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New documentary looks back on classic children's show 'Mister Rogers' Neighborhood'

"Won't You Be My Neighbor?" explores the unlikely career of children's TV legend Fred Rogers.
/ Source: TODAY

A new documentary promises to be a sweet visit with an old neighbor.

The film "Won't You Be My Neighbor?", from director Morgan Neville, takes a look back at the legendary career of children's television icon Fred Rogers through interviews with his wife and production team. It comes on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of his classic show, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood."

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Rogers, who died at 74 from stomach cancer in 2003, created the show because he wanted more compassionate programming for children, and many of his lessons still resonate a half century later.

The show began as "Mister Rogers" on CBC Television in 1963 and then debuted in 1968 as "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" on PBS, where it ran until 2001.

"If you take all the elements that make good television and do the exact opposite, you have 'Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood,''' show producer Margy Whitmer says in the documentary. "Low production values, simple set, an unlikely star, yet it worked."

Rogers was an ordained minister who didn't plan on a career in television before deciding that kids needed more uplifting programming.

"The Fred Rogers I discovered making this film is at once comfortably familiar and completely surprising. I believe Mister Rogers is the kind of voice we need to hear right now,” Neville said in a statement to The Hollywood Reporter in November.

Despite whatever turbulence was roiling the world outside, "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" was always a welcoming place of cardigan sweaters and innocent wonder.

"A little boy came up to him and said, 'Mr. Rogers, how did you get out (of the television)?''' his wife Joanne recalls in the film. "And so he talked to the little boy and explained what television was all about, and the little boy was just taking it all in, and when Fred finished, the little boy said, 'How are you going to get back in?'"

MR. ROGERS NEIGHBORHOOD, Fred Rogers (circa 1973), 1966-2001
The new documentary takes a behind-the-scenes look at the classic children's TV show "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Everett

Rogers did tackle difficult subjects in his inimitable style, from divorce to the assassination of Robert Kennedy to racial tension.

"My being on the program was a statement for Fred,'' said actor Francois Clemmons, an African-American who played the character Officer Clemmons on the show.

Rogers also testified in front of the U.S. Senate for more federal funding for children's television, reflecting his belief that kids need programming beyond slapstick cartoons.

"Children have deep feelings just the way everybody does,'' he says in the film.

The documentary is slated to be released on June 8 by Focus Features.

Follow writer Scott Stump on Twitter.