For more than 30 years, legendary children’s show host Fred Rogers used his PBS series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood to educate his young viewers on concepts like empathy, sharing, and grief. As a result, he won just about every television award he was eligible for, some of them many times over.
Rogers was gracious in accepting each, but according to those who were close to the host, one honor in particular stood out. It was March 11, 1999, and Rogers was being inducted into the Television Academy Hall of Fame, an offshoot of the Emmy Awards. Just before he was called to the stage, out came a surprise.
The man responsible for the elation on Rogers’s face was Jeff Erlanger, a 29-year-old from Madison, Wisconsin who became a quadriplegic at a young age after undergoing spinal surgery to remove a tumor. Rogers was surprised because Erlanger had appeared on his show nearly 20 years prior, in 1980, to help kids understand how people with physical challenges adapt to life’s challenges. Here's his first encounter with the host:
Reunited on stage after two decades, Erlanger referred to the song “It’s You I Like,” which the two sang during their initial meeting. “On behalf of millions of children and grown-ups,” Erlanger said, “it’s you I like.” The audience, including a visibly moved Candice Bergen, rose to their feet to give both men a standing ovation.
Following Erlanger’s death in 2007, Hedda Sharapan, an employee with Rogers’s production company, called their original poignant scene “authentic” and “unscripted,” and said that Rogers often pointed to it as his favorite moment from the series.
Near the end of the original segment in 1980, as Erlanger drives his wheelchair off-camera, Rogers waves goodbye and offers a departing message: “I hope you’ll come back to visit again.”
Mister Rogers had a special energy that was distinctly different than what we typically see on late night TV. So it's a little surprising that in the early 1980s he appeared on both The Tonight Show (during its Joan Rivers days) and Late Night with David Letterman. Seeing Mister Rogers enter these raucous spaces is delightful, as his serene, thoughtful presence slows things way down.
In Rogers's Tonight Show appearance, the audience is clearly confused. They giggle as Rogers answers Rivers's questions plainly and honestly, devoid of the guile typically on display during these interviews. Rivers seems to sense this disconnect too and comments, "It's so funny, he's talking to me and I feel like I'm 8 years old!"
Eventually Rogers wins over the crowd, asking how many people in the audience "grew up with the Neighborhood." Then we realize that Rivers is wearing one of Rogers's cardigan sweaters. The whole thing becomes wondrous as he gets the audience to sing "Row, Row, Row Your Boat" with him. Have a look:
Rogers's Letterman appearance is interesting too. It starts with an extended clip of Rogers trying to put up a tent ("Sometimes things don't go right in the Neighborhood"). Rogers gives Letterman a tee-shirt, then offers a sweater and shoes (Dave doesn't take them). They talk about childhood, and Rogers shows a Polaroid of himself with Eddie Murphy who at the time was doing Mister Rogers spoofs on Saturday Night Live. Take a look: