When François Clemmons first met minister-turned-childhood-educator Fred Rogers at a Good Friday service in the 1960s, he had no clue what was in store for him.
He caught the attention of the beloved TV personality while singing at the service. Enamored with Clemmons’ operatic voice, Rogers immediately asked him to join a then in-the-works educational kids program called “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The puppet-led program, he said, was billed as a children’s series aimed at delivering crucial life lessons to its youthful audience.
But Rogers not only wanted Clemmons to be on the show, Rogers wanted him to play a very particular character: the town policeman. As a black man who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, Clemmons said he was less than keen on accepting the role.
“It may sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but it was dangerous for me to play 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,” Clemmons told me over the phone ahead of the release of Morgan Neville’s new documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?”
“The idea that he wanted me to become one of them, one of the enemy, was a tremendous shock to me. Then, he painted it in a different light. He said, ‘You can become one of the helpers. There is something else that policemen do that we can emphasize.’”
“Fred was a very special man and he gave us all something we as human beings needed. Not something extraordinary that is rare, but love.”
This was something Rogers excelled at: taking a character, situation or event and using it to teach preschool-aged children lessons about their world ― a world which, much like today, was in desperate need of some kindness.
If you watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” you might be aware of a pivotal scene from an episode in 1969, in which Rogers soaks his feet alongside Clemmons’ in a kiddie pool on a hot day. It was a subtly symbolic moment ― segregation, specifically at pools, was still in place in many parts of the U.S. ― that culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ feet. Most young kids were probably unaware of the real weight the episode carried, its scriptural overtones, but the image of a white man tending to the needs of a black man was seared in their minds nonetheless.
The pair reprised the scene in their final episode together in 1993, with Clemmons singing “Many Ways To Say I Love You.” To him, it perfectly reflected Rogers’ soul. “We joined together in this spiritual destiny and that’s what bound us so strongly,” Clemmons said.
Throughout our conversation, Clemmons, 73, recounted his 25 years on the PBS program, his experience as the first African-American actor with a recurring role on a children’s TV series, the incredible bond he formed with the late Rogers and his struggle to come out as a gay black actor in the 1970s.
As a soon-to-be mom, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” made me feel all kinds of things. Have you seen it yet?
Oh yes. They were very kind to me. We were all in Pittsburgh together ― Joanne Rogers, Mr. McFeely (David Newell), Handyman Negri (Joe Negri) — and everybody got together and we watched it. We were also out in San Francisco ... and there are some activities that are going to take place that we’ll all be together again. It’s been a long time, but it’s been most enjoyable and inspiring to be together. We stopped filming back in 2000 or 1999. It’s been a long time. It’s wonderful to see everybody again.
What an emotional journey this film takes viewers on. Its focus on kindness and love, in a time when we’re often feeling the opposite, was really powerful.
Yes. Fred was a very special man and he gave us all something we, as human beings, needed. Not something extraordinary that is rare, but love. And he had it in abundance. He taught us how incredibly available it is. It’s all around us. We just have to make the decision to give love or to give judgment and criticism. He led us to understand how simple and easy it was to make that choice, over and over again. There are so many people who tell the story of how choosing love changed their lives. It certainly changed mine.
You surely stood out as someone for whom Fred cared deeply; there was a great love between the two of you. So let’s discuss your casting: Fred challenged racial stereotypes in media and gave children a new role model when he made you the neighborhood cop.
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. It just never crossed my mind to be a policeman. Then he painted it in a different light. 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.
He helped me to rethink the whole image of a policeman and the fact that there are times of great challenge and great difficulty ― storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, automobile accidents, when children get lost ― when the people who arrive first many times are the policemen. If they are seen as helpers rather than someone who’s going to cause more destruction or terror, it makes you turn to them. He said to me, “You want to be one of those people, François. You can help them to be calm, to compose themselves and to reach out and say, ‘This is what I need to be articulate.’” Sometimes young children are not able to remember even their names, their addresses, their phone numbers. But if they see you as a helper, they’ll be calm and they’ll trust you. That’s the kind of policeman children can trust. That meant a lot to me.
What was the response you got from the children? Did you ever get to meet any of the viewers in person?
