear and anger for being treated a certain way. I have a feeling there was some damage there, though I never had insight into that. I couldn't push it, and maybe I didn't want to know.

Fred rests between takes behind the scenes.
Lynn Johnson
In the 1980s, Fred takes a contemplative moment on set.
Lynn Johnson
Fred takes a filming break and a small nap on set.
Lynn Johnson
Fred was photographed at a picnic in the late 1980s on his family estate.
Lynn Johnson
In 2002, Fred sang with the graduates of Chatham University before giving the commencement address. People loved him. They melted in his presence regardless of age, gender or station in life.
Lynn Johnson

How would he have reacted to the intolerance and hate we see too much of in the world today?

I think he would be heartbroken, but he would be working to make it better. He was constantly thinking about how to make complex and scary issues understandable and less traumatic for kids. He was always addressing the question "Is your neighbor worth loving?" And right now, we are not facing that question.

If Fred Rogers were standing in front of you right now, what would you say to him?

I wouldn't say anything. I would just sit in his presence in silence.

: 2/08/20

A previous caption incorrectly identified Johnny Costa as Joe Negri.

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Fred takes in the ocean in Nantucket in 1992.
Lynn Johnson