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

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When François Clemmons first met minister-turned-childhood-educator Fred Rogers at a Good Friday service within the 1960s, he had no clue what was in retailer for him.

He caught the eye of the beloved TV personality whereas singing on the service. Enamored with Clemmons’ operatic voice, Rogers instantly requested him to hitch a then in-the-works academic youngsters program referred to as “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” The puppet-led program, he stated, was billed as a kids’s collection geared toward delivering essential life classes to its youthful viewers.

But Rogers not solely needed Clemmons to be on the present, Rogers needed him to play a really specific character: the city policeman. As a black man who grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, Clemmons stated he was lower than eager on accepting the function. 

“It could sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but it surely was harmful for me to play a policeman. Dangerous emotionally with my sense of who I’m as an individual ― a ghetto boy who grew up a bit afraid of policemen. Afraid to be alone with them,” Clemmons instructed me over the telephone forward of the discharge of Morgan Neville’s new documentary on Fred Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” 

“The concept that he needed me to grow to be considered one of them, one of many enemy, was an amazing shock to me. Then, he painted it in a unique gentle. He stated, ‘You can grow to be one of many helpers. There is one thing else that policemen try this we will emphasize.’” 

Fred was a really particular man and he gave us all one thing we as human beings wanted. Not one thing extraordinary that’s uncommon, however love.
François Clemmons

This was one thing Rogers excelled at: taking a personality, scenario or occasion and using it to teach preschool-aged children lessons about their world ― a world which, very similar to at this time, was in determined want of some kindness. 

If you watched “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” you may pay attention to a pivotal scene from an episode in 1969, through which Rogers soaks his toes alongside Clemmons’ in a kiddie pool on a sizzling day. It was a subtly symbolic second ― segregation, specifically at pools, was still in place in many parts of the U.S. ― that culminated with Rogers drying off Clemmons’ toes. Most younger youngsters have been most likely unaware of the true weight the episode carried, its scriptural overtones, however the picture of a white man tending to the wants of a black man was seared of their minds nonetheless.

The pair reprised the scene of their last episode collectively in 1993, with Clemmons singing “Many Ways To Say I Love You.” To him, it completely mirrored Rogers’ soul. “We joined collectively on this religious future and that’s what certain us so strongly,” Clemmons stated. 

Throughout our dialog, Clemmons, 73, recounted his 25 years on the PBS program, his expertise as the primary African-American actor with a recurring function on a kids’s TV collection, the unbelievable bond he shaped with the late Rogers and his battle to come back out as a homosexual black actor within the 1970s.

As a soon-to-be mother, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor” made me really feel every kind of issues. Have you seen it but? 

Oh sure. They have been very type to me. We have been all in Pittsburgh collectively ― Joanne Rogers, Mr. McFeely (David Newell), Handyman Negri (Joe Negri) — and all people received collectively and we watched it. We have been additionally out in San Francisco … and there are some actions which can be going to happen that we’ll all be collectively once more. It’s been a very long time, but it surely’s been most pleasant and provoking to be collectively. We stopped filming again in 2000 or 1999. It’s been a very long time. It’s fantastic to see all people once more.

What an emotional journey this movie takes viewers on. Its give attention to kindness and love, in a time after we’re usually feeling the other, was actually highly effective.

Yes. Fred was a really particular man and he gave us all one thing we, as human beings, wanted. Not one thing extraordinary that’s uncommon, however love. And he had it in abundance. He taught us how extremely out there it’s. It’s throughout us. We simply must make the choice to provide love or to provide judgment and criticism. He led us to grasp how easy and simple it was to make that selection, over and over. There are so many individuals who inform the story of how selecting love modified their lives. It actually modified mine.

You absolutely stood out as somebody for whom Fred cared deeply; there was an awesome love between the 2 of you. So let’s talk about your casting: Fred challenged racial stereotypes in media and gave kids a brand new function mannequin when he made you the neighborhood cop. 