Not so long ago, maybe a month ago, I actually got an email from a gentleman who said, “I am a black policeman today because of seeing you on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’” There are three or four websites dedicated to the legacy of Fred Rogers, and I participate in them up to a certain point. I don’t dominate them or anything like that but I’m just another member and I share my feelings and ideas about what the show meant to me. This person, I shared with them how difficult it was to make that transition but Fred helped me. This man said to me, “I’m glad to hear you say that ... I’m glad you did it.” Complete strangers, all my adult life, have said that to me.
Officer Clemmons has meant something special to them, not just because I’m a policeman but also because I’m a singing policeman. I sang all kinds of songs on the program. I sang for Queen Sarah, so she would invite me to the castle. I’d have my uniform on. I was all prepared to be of help or I would celebrate a special occasion with an appropriate song. So a lot of people say, “I started singing because I saw you singing on ‘Mister Rogers.’” Sometimes they’d say, “I like classical music because I heard you singing it first.” Now I never had a million records sell, but I’ve sung to millions and millions of people. I find that ironic, don’t you?
Yes, not only did you inspire so many children to grow up and maybe consider becoming a police officer, you inspired them to be opera singers!
That’s exactly what I mean. Fred Rogers made it possible for me to reach an audience that I never would have reached otherwise, never.
He loved me singing American Negro Spirituals. He often would say to me, “François, would you sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ or would you sing ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead?‘” Then on the program I sang songs by Mozart, by Bach, by George Gershwin, whatever I wanted to sing. Franz Schubert, whatever it was that I was working on for my concert repertoire, I would sing those songs on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So the kids got to hear what you would call legitimate repertoire. Fred really just encouraged me to do those kinds of engagements and to bring that repertoire to the neighborhood.
Once again, the thing that always surprised me is how many in the video television media heard me sing, but I never had a top 10 solo song or career or anything like that. But everybody knows my voice. I can walk into a store here in Middlebury [Vermont, where he lives and works] or something and sing a song and people say, “I know that voice.”
And you’re like, “It’s me, François ‘DivaMan’ Clemmons,” which is what your email signature is.
Well, they started calling me that about 15 or 20 years ago. Diva, diva, diva, diva, diva. In fact, Fred used to sometimes say, “Oh, here comes our diva!” [Laughs] But he was teasing when he called me that. It was the best kind of teasing, so I didn’t mind.
There is a part in the film where you talk about how you came out to Fred, and that maybe he wanted you to stay silent about your sexuality. Can you talk about the juxtaposition of him allowing you to be your true self on screen, but also asking you to remain quiet about something so personal?
What you have to understand is that sex is only one part of how you express yourself. It’s not the total of what the person is or what I am. There are other aspects of my personality that I have free rein of. He loved me.
He had a great sense of humor. We all talk about that, but everyone didn’t really get to see how he could tease you, and he allowed you to tease him. I’d tease him about how dreadful he sang. He had this Sprechstimme, which is a German word for speaking and singing. Generally speaking, it’s not a pleasant or beautiful or bel canto sound. Well, that’s what Fred was.
It must be special to know that you had a certain relationship. What did that mean to have a friend on set in that way?
The most important thing was he made it very clear to me that he loved me. Exclamation marks. Whatever decision I made, I would always be a part of his life. That was a powerful way of saying, “You make the decision and we will live with it.” He wasn’t saying, “You make the decision and if you make the wrong one, get out.” 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.
“Had I been an openly gay person on 'Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,' that would have been the end of the program before it began ...”
You’ve said it was about the economics of the show, not really about ...
Well, I mean, I’m not crazy and I understood. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, from the time I was 5 until I went to Oberlin for my Bachelor’s ― and that’s the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt people really, as much as they talk about love and the life of Christ, they don’t love gay people. And I know that. I knew it. So I understood that if a gay person was on television, they were not going to watch that program. They were going to do everything they could to shut it down.
Had I been an openly gay person on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that would have been the end of the program before it began, especially in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, all the way down to Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama. That swath of America would never tolerate an openly gay man, especially on a children’s television program. I understood that. They could see the sponsor’s fears. Johnson & Johnson, I suppose. PBS in those days probably would have withdrawn their support for a children’s television program that had an openly gay person on it.
