How A Gay Ghetto Boy Bonded With Mister Rogers And Changed The Neighborhood

Whenever Franç ois Clemmons first fulfilled minister-turned-childhood-educator  Fred Rogers   at a Good Fri service in the 1960s,   he previously no clue what was in store to get him.

He caught the attention of the  beloved TV character   while singing on the service. Enamored with Clemmons’ operatic voice, Rogers immediately asked your pet to join a then in-the-works academic kids program called “ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood . ” The puppet-led program, he or she said, was billed as a children’ s series aimed at delivering important life lessons to its vibrant audience.

But Rogers not only wanted Clemmons to be on the show, Rogers wanted your pet to play a very particular character: the city policeman. As a black man which grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, Clemmons said he was less than interested in accepting the role.  

“ It might sound like I’ m being excessively dramatic, but it was dangerous to play a policeman. Dangerous psychologically with my sense of whom I am as a person ― the ghetto boy who grew up a little afraid of policemen. Afraid to be by yourself with them, ” Clemmons told me within the phone ahead of the release of Morgan Neville’ s new documentary on Fred Rogers , “ Won’ t A person Be My Neighbor? ”  

“ The idea that he wanted me to be one of them, one of the enemy, was a incredible shock to me. Then, he coated it in a different light. He or she said, ‘ You can become among the helpers. There is something else that cop do that we can emphasize. ’ ”  

James was a very special man and gave us all something we since human beings needed. Not something amazing that is rare, but love. Franç ois Clemmons

This was some thing Rogers excelled at: taking a personality, situation or event and using it to teach preschool-aged children lessons regarding their world ― a world which usually, much like today, was in desperate require of some kindness.  

If you viewed “ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ”   you might be aware of a crucial scene from an episode   in 1969, in which Rogers soaks his feet alongside Clemmons’ within a kiddie pool on a hot time.   It was a subtly representational moment ―   segregation, specifically at private pools, was still in place in many components of the U. H. ― that culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ feet. The majority of young kids were probably unaware of the actual weight the episode carried, the scriptural overtones, but the image of the white man tending to the needs of the black man was seared within their minds nonetheless.

The particular pair reprised the scene in their final episode collectively in 1993, with Clemmons performing “ Many Ways To Say I really like You. ” To him, this perfectly reflected Rogers’ soul.   “ We joined together with this spiritual destiny and that’ ersus what bound us so highly, ” Clemmons said.  

Throughout the conversation,   Clemmons, 73, recounted his 25 years on the PBS system, his experience as the first African-American actor with a recurring role on the children’ s TV series, the amazing bond he formed with the past due Rogers and his struggle to come out like a gay black actor in the 1972s.

As a soon-to-be mother, “ Won’ t You Become My Neighbor” made me really feel all kinds of things. Have you seen this yet?  

Oh yes. These were very kind to me. We were all of the in Pittsburgh together ― Joanne Rogers, Mr. McFeely (David Newell), Handyman Negri (Joe Negri) — and everybody got together and we viewed it. We were also out within San Francisco… and there are some activities that will take place that we’ ll all of be together again. It’ t been a long time, but it’ ersus been most enjoyable and uplifting to be together. We stopped recording back in 2000 or 1999. It’ s been a long time. It’ s i9000 wonderful to see everybody again.

Exactly what an emotional journey this movie takes viewers on. Its concentrate on kindness and love, in a period when we’ re often sensation the opposite,   was really powerful.

Indeed. Fred was a very special guy and he gave us all something we all, as human beings, needed. Not some thing extraordinary that is rare, but enjoy. And he had it in abundance. He or she taught us how incredibly offered it is. It’ s all around us. All of us just have to make the decision to give love or give judgment and criticism. This individual led us to understand how quick and easy it was to make that choice, repeatedly. There are so many people who tell the story showing how choosing love changed their lifestyles. It certainly changed mine.

A person surely stood out as somebody for whom Fred cared significantly; there was a great love between the both of you. So let’ s discuss your own casting: Fred challenged racial stereotypes in media and gave kids a new role model when this individual made you the neighborhood cop.  

