Fred Rogers: The quiet neighbor with an impish sense of humor

Here's a fun Fred Rogers story that I sent to papers ... or, actually, that I will send to papers, whenever the AOL mail becomes unbroken. It's about a dandy PBS special Tuesday, March 6

By Mike Hughes

Television has had
plenty of people with big ambitions and big voices. It also had Fred

“He did have a
quiet power,” said JoAnn Young, who produced and wrote a special
that PBS stations will air Tuesday, early in their pledge drives.

There were many
things that separated Rogers from other TV stars. “He was really
such an unusual combination of interests and skills,” said Ellen
Doherty, production head of the Fred Rogers Company, which produced
the special and the animated series “Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood.”

Rogers -- who died
of cancer in 2003, at 74 -- was an ordained minister, a pilot, a
puppeteer ... and didn't watch much TV. “He went into television
because he didn't like it,” David Newell said.

If Newell doesn't
seem familiar, his TV name might. He was Mr. McFeeley, the postman.
That name came from Rogers' maternal grandfather, Fred McFeeley, who
stirred his interest in music.

Rogers had a thing
for names – some whimsical (Donkey Hodie, King Friday XIII) and
some not.

As “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” began, Newell said, a producer handed him a tiger
puppet. “Fred said, 'I'll call it Daniel,' her name was Mrs.
Daniel. And he put it through the canvas hole and he said, 'It's 1492
and that's when Columbus discovered America.' That's the first thing
he said.'”

It was 50 years and
two weeks ago, on a public-TV station in Pittsburgh, near Rogers'
small home town. It was live at first, then was taped ... and almost

“If something went
wrong on the show, like he couldn't do a dance move or he couldn't
put up a tent, he would just let it stay in the program,” Young
said. “Because he felt that children should see that not everything
can be done the first time around. And I love that about him, that

It wasn't what
people might expect. Yes, Rogers' quiet TV image was a lot like his
at-home personality, his widow (Joanne Rogers) said when “Daniel
Tiger's Neighborhood” was launched in 2012. Still, there was that
flip side: “He was whimsical and he loved to be silly.”

This was someone who
saw great value in play, Young said. “The playfulness of his
personality is so integral to the show.”

Newell recalled how
much Rogers enjoyed the crew's humor, from practical jokes to a
sketch that was concocted by the floor cew, including a young
Pittsburgh guy named Michael Douglas.

“Fred came into
the office laughing and he said, 'The crew just did the funniest skit
for me.' And he said, 'You know, that boy is going to be a star.'”

He was right. The
kid – who uses the professional name Michael Keaton, because his
own name was already taken – became a movie star. He also hosts
the PBS special.

That special also
focuses on the serious side. Quietly, Rogers introduced children to
other worlds. He asked Itzhak Perlman about his crutches and sang
with a boy in a wheelchair. Amid a turbulent civil-rights time, he
heard a young black man sing in a Pittsburgh church; for the next 25
years, Francois Clemmons played the neighborhood policeman.

Clemmons also
frequently showed his classical tenor voice. Rogers savored all sorts
of music.

“He was
classically trained,” Newell said. “His major (Rollins College,
in 1951) was in composition. But he appreciated Johnny Costa, our
music director, who was a genius jazz pianist.”

The greats performed
on the show, from Tony Bennett and Wynton Marsalis to Perlman and
Yo-Yo Ma ... whose son played piano with him on the show twice, at
ages 6 and 16.

Those were the only
times he did duets wth his dad, Nicholas Ma said. “It was because
Fred asked. There was no way I could possibly say no.”

This was, after all,
someone whose peaceful, fictional neighborhood he had grown up in..

