When Mr. Rogers Gave George Romero His First Paying Gig
It's hard to imagine a gentle, soft-spoken, children's education advocate like Fred Rogers sitting down to enjoy a gory, violent zombie movie like Dawn of the Dead. But it actually aligns perfectly with Rogers's brand of thoughtfulness—he checked out the flick to show his support for up-and-coming filmmaker George Romero, whose first paying job was with everyone's favorite neighbor.
“Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,” Romero said. As a young man just out of college, Romero honed his filmmaking skills making a series of short segments for Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, creating a dozen or so titles such as “How Lightbulbs Are Made” and “Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy.” The zombie king considers the latter his first big production, shot in a working hospital: “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”
Romero went on to create his zombie empire several years later, and he says Rogers was complimentary. "He came and loved it. He was always a huge supporter over the years." In fact, said Romero, Rogers called Dawn of the Dead “a lot of fun.” Although he supported Romero’s projects, Rogers wouldn’t compromise the image of his cast for them.
"I originally wanted a local actress named Betty Aberlin, who was Lady Aberlin on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood,” Romero told the Montreal Gazette. "He wouldn't allow that. I originally wanted to use her in the role of Barbra [in Night of the Living Dead] and Fred put his foot down and said no." (Though here, he says he wanted Aberlin to play Judy.)
Even so, Romero doesn’t begrudge Rogers the casting decision: “He was a beautiful guy. He was the sweetest man I ever knew. What you see is what you get. That was Fred. He was dedicated to educating kids and telling them ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. I like you just the way you are.’”