Last year, the movie A Beautiful Day in this Neighborhood brought renewed interest to the life of Mister Rogers. Actor Tom Hanks played Fred Rogers in the movie. That garnered him an Oscar nomination in the Best Actor in a motion picture category at this year’s Academy Awards.
Fred Rogers was a famous television personality, puppeteer, musician, writer and producer nonpareil. For 33 years he entertained millions of children on PBS, from 1968 to 2001 on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. Mister Rogers died in 2003 at 74 years of age.
At the beginning of Fred Rogers’s show in 1968, one of his co-stars was singer/actor Francois Clemmons. At that time, Clemmons was making history in America, as one of the first African American men to have a recurring role on children’s television. Add to that, the fact that he is a gay man and what he achieved should surely be seen as groundbreaking.
To give context to his achievement, consider that the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in April of 1968. Additionally, the Stonewall Uprising, which became a touchstone for the Gay Rights Movement, took place in 1969. Francois Clemmons certainly came along at a tumultuous turning point in America’s tortured path forward, when it comes to equal rights for all people.
What makes this all the more groundbreaking is that Clemmons played an authority figure on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. He played the character of a police officer as Officer Clemmons. Having him on the program can be viewed as part of a broader shift in American television. African American entertainers were finally having an opportunity to partake in more positive roles on shows.
Francois Clemmons documents his journey in his new book titled, Officer Clemmons: A Memoir. The gifted artist shares many of the challenges he dealt with in his early life, during his 25 year tenure on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood and afterwards.
During our CYInterview, I asked Francois Clemmons about music’s impact on his life. The Grammy Award winner gave a spellbinding response, speaking about his journey through life, including insights into his family, his singing, his trials and tribulations, as well as stories about Fred Rogers, all wrapped up into one compelling response. Speaking about how he used singing to his advantage, he told us this:
“I began to use singing, music as a tool and I swear to you, it opens people’s hearts. People are so vulnerable, especially if you’re singing something beautiful or something that they love. I remember singing Danny Boy, which is Irish, and I swear, everybody in the house sitting out there was crying. And my heart is in everything I do like that and I love doing it.”
In his book Officer Clemmons: A Memoir, the winner of a Grammy Award in 1976, for a recorded performance of Porgy and Bess, recounts many interesting stories about Fred Rogers. He explained to us that Mister Rogers was a father figure to him, sharing this:
“Somehow there was Fred who was treating me like his physical son. Everything that a young teenager, because I was 24, but I was acting like a kid, everything a young teenager wanted on a certain level, Fred said, ‘Well, alright, let’s see how we can do that.’ He helped me buy my first car and sent me to Europe three times to audition for the opera companies.”
Featured columnist Jay Bildstein joins us for this inspiring CYInterview, which you can listen to in its entirety below:
Listen to the entire Dr. Francois Clemmons CYInterview:
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You can purchase a copy of Officer Clemmons: A Memoir and find more information by clicking here.