-- “Fred Rogers:
It's You I Like,” 8 p.m. Tuesday, many PBS stations (check local

-- Most stations air
“Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood” at 9:30 and 10 a.m. weekdays; PBS
Kids airs it at 4 and 4:30 p.m. weekdays. “Mister Rogers'
Neighborhood” is available online


Here's a guide to Oscar night

If you scroll down one, you'll find a fun look at Jimmy Kimmel, the Academy Awards on Sunday (March 4) and the tricky matter of having movies that people have actually seen. Here's a sidebar that goes with it, offering lots of specifics:

Here's a round-up of
this year's Academy Awards:

When (all live,
three hours earlier PT):

-- 8 p.m. ET Sunday,

-- That's a
half-hour earlier than usual, but, don't expect an early bedtime.
ABC's estimate of an 11 p.m. finish is optimistic.

Before and afterward

-- “Countdown to
Red Carpet,” 1-5 p.m. ET, E.

-- Red-carpet
coverage, 5-7 p.m., E; and 6:30-8 p.m., ABC.

-- “After party,”
11:30 p.m. to 1 a.m., E.

Who's there

-- Host: Jimmy

-- Music: Performing
the nominated songs are: Mary J. Blige, “Mighty River” (from
“Mudbound”); Common and Andra Day, “Stand Up For Something”
(“Marshall”); Keala Settle, “This is Me” (“The Greatest
Showman”); Sifjan Stevens, “Mystery of Love” (“Call Me By
Your Name”); Gael Garcia Bernal, Natalia Lafourcade and Miguel,
“Remember Me” (“Coco”).

-- Presenters: They
range from Zendaya, 21, to Rita Moreno, 86, and Eva Marie Saint, 93.
The list is strong on diversity, but weak on people who have brought
comedy to past years. Hope for something from Dave Chapelle, Tiffany
Haddish, Kumail Nanjiani or Lin-Manuel Miranda. Others include the
stars of superhero movies (Gal Gadot, Mark Hamill, Tom Holland,
Chadwick Boseman), outspoken people (Jane Fonda, Ashley Judd, Jodie
Foster) and more, including Jennifer Garner, Viola Davis, Armie
Hammer, Emma Stone, Emily Blunt, Margot Robbie, Greta Gerwig, Wes
Studi, Gina Rodriquez, Helen Mirren Daniela Vega, Kelly Marie Tran
and many more.

Some TV preparation

-- Turner Classic
Movies continues to have best-picture winners at 8 p.m. ET nightly --
“An American in Paris” (1951) Thursday, “Annie Hall” (1977)
Friday and “Gandhi” (1982) Saturday.

-- The Independent
Spirit Awards are 5-7:30 p.m. Saturday on IFC, rerunning at 10 p.m.,
then at 6:30 and 11 a.m. Sunday, with Nick Kroll and John Mulaney
returning as hosts. It honors modest-budget films ... and this year
has much in common with the Oscars. Its best-picture nominees are
“Get Out,” “Lady Bird” and “Call Me By Your Name,” plus
“The Florida Project” and “The Rider.” Surprisingly, “Three
Billboards” and “I, Tonya,” nominated in acting categories, are
omitted for best-picture; “The Big Sick” is nominated only for
best first script.

The key categories

-- Best picture:
“Dunkirk,” “Get Out,” “The Post,” “Lady Bird,”
“Darkest Hour,” “The Shape of Water.” “Phantom Thread,”
“Call Me By Your Name,” “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing,

-- Best animated
feature: “Coco,” “Ferdinand,” “The Boss Baby,” “The
Breadwinner,” “Loving Vincent.”

-- Actress: Sally
Hawkins, “The Shape of Water”; Frances McDormand,” Three
Billboards,” Margot Robbie, “I, Tonya”; Saoirse Ronan, “Lady
Bird”; Meryl Streep, “The Post.”

-- Actor: Timothee
Chalamet, “Call Me By Your Name”; Daniel Day-Lewis, “Phantom
Thread”; Daniel Kaluuya, “Get Out”; Gary Oldman, “Darkest
Hour”; Denzel Washington, “Roman J. Israel, Esq.”

-- Supporting
actress: Mary J. Blige, “Mudbound”; Allison Janney, “I, Tonya”;
Lesley Manville, “Phantom Thread”; Laurie Metcalf, “Lady Bird”;
Octavia Spencer, “The Shape of Water.”

