Morgan Neville’s Mr. Rogers documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor officially released yesterday (June 8), and it’s already stirring up plenty of conversation about the iconic children’s tv star.
One especially interesting factor of Rogers’s life was his friendship with a gay man who self-identified as a “ghetto boy.”
Fred Rogers met François Clemmons in the 1960s when the two were attending a Good Friday Service. Rogers was impressed by Clemmons’s operatic singing so much that he offered him a job on his upcoming children’s program. This led to a lifelong friendship.
The thing is, when Rogers offered the job, he insisted that Clemmons play a police officer, and Clemmons wasn’t too sure about that.
As he told the Huffington Post in an interview before the documentary's release, he considered police officers as the enemy at the time.
“It may sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but it was dangerous for me to want to be a policeman. Dangerous emotionally with my sense of who I am as a person ― a ghetto boy who grew up a bit afraid of policemen. Afraid to be alone with them. I knew the kinds of things they were capable of, not only from gossip but from having seen some things. So the idea that he wanted me to become one of them, one of the enemy, was a tremendous shock to me.”
That said, Rogers not only understood Clemmons’s perspective, but gave him a different way to look at the situation.
“He said, ‘You can become one of the helpers. There is something else that policemen do that we can emphasize.’ And it was incredibly positive. So I kind of sat back.”
The two then started a friendship and work partnership that lasted for decades and even saw the time that Clemmons would come out as gay. While Rogers was understanding and accepting, he asked that Clemmons keep it a secret between only them and those who needed to know.
“As we talked and as I shared with him that I felt I had to be in some personal areas a gay man, but there were other things about my life that I was going to get on with, he said, ‘Fine. You just cannot talk to the press. You can’t go on newspaper interviews, radio interviews, television or whatever and discuss in detail that you are a gay man.’ So whatever activities were happening in my sexual life had to be private. There were so many areas where I had deep satisfaction that I just completely forgot about that. It was no longer an issue.”
Despite how modern mentalities would look down on this revelation, François Clemmons says he didn’t mind it and understood where Rogers was coming from.
On top of that, he says that his time with Rogers was one of the best relationships he’d ever had. He will always remember how loved and uplifted he was by his dear friend.
“In my relationship with Fred, when I was in the studio and he was doing the ending that he does to the show, he often invited me. He’d say, ‘Come by the studio, François, and be with us. Be in this atmosphere.’ I didn’t realize how healing it was until later ― just to be around him. He said one day in his ending, ‘I like you just the way you are. And you know what? You make every day a special day just by being you, yourself.’ And he walked off the set. When he came around, the whole time his eyes were holding my eyes in like a hypnotic trance and I said, ‘Fred, were you talking to me?’ And he said, ‘Yes. I’ve been talking to you for two years, but you heard me today.’”