Walking The Beat In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Where A New Day Began Together | KERA News

Walking The Beat In Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, Where A New Day Began Together

Mar 11, 2016
Originally published on March 11, 2016 10:17 am

His is not just a gentle voice; for many people, it's a very familiar one, too. For 25 years, Francois Clemmons played a role on the beloved children's program Mister Rogers' Neighborhood. Clemmons joined the cast of the show in 1968, becoming the first African-American to have a recurring role on a kids TV series.

And, as it happens, it was Clemmons' voice that Fred Rogers noticed, too, when he heard Clemmons singing in church.

"Fred came to me and said, 'I have this idea: You could be a police officer,' " recalls Clemmons, speaking with his friend Karl Lindholm during a visit with StoryCorps.

Clemmons says he didn't like the idea much at first.

"I grew up in the ghetto. I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing police dogs and water hoses on people," he says. "And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all."

Still, Clemmons came around to it eventually and agreed to take on the role.

And, in the decades he spent as part of the show, there's one scene in particular that Clemmons remembers with great emotion. It was from an episode that aired in 1969, in which Rogers had been resting his feet in a plastic pool on a hot day.

"He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him," Clemmons recalls. "The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet."

Clemmons says the scene — which the two also revisited in their last episode together, in 1993 — touched him in a way he hadn't expected.

"I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood, but I think I was proven wrong," he says.

During Clemmons' time on the show, he wasn't simply the friendly neighborhood police officer. Off the set, he was also a Grammy-winning singer, who performed in over 70 musical and opera roles and founded the Harlem Spiritual Ensemble.

Rogers, for his part, wasn't simply Clemmons' iconic co-star. He was also Clemmons' "friend for life."

He says he'll never forget the day Rogers wrapped up the program, as he always did, by hanging up his sweater and saying, "You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are." This time in particular, Rogers had been looking right at Clemmons, and after they wrapped, he walked over.

Clemmons asked him, "Fred, were you talking to me?"

"Yes, I have been talking to you for years," Rogers said, as Clemmons recalls. "But you heard me today."

"It was like telling me I'm OK as a human being," Clemmons says. "That was one of the most meaningful experiences I'd ever had."

Produced for Morning Edition by Jasmyn Belcher Morris.

StoryCorps is a national nonprofit that gives people the chance to interview friends and loved ones about their lives. These conversations are archived at the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, allowing participants to leave a legacy for future generations. Learn more, including how to interview someone in your life, at StoryCorps.org.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

Friday means StoryCorps. And this morning, some softer, gentler voices you might remember from childhood. For 25 years, Francois Clemmons played a character on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." Fred Rogers heard Clemmons sing in church, and in 1968, he joined the cast. He was thought to be the first African-American actor to have a recurring role on a kids TV series. At StoryCorps, he told a friend about how he became officer Clemmons.

FRANCOIS CLEMMONS: Fred came to me and said I have this idea. You could be a police officer. That kind of stopped me in my tracks. I grew up in the ghetto, and I did not have a positive opinion of police officers. Policemen were siccing dogs and water hoses on people. And I really had a hard time putting myself in that role. So I was not excited about being Officer Clemmons at all. But there was one particular scene that Fred and I did where he had his feet resting in this plastic pool on a hot day.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

FRED ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Oh, there's Officer Clemmons. Hi, Officer Clemmons. Come in.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Hi, Mr. Rogers, how are you?

CLEMMONS: And he invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Would you like to join me?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) OK, sure.

The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub he was helping me dry my feet.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) There, that one's dry.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Thank you.

And so that scene touched me in a way that I was not prepared.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Sometimes just a minute like this will really make a difference.

CLEMMONS: I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way. I still was not convinced that Officer Clemmons could have a positive influence in the neighborhood and in the real-world neighborhood. But I think I was proven wrong.

KARL LINDHOLM: You were on "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood" for a long time.

CLEMMONS: Yeah, I discovered a friend for life. I'll never forget, one day I was watching him film a session. And you know how at the end of the program he takes his sneakers off, he hangs up his sweater and he says you make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are. I was looking at him when he was saying that. And he walks over to where I was standing and I said, Fred, were you talking to me? And he said, yes, I have been talking to you for years, but you heard me today. It was like telling me I'm OK as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I'd ever had.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "MR. ROGERS' NEIGHBORHOOD")

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) I'm so proud of you, Francois.

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) Oh, thank you, Fred.

ROGERS: (As Mr. Rogers) Do you have time to give a song to my friend and me?

CLEMMONS: (As Officer Clemmons) I sure do. (Singing) There are many ways to say I love you.

GREENE: Francois Clemmons - you might know him as Officer Clemmons from "Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood." He spoke with Karl Lindholm in Middlebury, Vt., and the interview is archived at the Library of Congress. The podcast is on iTunes and also at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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