With Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, Fred Rogers invited viewers into a world of his creation. But as anyone who was touched by the show can tell you, that land of make-believe was the source of many meaningful real-life moments. Not just for the audience, but also for those who helped make it.
François Clemmons, who played series regular Officer Clemmons, recently sat down with friend Karl Lindholm to record an interview for StoryCorps. Their short talk is deeply illuminating and moving, and reaffirms everything you already knew about Rogers as a force for good in children’s television (and the world).
Rogers first approached Clemmons in 1968 after hearing him sing in church. Clemmons was a graduate student at the time and hesitated when Rogers asked him to join the show. He accepted upon finding out it was a paying gig, and became the first African American with a recurring role on a children’s series.
Clemmons was on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood for the next 25 years as he concurrently maintained a career as a professional singer, but another point of contention almost kept the role from happening. Clemmons told Lindholm that when Rogers suggested he play a police officer, “That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto, and I did not have a positive opinion of police officers.”
Even after inhabiting the role, the actor wasn’t sure his portrayal would have a positive influence, but says in the interview that he was proven wrong. He also says that in Rogers, he found a “friend for life.”
“One day I was watching him film a session, and you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off and hangs up his sweater and he says ‘You make every day a special day, just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.’ I was looking at him when he was saying that and he walks over to where I was standing, and I said, ‘Fred, were you talking to me?’ And he said, ‘Yes, I have been talking to you for years, but you heard me today.’”
Listen to the full interview below. You can also watch a memorable scene with Clemmons and Rogers here. (Word to the wise: Have some Kleenex ready.)