-- Supporting actor:
Willem Dafoe, “The Florida Project”; Woody Harrelson and Sam
Rockwell, “Three Billboards”; Richard Jenkins, “The Shape of
Water”; Christopher Plummer, “All the Money in the World.”

-- Director:
Christopher Nolan, “Dunkirk”; Jordan Peele, “Get Out”; Greta
Gerwig, “Lady Bird”; Paul Thomas Anderson, “Phantom Thread”;
Guillermo del Toro, “The Shape of Water.”

-- Original script:
“The Big Sick,” “Lady Bird,” “The Shape of Water,” “Get
Out,” “Three Billboards.”

-- Adapted script:
“Call Me By Your Name,” “The Disaster Artist,” “Molly's
Game,” “Logan,” “Mudbound.”

Oscar night: Big deal, big stars and ... well, little movies

Every Academy Award telecast is interesting ... but some are much more so than others. Now comes the this year's show Sunday (March 4), with a clever host and batch of movies that are big in quality, but not in drawing a crowd. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

It's Academy Award
time again, offering everything that viewers want -- almost.

Sunday's ceremony is
likely to have glamour, glitter and great gowns. It will have humor,
via Jimmy Kimmel, and music, via Mary J. Blige, Andra Day, Common and

And big, popular
movies? Well, that's the tricky part.

Before the
nominations came out, Kimmel had a basic desire: “I want movies
that people have seen.”

He got a few, but
not many. Two best-picture nominees -- “Dunkirk” and “Get Out”
-- are box-office hits; the other seven fall somewhere between fairly
successful and thoroughly obscure.

For quality-movie
fans, this is good news. It was a year filled with modest-budgeted

And for others? As
Variety, the show-business trade paper, put it, this “should send
shivers up the spines of ABC executives.”

They simply want a
big audience for their telecast – something they get when the
movies are well-known. Kimmel wants films he can joke about.

Last year -- in his
first time hosting -- he sensed that the studio audience “hadn't
seen a lot of the movies that they voted for.” A joke about the
“Moonlight” movie “fell somewhat flat, because people didn't
get the reference.” Ironically, “Moonlight” then won for best

Certainly, Kimmel
will have other things to joke about Sunday, including:

-- Last year's
mix-up, which at first had “La La Land” -- not “Moonlight” --
announced as best picture. “If it happens again, literally everyone
at ABC should be fired,” he said.

-- The sexual-abuse
and gender-equity issues that have rocked Hollywood. At the Golden
Globes in January, host Seth Meyers found ways to make a dead-serious
subject funny. “I was like, 'I have to see what Seth says and how
it is received,'” Kimmel said. “And I do thank him for being that
litmus test.”

-- And his mock feud
with Matt Damon. At the Emmys, Damon kept pointing out that Kimmel
was a loser; at the Oscars, Kimmel mocked the “Chinese pigtail
movie” Damon made. “He was okay with it,” Kimmel said. “I'm
not sure why he was okay with it, but he does have a very good sense
of humor.”

But joking about the
nominated movies? That's tough if the audience hasn't seen them.

The biggest Oscar
audience, the Nielsen ratings say, was in 1998, with 55.2 million
viewers. That was when “Titanic” -- which would eventually gross
$659 million in North America – swept the awards.

The smallest were 32
million in 2008 and 32.9 million last year; those were when the
winners were less popular -- “No Country For Old Men” ($74
million) and “Moonlight” ($28 million).

This year's films
are a mixed lot, according to North American estimates by

“Dunkirk” and
“Get Out” soared to $188 and $176 million, but the others are far
behind. That's $78 million for “The Post,” $54 million for “The
Shape of Water,” $49 million for “Three Billboards Outside
Ebbing, Missouri,” $47 million for “Lady Bird,” $41 million for
“Darkest Hour,” $18 million for “The Phantom Thread” and $15
million for “Call Me By My Name.”