It may sound like I’ m becoming overly dramatic, but it was harmful for me to want to be a policeman. Harmful emotionally with my sense associated with who I am as a person ― a ghetto boy who were raised a bit afraid of policemen. Afraid to become alone with them. I knew the particular kinds of things they were capable of, not just from gossip but from seeing some things. So the idea that this individual wanted me to become one of them, among the enemy, was a tremendous shock in my opinion. It just never crossed our mind to be a policeman. Then he colored it in a different light. He or she said, “ You can become among the helpers. There is something else that peace officer do that we can emphasize. ” And yes it was incredibly positive. So I type of sat back.

He helped me to re-think the whole image of a policeman as well as the fact that there are times of great challenge plus great difficulty ― storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods,   automobile accidents, whenever children get lost ― when the those who arrive first many times are the peace officer. If they are seen as helpers rather than somebody who’ s going to cause a lot more destruction or terror, it makes a person turn to them. He said to me personally, “ You want to be one of those people, Franç ois. You can help them to end up being calm, to compose themselves and also to reach out and say, ‘ This is exactly what I need to be articulate. ’ ” Sometimes young children are not able to remember actually their names, their addresses, their own phone numbers. But if they see you being a helper, they’ ll be relaxed and they’ ll trust a person. That’ s the kind of policeman kids can trust. That meant a great deal to me.

What was the response you have from the children? Did you actually get to meet any of the viewers personally?

Not so long ago, maybe a month back, I actually got an email from a guy who said, “ I am the black policeman today because of viewing you on ‘ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. ’ ” There are three to four websites dedicated to the legacy associated with Fred Rogers, and I participate in all of them up to a certain point. I don’ t dominate them or anything at all like that but I’ m yet another member and I share my emotions and ideas about what the display meant to me. This person, I actually shared with them how difficult it had been to make that transition but Sally helped me. This man said to myself, “ I’ m glad to know you say that… I’ m pleased you did it. ” Complete other people, all my adult life, have declared that to me.

Officer Clemmons has meant some thing special to them, not just because I’ m a policeman but also due to the fact I’ m a singing cop. I sang all kinds of songs televised on the series. I sang for Queen Dorothy, so she would invite me towards the castle. I’ d have our uniform on. I was all ready to be of help or I would enjoy a special occasion with an appropriate track. So a lot of people say, “ I actually started singing because I saw a person singing on ‘ Mister Rogers. ’ ” Sometimes they’ deb say, “ I like classical songs because I heard you performing it first. ” Now I in no way had a million records sell, yet I’ ve sung to untold millions of people. I find that ironic, don’ t you?

Yes, not only do you inspire so many children to develop up and maybe consider becoming a officer, you inspired them to be ie singers!

That’ s exactly what After all. Fred Rogers made it possible for me personally to reach an audience that I never ever would have reached otherwise, never.

He adored me singing American Negro Spirituals. He often would say to myself, “ Franç ois, would you perform ‘ Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, ’ or would you sing ‘ There Is a Balm in Gilead? ‘ ” Then on the program I did songs by Mozart, by Bach, by George Gershwin, whatever I needed to sing. Franz Schubert, no matter what it was that I was working on just for my concert repertoire, I would perform those songs on “ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. ” So the children got to hear what you would call genuine repertoire. Fred really just prompted me to do those kinds of events and to bring that repertoire towards the neighborhood.

Once again, the thing that always surprised me personally is how many in the video tv media heard me sing, yet I never had a top 10 single song or career or something like that. But everybody knows my tone of voice. I can walk into a store here in Middlebury [Vermont, where he lives and  works ] or some thing and sing a song and individuals say, “ I know that tone of voice. ”

And you’ re such as, “ It’ s me, Franç ois ‘ DivaMan’ Clemmons, ” which is what your email personal is.

Well, they started phoning me that about 15 or even 20 years ago. Great, diva, diva, diva, diva . In fact , Fred used to sometimes state, “ Oh, here comes our own diva! ” [ Laughs ] But he was teasing whenever he called me that. It had been the best kind of teasing, so I didn’ t mind.