I keep stressing that because it was particularly more difficult to be openly gay on a children’s television program than in an adult program, which happened much later on several programs.
Do you think Fred would have reacted differently, say, if the show was still on in 2018?
I would hope that he would respond differently, but I don’t know that. I really don’t. I would hope so. It certainly has been proven that having a gay person on a television program does not mean that’s the end of the program. It just doesn’t. Particularly with the shows that are on cable that deal very openly, very intelligently, very sensibly, very creatively with gay people in all kinds of roles. And actors and actresses are coming out all the time and saying, “I’m a gay person.”
I’m very happy. I’m very proud of what I’ve done but I’ve also been kind of under the radar. I guess you can understand the subtlety of what I’m saying. Because I did not come out, it allowed me to do my good works incognito.
Yes, I understand.
You never see my picture on Page Six like Donald Trump, or you never saw me splattered on the front pages of one of those magazines when you’re in the grocery line ...
Yes, the tabloids never, ever turned on to my personal life. I had the weight of race on my shoulders. I knew it. I understood it. I accepted it. It was a burden, but it was also a deep spiritual responsibility not to “mess” up. I’m using that word instead of the F-word. I took that responsibility very seriously. I’m not a frivolous person.
The one image that really sticks out in my mind for you is, of course, you and Fred with your feet in the kiddie pool.
That’s right. It really meant as much as it seems to people. People have been talking to me about that for the last 20 or 25 years, all across the country. Interviewers have come here to my home. We have sat and we have talked for hours and hours and hours because, for some Christians, it presents quite a challenge that Fred performed a very symbolic act, a physical act, with a black gay man. I represent what you would call Peter in the Bible among the disciples who did not want Jesus to wash his feet. The implication that a black gay man had some of the characteristics of Peter, is very difficult for some Christians, particularly for white Christians, to accept.
I didn’t mean to get into a Biblical discussion with you about that because it’s very complicated and there are different ways of interpreting those Biblical scriptures. But that scene was something Fred felt was so powerful, he filmed it twice, not once. It was not casual or accidental. He meant what he was saying.
When he came to you with the idea for that scene, what were your feelings on it? Especially in the ’60s with all that was going on in terms of segregation ...
I was primarily concerned with racism and the whole idea of civil rights and integration in America. So that was my first line of defense: “We have to deal with this in some kind of way, Fred.” He was not the one to go out on a line and march and hold signs and protest. I was, but he wasn’t. And I did my share of protesting. In the beginning I thought of it in that context almost exclusively. Fred and I had a lot of time, a lot of opportunity for talking and for listening and exchanging what we felt our spiritual life was. That is one of the things that people tend to discount ― that we were spiritual partners.
I’m not airing dirty laundry, but people were fascinated and many times in awe of our intense personal bond. “Why in the world does Fred care so much for François? What is it about those two?” We were the least likely good buddies. I’m the extrovert. He’s the introvert. But when we met, the chemistry happened. It was spiritual in nature and it had to do with our deep beliefs in God that we were accepting a cosmic destiny appointment ― a cosmic appointment and a job to do.
With that in mind, Fred always says at the end of his shows, “I like you just the way you are.” But in the documentary, there was a time that you felt like he was looking directly at you. Can you talk about that?
You have to realize that I was 20 something years younger than Fred. I’m the ghetto guy and he’s the person who was born with incredible privilege. So we were exchanging life experiences. I had to bring him over to look over my side of the fence, and he brought me over to look over his side of the fence. We gave each other a very, very rich understanding that we’re just people on both sides. I had not received the kind of loving and nurturing a healthy child should have, so when I was in graduate school, I was on a journey to discover who I really am and how to comfort and heal this wounded boy.
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.“
Wow. Well, I hope that more and more people put you in those tabloids after this because you were a shining star of the documentary.
Oh, please! [Laughs] You know, that’s so funny you should say that. I was teasing Morgan [Neville, the director], Joanne and those other guys in Pittsburgh. I said, “Somebody nominated me for the Best Supporting Actor of a documentary.” They said, “There’s no such category!” [Laughs] Documentaries don’t get that kind of attention. So I have to live with that. I’m OK.
“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is now in select theaters.