Those numbers are
fine for indie movies ... but hardly enough to draw a big Oscar
audience. Add them up and you have $666 million; “Star Wars: The
Last Jedi,” alone, has made $619 million.

Yes, “Jedi” was
nominated for its score, sound, sound-editing and visual effects.
“Beauty and the Beast” ($504 million) is nominated for costumes
and production design .... “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” ($390
million) for visual effects .... “Coco” ($208 million) for a song
and best animated feature.

Each was more
popular than any best-picture nominee. So was “Wonder Woman,”
which drew praise, $418 million and zero nominations.

For fun, Kimmel
might have to scramble – to concoct something like last year, when
a Hollywood tour bus ended up at the Oscars. “You must keep the
show interesting, have an element that could go etither way,” he
said. “That could have been an absolute disaster – and some feel
it was.”


"Good girls" do bad things in grocery stores and in Hollywood


After weeks of people swooping down hills, we're definitely ready for something new from NBC. It has a lot of shows to offer, some very good ("Rise"), some quite bad ("A.P. Bio") and one that's flawed but interesting. That's "Good Girls," which debuts Monday (Feb. 26); here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

There's no good
time, perhaps, to rob a grocery store.

Still, there's a
great time to write a show about ordinary women who rob a store.
That's now, in a Hollywood that's reconsidering its habits.

In the five months
since allegations about movie mogul Harvey Weinstein surfaced, TV has
pondered the roles of women onscreen and off. For “Goosd Girls,”
the timing is ideal.

“Three suburban
moms get tired of making ends meet and being taken advantage of,”
Jennifer Salke, president of NBC entertainment, said last month
(before being hired to head Amazon Studios). “So they decide it's
time to stick up for themselves.”

Their solution –
armed robbery – is ill-advised. It's “definitely illegal,”
actress Christina Hendricks grants. But it represents more; these are
“women being sort of backed into a corner and forced to take their
power back,” said writer-producer Jenna Bans.

Bans spent a decade
putting complicated women into moral dilemmas on ABC, from “Desperate
Housewives” to “Grey's Anatomy” and “Scandal.” Now she
likes the irony of her “Good Girls” title.

“It's something my
parents in Minnesota used to always say .... I would be mad about
some injustice at school or something and they'd be like, 'Just be a
good girl about it.'”

Like Bans (from
Minneapolis), these three women are Northerners; in Michigan
suburbia, their worlds crumble.

Hendricks has been
in complex moral turf before, in cable's “Mad Men.” Mae Whitman
(“Parenthood”) has tended to be pigeonholed; “I'm always like
the weird girl,” she said.

Retta (“Parks and
Recreation”) knows all about being typecast. “As a large black
woman in Hollywood, you tend to get stuck in certain tropes.”

Hollywood has had a
lot of lingering attitudes toward its female characters. Now may be
the perfect time for them to rob a grocery store.

-- “Good Girls,”
10 p.m. Mondays, NBC; debuts Feb. 26, after the opener of “The

Black colleges bring soaring past, uncertain future

It's a huge subject -- much too big for one documentary or one fictional series: The historically black colleges bring more than 150 years of soaring history and complicated sociology.

Still, a PBS documentary Monday (Feb. 19) is a good starting point; so is the fictional "The Quad," which returns to cable's BET on Feb. 27. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

At first, the idea
was modest: Slaves were free now, but uneducated. Create some
colleges for vocational skills.

Then things got much
bigger. Historically black colleges “are producing an extraordinary
number of new leaders in this country,” said Michael Lomax, head of
the United Negro College Fund.

Their graduates
include icons of the past – Martin Luther King, Jr., Booker T.
Washington, Thurgood Marshall, W.E.B. Du Bois – and present,
including Oprah Winfrey, Spike Lee and a new wave of elected
officials. The schools are “carrying the responsibility and the
weight of producing black scientists overall,” said Mary Schmidt
Campbell, president of Spelman College.

