David Newell and his alter ego Mr. McFeely are keeping Fred Rogers' mission alive for those who grew up in "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood," and those just moving in.
You leave the Neighborhood, and sometimes you’re going to run into trouble.
And so it was not long ago, when Mr. McFeely — the hotfooted, blue-suited deliveryman from “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” — found himself at a Portland department store with a woman in his lap.
It happened pretty quickly. She emerged from an orderly line of kids, took a seat, threw her arms around his neck and babbled something vaguely suggestive before her male friend led her away.
“What was that?” David Newell asked, before becoming Mr. McFeely again, ready to greet the next child.
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Neither strange women, nor crowds, nor cramped signing hand will keep Mr. McFeely from his appointed rounds.
And as the man who has played him for more than 40 years, Newell is keeping Fred Rogers’ mission alive for those who grew up in his Neighborhood, and those just moving in.
(Rogers died in 2003, but his show continues on public-television stations, including KCTS here in Seattle.)
“It’s a life’s work, and we want to see it carry on,” Newell said Wednesday, on the phone from Pittsburgh. “You don’t take ‘Tom Sawyer’ off the shelf because Mark Twain died.”
Newell will bring Mr. McFeely to Seattle this weekend for the premiere of “Speedy Delivery,” a documentary by Los Angeles director Paul Germain.
The film will be shown at the fourth annual Children’s Film Festival Seattle, sponsored by the Northwest Film Forum. (www.nwfilmforum.org/go/childrensfilmfest/cffseattle.htm).
It’s a touchy thing, letting kids see the man behind a character they have known and loved for decades.
But in following Newell and his alter ego on film, Germain captures his efforts to keep the Neighborhood current against a constant tide of newer, faster children’s programming, and other endless diversions.
“David is building a legacy, and he isn’t getting credit for that,” Germain said. “This is his life. He delivers the neighborhood to people and makes it more tangible.”
Germain, 27, knew soon after meeting Newell that he was the perfect subject for his first feature-length documentary.
“This is a person who has a deep story about the history of children’s television and about living a double life, like Clark Kent and Superman, always in the service of others,” he said.
Newell has been playing Mr. McFeely since 1967, when Rogers asked him to play a jittery, fast-talking messenger who delivered everything from an armadillo to films about how crayons, harmonicas and teddy bears are made.
Staying McFeely “is not something that I am doing in desperation, but because it is something that I enjoy doing,” he said. He keeps four hats and alternates between two uniforms for his appearances.
“The pants are washable,” he said. “It’s funny, how many kids have eaten something before they come to see me. But that’s what I like best, meeting people and getting all the stories.”
Even the strange women who drop into your lap?
“Hey, those are the ones who started with the program!” he said. “They get very giddy.”
Nicole Brodeur’s column appears Tuesday and Friday. Reach her at 206-464-2334 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Go to speedydeliverymovie.com