It could sound like I’m being overly dramatic, but it surely was harmful for me to need to be a policeman. Dangerous emotionally with my sense of who I’m as an individual ― a ghetto boy who grew up a bit afraid of policemen. Afraid to be alone with them. I knew the sorts of issues they have been able to, not solely from gossip however from having seen some issues. So the concept he needed me to grow to be considered one of them, one of many enemy, was an amazing shock to me. It simply by no means crossed my thoughts to be a policeman. Then he painted it in a unique gentle. He stated, “You can grow to be one of many helpers. There is one thing else that policemen try this we will emphasize.” And it was extremely constructive. So I form of sat again.

He helped me to rethink the entire picture of a policeman and the truth that there are occasions of nice problem and nice issue ― storms, hurricanes, tornadoes, floods, vehicle accidents, when kids get misplaced ― when the individuals who arrive first many occasions are the policemen. If they’re seen as helpers moderately than somebody who’s going to trigger extra destruction or terror, it makes you flip to them. He stated to me, “You need to be a kind of individuals, François. You might help them to be calm, to compose themselves and to achieve out and say, ‘This is what I have to be articulate.’” Sometimes younger kids should not capable of bear in mind even their names, their addresses, their telephone numbers. But in the event that they see you as a helper, they’ll be calm they usually’ll belief you. That’s the form of policeman kids can belief. That meant loads to me.

What was the response you bought from the kids? Did you ever get to satisfy any of the viewers in particular person?

Not so way back, possibly a month in the past, I truly received an e-mail from a gentleman who stated, “I’m a black policeman at this time due to seeing you on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.’” There are three or 4 web sites devoted to the legacy of Fred Rogers, and I take part in them as much as a sure level. I don’t dominate them or something like that however I’m simply one other member and I share my emotions and concepts about what the present meant to me. This particular person, I shared with them how troublesome it was to make that transition however Fred helped me. This man stated to me, “I’m glad to listen to you say that … I’m glad you probably did it.” Complete strangers, all my grownup life, have stated that to me.

Officer Clemmons has meant one thing particular to them, not simply because I’m a policeman but additionally as a result of I’m a singing policeman. I sang every kind of songs on this system. I sang for Queen Sarah, so she would invite me to the fort. I’d have my uniform on. I used to be all ready to be of assist or I might have fun a special day with an acceptable tune. So lots of people say, “I began singing as a result of I noticed you singing on ‘Mister Rogers.’” Sometimes they’d say, “I like classical music as a result of I heard you singing it first.” Now I by no means had one million data promote, however I’ve sung to tens of millions and tens of millions of individuals. I discover that ironic, don’t you?

Yes, not solely did you encourage so many kids to develop up and possibly contemplate changing into a police officer, you impressed them to be opera singers!

That’s precisely what I imply. Fred Rogers made it doable for me to achieve an viewers that I by no means would have reached in any other case, by no means.

He liked me singing American Negro Spirituals. He usually would say to me, “François, would you sing ‘Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,’ or would you sing ‘There Is a Balm in Gilead?‘” Then on this system I sang songs by Mozart, by Bach, by George Gershwin, no matter I needed to sing. Franz Schubert, no matter it was that I used to be engaged on for my live performance repertoire, I might sing these songs on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” So the youngsters received to listen to what you’d name respectable repertoire. Fred actually simply inspired me to do these sorts of engagements and to carry that repertoire to the neighborhood.

Once once more, the factor that all the time stunned me is what number of within the video tv media heard me sing, however I by no means had a prime 10 solo tune or profession or something like that. But all people is aware of my voice. I can stroll right into a retailer right here in Middlebury [Vermont, the place he lives and works] or one thing and sing a tune and folks say, “I do know that voice.”

And you’re like, “It’s me, François ‘DivaMan’ Clemmons,” which is what your e-mail signature is.

