You may have read it on the internet or heard it from a friend: Before Fred Rogers became beloved TV legend Mister Rogers, he was a sniper in the Vietnam War. Then he took to the airwaves, adopting his signature sweater to cover his full-sleeve tattoos, using his platform to abuse children and flipping off television cameras along the way.
Everything in that paragraph is false. So why do these stories keep being repeated? The persistence of these stories, and their stark contrast from the truth, tells us a lot about urban legends and how they spread. In fact, folklorists, who study how people express themselves in everyday life, say that the stories we tell about public figures can actually tell us a lot about ourselves.
Mister Rogers’ real biography reads like a squeaky-clean fable: A Pittsburgh native, Rogers was working in television when he felt the call to pursue seminary studies. He never served as a pastor with a congregation, but expressed his ministry through his children’s television show. A deft puppeteer and storyteller, Rogers had a deep love and respect for children that made him a uniquely qualified kids’ entertainer.
“Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his iconic TV show that debuted in 1968, ran for 33 years on public television and is still shown in reruns. Rogers’ soft-spoken persona, his inventive puppets and the familiar residents of his “neighborhood” turned the show into a much-loved children’s classic, filled with gentle lessons and quiet entertainment. He was a devoted Presbyterian minister who neither smoked nor drank.
He’s also the subject of a string of tall tales. Supposedly, he flipped off a television camera in an uncharacteristic show of aggression, captured in a GIF that’s reached meme status. (He was raising his fingers during an innocent on-air game of “Where is Thumbkin.”) Other myths say he fought in Vietnam or was a violent Navy SEAL. He did neither, though he received a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush for his work in television. Some even claim that Rogers created his show in order to abuse kids, although no one ever actually alleged misconduct by the star.
Trevor J. Blank, an assistant professor of communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam, who studies folklore and urban legends, has an idea why Rogers is the subject of so many baseless legends. “He’s an individual to whom we trust our children,” says Blank. “He taught kids how take care of their bodies, associate with their community, how to relate to neighbors and strangers.” This makes Rogers the perfect target for urban legends — especially ones that counter his upstanding public image.
But what is an urban legend, anyway? “Fictional stories that have some kind of believable component,” Blank explains. Usually, these outlandish tales seem credible because they supposedly happened to a friend of a friend — someone we know, but who is far enough away that we can’t verify or confirm the veracity of their claims. That’s what makes legends different from rumors, which are about people you know.
Often, says Blank, urban legends concern themselves with issues of morality and life lessons. So it makes sense that Rogers — associated with childhood, purity and moral decency — would inspire a few tall tales of his own. But these mythologies can also take beloved figures down a notch. “Urban legends sometimes distort the positive to create a sense of intrigue,” says Blank. Folklore has to be significant in order to be spread, he notes, and the thought of a trusted childhood icon actually being evil gets jaws wagging.
“Mr. Rogers, by all accounts, seems like a very mild-mannered, Puritan-esque character,” Blank says. “Him having a very macho back story or being a ruthless killer is kind of titillating; it runs counter to what you’re presented as true in your day-to-day experience.”
Indeed, says Blank, the legends are even more intriguing when they concern people generally thought of as wholesome. That’s what happened to John Gilchrist, who was a freckled three-year-old when he played “Mikey” in a long-running series of ads for Life cereal in the 1970s and ’80s. The commercial, which shows a kid who usually turns his nose up at unfamiliar foods happily enjoying a bowl of Life, turned Gilchrist into a star and the words “Hey, Mikey!” into a catchphrase.
It’s saccharine stuff — but during the 1980s, a popular urban legend about Gilchrist caught fire. The story goes that he died after eating a supposedly fatal combination of Pop Rocks and a carbonated beverage. In real life, Gilchrist is just fine; he’s middle-aged and working in media sales.
The reason celebrities are so susceptible to these legends is simple. They are “intimate strangers,” Blank says. “You can know a lot about them even if you’re not in relationship with them.” After all, he adds, “Every time I tie my shoes, I have a little bit of Mr. Rogers in me.” He’s thinking of the real TV legend — not the creepy character of urban myth. But as long as the star is loved and remembered, Blank says, people will likely tell tall tales about Mr. Roger’s supposed evil — precisely because they’re so difficult to believe.
When you’re bigger than life, especially in such a wholesome aspect, people want to believe the worst about you. It’s telling that we can’t accept goodness for what it is, instead, feeling the need to demonize it in some way. I have a personal experience with Mister Rogers that is the antithesis of what most people feel about him, but knowing the whole story makes a difference. I wrote about it here:
What I Learned About Being a Good Neighbor
One negative experience as a child colored my feelings about an icon for far too long.
In the end, it seems Mister Rogers really was a good as he appeared, which, in this world, is sometimes harder to believe than fiction.