After 33 years, PBS' longest-running series, Mister Rogers' Neighborhood, is signing off. Fred Rogers, one of TV's most familiar faces, says it's time to say goodbye.
"All along, I felt that we should build a library of tapes of various themes of childhood. And I felt that we had accomplished that," says Rogers, 73.
"We have about a thousand programs on tape that can be used over and over again," he says. "I mean, if people can watch The Wizard of Oz once a year, they can watch the Neighborhood once a day."
Children have been faithful to Rogers for years. The target audience — 2- to 6-year-olds — just loves to watch their avuncular TV friend change into a sweater and comfy shoes for a half-hour "visit," complete with his signature sign-on, "Won't you be my neighbor?"
The last new episode, taped in December, will air in August. But the show will go on. Mister Rogers' Neighborhood will continue in reruns from a rotating library of more than 300 episodes.
Don't Say the R-word
But don't say the word "retirement." Rogers is vowing to keep a steady agenda. Right now he's working on the narration for a traveling planetarium show, The Sky Above Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Then there are several books and educational guides for teachers and frequent speaking engagements to keep him busy.
Rogers is also turning to the Internet. He's working on one Web site for children and another that doles out his wisdom, for adults.
"I have an idea of doing programs for people as they're going to sleep," Rogers says. "You know, I would be able to read stories and the children would be able to see the books right on the computer. And I don't know another voice in America that could put people to sleep better than this one."
One way or another, Mister Rogers might leave the neighborhood, but the neighborhood isn't leaving him. He'll keep working with children with that same voice, which is just as sweet and gentle when he's off camera, speaking to adults.
Trauma at Mister Rogers'
That soothing demeanor has allowed him to take on subjects other children's shows wouldn't dare.
In June of 1968, when Democratic presidential candidate Bobby Kennedy was shot and killed, pictures of the carnage were broadcast over and over, and Rogers knew that children would be watching. He and the Neighborhood team scrambled to put together a program.
"Overnight, Fred wrote a script helping children understand this word 'assassination,'" says longtime Neighborhood associate producer Hedda Sharapan. "And we made a program that aired Friday night, helping children and families, helping families include their children some way in the mourning; that this was not just an adult thing; that children realized something was going on, let's help the children deal with it, in an appropriate way."
The show ended with Rogers on the couch, talking directly to the viewer. The young Fred Rogers, still new to a national audience, begged the viewers to think about what they had been seeing, and feeling — and to talk about it.
"I have been terribly concerned about the graphic display of violence which the mass media has been showing recently. And I plead for your protection and support of your young children," he said in a calming tone. "There is just so much that a very young child can take without it being overwhelming to him."
'You Don't Set Out to Be Rich or Famous'
As he reflects on his career today, this TV giant remains humble. "You don't set out to be rich or famous. What you set out to do is to be helpful," he told Nightline during a recent interview in Pittsburgh. "If the other comes along with it, that's OK. But that's not what you set out to be."
Kids knew Rogers as a neighbor to whom they could always turn. From the anxiety that comes with the first day of school, to the death of a pet, the trauma of divorce, even global conflict, the Neighborhood has been there. A few years ago, he worked on public service announcements to help families understand the Gulf War.
"I've always thought of myself as a neighbor," he says, "an uncle that came to visit and that just said, 'Hey, let's spend a half an hour together,' you know, 'I accept you exactly as you are. Let's just have some time together.'"
Nightline correspondent John Donvan interviewed Fred Rogers and members of the Mister Rogers' Neighborhood production team for a program that was aired Friday, July 13.