Well, they began calling me that about 15 or 20 years in the past. Diva, diva, diva, diva, diva. In reality, Fred used to typically say, “Oh, right here comes our diva!” [Laughs] But he was teasing when he referred to as me that. It was one of the best form of teasing, so I didn’t thoughts.

There is a component within the movie the place you discuss the way you got here out to Fred, and that possibly he needed you to remain silent about your sexuality. Can you speak concerning the juxtaposition of him permitting you to be your true self on display, but additionally asking you to stay quiet about one thing so private?

What you must perceive is that intercourse is just one a part of the way you specific your self. It’s not the full of what the particular person is or what I’m. There are different features of my character that I’ve free rein of. He liked me.

He had an awesome humorousness. We all discuss that, however everybody didn’t actually get to see how he might 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 phrase for talking and singing. Generally talking, it’s not a pleasing or stunning or bel canto sound. Well, that’s what Fred was.

It have to be particular to know that you just had a sure relationship. What did that imply to have a buddy on set in that means?

The most necessary factor was he made it very clear to me that he liked me. Exclamation marks. Whatever determination I made, I might all the time be part of his life. That was a strong means of claiming, “You make the choice and we’ll stay with it.” He wasn’t saying, “You make the choice and when you make the incorrect one, get out.” As we talked and as I shared with him that I felt I needed to be in some private areas a homosexual man, however there have been different issues about my life that I used to be going to get on with, he stated, “Fine. You simply can not speak to the press. You can’t go on newspaper interviews, radio interviews, tv or no matter and talk about intimately that you’re a homosexual man.” So no matter actions have been occurring in my sexual life needed to be personal. There have been so many areas the place I had deep satisfaction that I simply utterly forgot about that. It was not a problem.

Had I been an overtly homosexual particular person on ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,’ that may have been the top of this system earlier than it started …
François Clemmons

You’ve stated it was concerning the economics of the present, probably not about …

Well, I imply, I’m not loopy and I understood. I grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, from the time I used to be 5 till I went to Oberlin for my Bachelor’s ― and that’s the Bible Belt. The Bible Belt individuals actually, as a lot as they discuss love and the lifetime of Christ, they don’t love homosexual individuals. And I do know that. I knew it. So I understood that if a homosexual particular person was on tv, they weren’t going to look at that program. They have been going to do every little thing they may to close it down.

Had I been an overtly homosexual particular person on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” that may have been the top of this system earlier than it started, particularly in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, all the way in which all the way down to Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama. That swath of America would by no means tolerate an overtly homosexual man, particularly on a kids’s tv program. I understood that. They might see the sponsor’s fears. Johnson & Johnson, I suppose. PBS in these days most likely would have withdrawn their assist for a kids’s tv program that had an overtly homosexual particular person on it.

I preserve stressing that as a result of it was notably tougher to be overtly homosexual on a kids’s tv program than in an grownup program, which occurred a lot in a while a number of applications.

Do you assume Fred would have reacted in another way, say, if the present was nonetheless on in 2018?

I might hope that he would reply in another way, however I don’t know that. I actually don’t. I might hope so. It actually has been confirmed that having a homosexual particular person on a tv program doesn’t imply that’s the top of this system. It simply doesn’t. Particularly with the reveals which can be on cable that deal very overtly, very intelligently, very sensibly, very creatively with homosexual individuals in every kind of roles. And actors and actresses are popping out on a regular basis and saying, “I’m a homosexual particular person.”

I’m very joyful. I’m very happy with what I’ve achieved however I’ve additionally been form of below the radar. I suppose you possibly can perceive the subtlety of what I’m saying. Because I didn’t come out, it allowed me to do my good works incognito.

You by no means see my image on Page Six like Donald Trump, otherwise you by no means noticed me splattered on the entrance pages of a kind of magazines while you’re within the grocery line …

Yes, the tabloids by no means, ever turned on to my private life. I had the burden of race on my shoulders. I knew it. I understood it. I accepted it. It was a burden, but it surely was additionally a deep religious accountability to not “mess” up. I’m utilizing that phrase as a substitute of the F-word. I took that accountability very severely. I’m not a frivolous particular person.