They also face
plenty of problems, which TV viewers can see via a documentary (on
PBS Monday) or cable fiction (“The Quad,” returning Feb. 27).
Enrollment is down; money is tight.

Such problems
confront schools of all types, Campbell said. “Over the past 10 or
20 years, there have been many colleges and universities that have
gone out of business. HBCU's (historically black colleges and
universities) are no different.”

Overall, their
impact has been shrinking. The Pew Research Center found that in
2015, 8.5 percent of all black college students were at HBCU's; in
1980, the percentage was twice as high.

The total number of
such schools has shrunk from a reported 121 in the 1930s to 102
today. Some are wobbling; the PBS film briefly visits Morris Brown
College, which once had 2,500 students over 34 Atlanta acres; now,
after a financial scandal, it has fewer than 50.

Still, there's the
flip side. “Spelman is thriving,” Campbell said. “Howard is
thriving, Hampton is thriving, Xavier is thriving. There is a whole
slate of HBCU's that are thriving.”

And the overall
effect is still huge. “This is a big community – 102
institutions, over 300,000 students,” Lomax said. “They produce
50,000 graduates a year.”

And in a way, their
success helped create the problem: Thurgood Marshall, from the
prestigious Howard Law School, successfully fought the concept of
“separate-but-equal” education; his court victories opened up
fresh possibilities for black students.

Where do the HBCU's
stand, in an era of wider choices? Some people see them as starter

“About 70 percent
of the students ... are low-income,” Lomax said, “versus about 34
percent of all colleges .... I would say around 50 percent are the
first in their familes to attend.”

But others see them
as much more: Given lots of choices, they still prefer the HBCU;
consider three people who chose Florida A&M:

-- Anika Noni Rose
was a lawyer's daughter from Connecticut who wanted a fresh
experience. “It was probably the only time in my life when I was
completely surrounded by my own culture,” she said. Now she's a
Tony-winning actress, playing an HBCU president in “The Quad.”

-- Roy Wood Jr., a
comedian and “Daily Show” correspondent, chose an HBCU school,
just as his parents did. “I'm a 17-year-old kid and I need to
prepare myself for a different America than most white kids will
see,” he recalled.

-- Peyton Alex
Smith plays a “Quad” student and aspiring rapper. “I've never
been around that much black excellence,” he said of his Florida A&M
years. “Everybody wanted to succeed.”

That's typical of
the black-college experience, Campbell said. “It's a safe place,
and it's also a demanding place. HBCU's have very high expectations.”

That wasn't always
the case, said Stanley Nelson, producer-director of the PBS film.
Many of the schools had white leaders, strict rules and low
expectations. The extreme was the Fisk president in the 1920s. “He
was afraid of black sex .... He had canceled fraternities, canceled
some of the sports teams.”

Then the school
invited Du Bois – a Fisk graduate whose daughter was a student
there – to be a speaker. “Du Bois goes there and ... says, 'Go
out in the world and be wonderful.' He tells the students to protest
... The students hold this massive strike and the president is

It began an era of
unrest – first aimed at the colleges, then at society. “Black
colleges have always been politically engaged,” Campbell said,
starting with “the lunch counter sit-ins in the early '60s.”

Now this isn't
always politics from the outside. “This January,” Lomax said,
“four new mayors in this country are graduates of historically
black colleges.”

Three are in cities
– New Orleans, Atlanta, Birmingham – once segregated. The other
is St. Paul, Minn.

Melvin Carter grew
up there, the son of a St. Paul cop and a county commissioner. He
graduated from Florida A&M, then returned to Minnesota for
graduate school and stayed.

Now he's mayor of a
city that the 2010 census listed as 60 per cent white and 16 per cent
African American. HBCU grads have gone far from the vocational-school

-- “Independent
Lens: Tell Them We Are Rising,” 9-10:30 p.m. Monday, PBS

-- “The Quad,”
10 p.m. Tuesdays, BET; it returns Feb. 27