Fotografias International via Getty Images
A portrait of Sally Rogers posing with a toy cart on the set of his television show “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” in the 1980s.

There is a part in the film to talk about how you came out to James, and that maybe he wanted you to definitely stay silent about your libido. Can you talk about the juxtaposition associated with him allowing you to be your genuine self on screen, but also requesting to remain quiet about something therefore personal?

What you have to understand is that will sex is only one part of the way you express yourself. It’ s not the entire of what the person is or even what I am. There are other aspects of the personality that I have free control of. He loved me.

He had an excellent sense of humor. We all talk about that, yet everyone didn’ t really view how he could tease you, and allowed you to tease him. I’ d tease him about how awful he sang. He had this Sprechstimme , which is a German born word for speaking and performing. Generally speaking, it’ s not a pleasurable or beautiful or bel canto sound. Well, that’ s exactly what Fred was.

It must be special that you had a certain relationship. What do that mean to have a friend on emerge that way?

The most important thing was he caused it to be very clear to me that he loved myself. Exclamation marks . Whatever decision I made, I might always be a part of his life. Which was a powerful way of saying, “ A person make the decision and we will live with it. ” He wasn’ t saying, “ You make the decision and if you associated with wrong one, get out. ” Even as we talked and as I shared with your pet that I felt I had to be in several personal areas a gay guy, but there were other things about my entire life that I was going to get on with, he mentioned, “ Fine. You just cannot speak with the press. You can’ capital t go on newspaper interviews, radio selection interviews, television or whatever and talk about in detail that you are a gay guy. ” So whatever activities had been happening in my sexual life needed to be private. There were so many areas where I had fashioned deep satisfaction that I just totally forgot about that. It was no longer a problem.

Had I actually been an openly gay individual on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ‘ that would have been the end of the plan before it began… Franç ois Clemmons

You’ ve said it was about the economics from the show, not really about…

Well, I am talking about, I’ m not crazy and am understood. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, from the time I was five until I went to Oberlin meant for my Bachelor’ s ― plus that’ s the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt people actually, as much as they talk about love as well as the life of Christ, they don’ t love gay people. And am know that. I knew it. Therefore i understood that if a gay individual was on television, they were not going to view that program. They were going to perform everything they could to shut this down.

Had I been an freely gay person on “ Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, ” that would are already the end of the program before this began, especially in Ohio, Indiana, The state of illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, all the way down to Atlanta, Mississippi, Alabama. That swath associated with America would never tolerate an freely gay man, especially on a children’ s television program. I grasped that. They could see the sponsor’ h fears. Johnson & Johnson, Perhaps. PBS in those days probably would have taken their support for a children’ s i9000 television program that had an freely gay person on it.

I keep worrying that because it was particularly harder to be openly gay on a children’ s television program than in a grown-up program, which happened much afterwards several programs.

Do you think Fred might have reacted differently, say, if the display was still on in 2018?

I would hope that he would react differently, but I don’ to know that. I really don’ t. I might hope so. It certainly continues to be proven that having a gay individual on a television program does not mean that’ s the end of the program. This just doesn’ t. Particularly with all the shows that are on cable that offer very openly, very intelligently, really sensibly, very creatively with gay and lesbian people in all kinds of roles. Plus actors and actresses are being released all the time and saying, “ I’ m a gay person. ”

I’ m very happy. I’ m quite proud of what I’ ve completed but I’ ve also been type of under the radar. I guess you can be familiar with subtlety of what I’ meters saying. Because I did not turn out, it allowed me to do the good works incognito.

Yes, I realize.  

You never see my image on Page Six like Jesse Trump, or you never saw myself splattered on the front pages of just one of those magazines when you’ lso are in the grocery line…

The tabloids.

Yes, the tabloids never, actually turned on to my personal life. I had formed the weight of race on the shoulders. I knew it. We understood it. I accepted this. It was a burden, but it was also the deep spiritual responsibility not to “ mess” up. I’ m making use of that word instead of the F-word. I actually took that responsibility very significantly. I’ m not a frivolous individual.