The one picture that actually stands out in my thoughts for you is, after all, you and Fred together with your toes within the kiddie pool. 

That’s proper. It actually meant as a lot because it appears to individuals. People have been speaking to me about that for the final 20 or 25 years, all throughout the nation. Interviewers have come right here to my dwelling. We have sat and we now have talked for hours and hours and hours as a result of, for some Christians, it presents fairly a problem that Fred carried out a really symbolic act, a bodily act, with a black homosexual man. I characterize what you’d name Peter within the Bible among the many disciples who didn’t need Jesus to scrub his toes. The implication black homosexual man had among the traits of Peter, could be very troublesome for some Christians, notably for white Christians, to just accept.

I didn’t imply to get right into a Biblical dialogue with you about that as a result of it’s very sophisticated and there are other ways of decoding these Biblical scriptures. But that scene was one thing Fred felt was so highly effective, he filmed it twice, not as soon as. It was not informal or unintentional. He meant what he was saying.

When he got here to you with the concept for that scene, what have been your emotions on it? Especially within the ’60s with all that was happening when it comes to segregation …

I used to be primarily involved with racism and the entire concept of civil rights and integration in America. So that was my first line of protection: “We must cope with this in some form of means, Fred.” He was not the one to exit on a line and march and maintain indicators and protest. I used to be, however he wasn’t. And I did my share of protesting. In the start I considered it in that context nearly completely. Fred and I had loads of time, loads of alternative for speaking and for listening and exchanging what we felt our religious life was. That is among the issues that individuals are inclined to low cost ― that we have been religious companions. 

I’m not airing soiled laundry, however individuals have been fascinated and plenty of occasions in awe of our intense private bond. “Why on the planet does Fred care a lot for François? What is it about these two?” We have been the least doubtless good buddies. I’m the extrovert. He’s the introvert. But after we met, the chemistry occurred. It was religious in nature and it needed to do with our deep beliefs in God that we have been accepting a cosmic future appointment ― a cosmic appointment and a job to do.

François Clemmons.

With that in thoughts, Fred all the time says on the finish of his reveals, “I such as you simply the way in which you’re.” But within the documentary, there was a time that you just felt like he was wanting immediately at you. Can you discuss that?

You have to understand that I used to be 20 one thing years youthful than Fred. I’m the ghetto man and he’s the one that was born with unbelievable privilege. So we have been exchanging life experiences. I needed to carry him over to look over my aspect of the fence, and he introduced me over to look over his aspect of the fence. We gave one another a really, very wealthy understanding that we’re simply individuals on each side. I had not acquired the form of loving and nurturing a wholesome little one ought to have, so once I was in graduate faculty, I used to be on a journey to find who I actually am and how you can consolation and heal this wounded boy.

In my relationship with Fred, once I was within the studio and he was doing the ending that he does to the present, he usually invited me. He’d say, “Come by the studio, François, and be with us. Be on this environment.” I didn’t understand how therapeutic it was till later ― simply to be round him. He stated in the future in his ending, “I such as you simply the way in which you’re. And you understand what? You make every single day a special occasion simply by being you, your self.” And he walked off the set. When he got here round, the entire time his eyes have been holding my eyes in like a hypnotic trance and I stated, “Fred, have been you speaking to me?” And he stated, “Yes. I’ve been speaking to you for 2 years, however you heard me at this time.“

Wow. Well, I hope that increasingly individuals put you in these tabloids after this since you have been a shining star of the documentary.

Oh, please! [Laughs] You know, that’s so humorous you must say that. I used to be teasing Morgan [Neville, the director], Joanne and people different guys in Pittsburgh. I stated, “Somebody nominated me for the Best Supporting Actor of a documentary.” They stated, “There’s no such class!” [Laughs] Documentaries don’t get that form of consideration. So I’ve to stay with that. I’m OK.

“Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” is now in choose theaters. 

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