From 1968 to 1993, François Clemmons appeared on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” a children’s show promoting free expression and unconditional love. In reality, however, the actor/opera singer had to keep his sexual orientation under wraps and only came out as gay after the show’s run.
Clemmons, now 74, met his late “Mister Rogers” co-star Fred Rogers in the 1960s. It was Rogers who offered him the career-defining role of Officer Clemmons, a friendly neighborhood cop who helped change children’s perception of the job and model wholesome values for their young audience.
At the end of each episode, Rogers, who passed away in 2003, would say “I like you just the way you are,” something that didn’t ring so true when Clemmons implied in a 2018 documentary that Rogers made him keep his sexuality a secret.
Clearing things up last year in a Vanity Fair interview, Clemmons explained that the choice of living in the closet was his to make.
“Sacrifice was a part of my destiny. In other words, I did not want to be a shame to my race. I didn’t want to be a scandal to the show. I didn’t want to hurt the man who was giving me so much, and I also knew the value as a black performer of having this show, this platform.”
“I weighed this thing, the pros, and the cons. And I thought, I not only have a national platform, I’m getting paid,” he added. “There were so many things that I got back for that sacrifice that I kept my big mouth shut.”
Clemmons described the close bond between himself and the late Rogers, pointing out that the decision to keep his homosexuality secret had more to do with the survival of the show.
The talented opera singer recalled a time in 1968 when Rogers was genuinely concerned for his safety and how he knew at that point that the older man was someone he could confide in.
“I never had someone express that kind of deep sense of protection for me,” Clemmons said of the man he referred to as his “surrogate father.”
In a separate interview with HuffPost, Clemmons revealed that his gay status would have spelled doom for “Mister Rogers.” Back then, the civil rights movement had gained traction and was yielding fruit, but it was a different scene on the LGBTQ level.
“Had I been an openly gay person on 'Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,' that would have been the end of the program before it began, especially in Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Tennessee, all the way down to Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama. That swath of America would never tolerate an openly gay man, especially on a children’s television program.”
Clemmons left “Mister Rogers” in 1993, but not before he and Rogers shot the symbolic scene that continues to resonate decades later.
Shot in 1969 when racial segregation was still in place in many parts of the US, the episode saw Rogers, a white man, and Clemmons, a black man, soaking their feet in the same kiddie pool after which Rogers dried off his friend’s feet.
Clemmons would go on to spend 15 years as Middlebury College’s artist-in-residence and director of its Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir, retiring in 2013.