The one image that really sticks out within my mind for you is, of course , both you and Fred with your feet in the kiddie pool.  

That’ s correct. It really meant as much as it seems to the people. People have been talking to me about this for the last 20 or 25 years, all over the country. Interviewers have come here to a home. We have sat and we have got talked for hours and hours and hours mainly because, for some Christians, it presents a serious challenge that Fred performed an extremely symbolic act, a physical react, with a black gay man. We represent what you would call Peter within the Bible among the disciples who failed to want Jesus to wash his ft. The implication that a black homosexual man had some of the characteristics associated with Peter, is very difficult for some Christian believers, particularly for white Christians, to simply accept.

I actually didn’ t mean to get into the Biblical discussion with you about that mainly because it’ s very complicated plus there are different ways of interpreting individuals Biblical scriptures. But that picture was something Fred felt had been so powerful, he filmed this twice, not once. It was not really casual or accidental. He designed what he was saying.

Whenever he came to you with the concept for that scene, what were your emotions on it? Especially in the ’ 60s using that was going on in terms of segregation…

I used to be primarily concerned with racism and the entire idea of civil rights and incorporation in America. So that was my initial line of defense: “ We have to cope with this in some kind of way, Wendy. ” He was not the one to visit out on a line and mar and hold signs and demonstration. I was, but he wasn’ capital t. And I did my share associated with protesting. In the beginning I thought of it in this context almost exclusively. Fred and am had a lot of time, a lot of chance for talking and for listening and swapping what we felt our spiritual living was. That is one of the things that people often discount ― that we were religious partners.  

I’ m not dialectic dirty laundry, but people were intrigued and many times in awe of our own intense personal bond. “ The reason why in the world does Fred care a lot for Franç ois? What is it regarding those two? ” We were minimal likely good buddies. I’ meters the extrovert. He’ s the particular introvert. But when we met, the particular chemistry happened. It was spiritual within nature and it had to do with our serious beliefs in God that we had been accepting a cosmic destiny visit ― a cosmic appointment plus a job to do.

Francois Clemmons
Franç ois Clemmons.

W ith that in mind, Fred often says at the end of his shows, “ I like you just the way you are. ” But in the documentary, there was a period that you felt like he was searching directly at you. Can you discuss that?

You have to realize that I was twenty something years younger than Sally. I’ m the ghetto man and he’ s the person who came to be with incredible privilege. So we had been exchanging life experiences. I had to create him over to look over my aspect of the fence, and he brought myself over to look over his side from the fence. We gave each other an extremely, very rich understanding that we’ lso are just people on both sides. I had developed not received the kind of loving plus nurturing a healthy child should have, then when I was in graduate school, I used to be on a journey to discover who I seriously am and how to comfort and cure this wounded boy.

In my relationship along with Fred, when I was in the facilities and he was doing the ending which he does to the show, he frequently invited me. He’ d state, “ Come by the studio, Franç ois, and be with us. Be in this particular atmosphere. ” I didn’ capital t realize how healing it was till later ― just to be close to him. He said one day in the ending, “ I like you just how you are. And you know what? You create every day a special day just by becoming you, yourself. ” And he strolled off the set. When he arrived around, the whole time his eye were holding my eyes in just like a hypnotic trance and I said, “ Fred, were you talking to myself? ” And he said, “ Indeed. I’ ve been talking to a person for two years, but you heard me personally today. “

Wow. Well, I really hope that more and more people put you within those tabloids after this because you had been a shining star of the documented.

Oh, please! [ Laughs ] You know, that’ s so humorous you should say that. I was teasing Morgan [Neville, the director], Joanne and those additional guys in Pittsburgh. I mentioned, “ Somebody nominated me to find the best Supporting Actor of a documentary. ” They said, “ There’ s simply no such category! ” [Laughs] Documentaries don’ t obtain that kind of attention. So I need to live with that. I’ m OKAY.

“ Won’ t You End up being My Neighbor? ” is now within select theaters.