Fred Rogers first encountered a television in 1951 during his senior year at Rollins College. He hated it.
“I saw people throwing pies in each other’s faces, and I thought: This could be a wonderful tool for education! Why is it being used this way?” Rogers said in an interview in 1999.
Intrigued by the medium’s potential, he told his parents that he wanted to postpone his plans to become a Presbyterian minister in order to pursue a career in television.
“They said, ‘You’ve never even seen it!’” Rogers said. “And I said, ‘Well, I’ve seen enough of it here that I’d like to try.’”
His decision would have a profound impact. Rogers started in 1963 with a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation children’s program. Three years later, in Pittsburgh, he created a regional show, “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” In 1968 it began its run of more than three decades on national public television, where it became a gently instructive, supportive safe harbor for generations of children.
To mark the 50th anniversary of the premiere, PBS will present a special on Tuesday called “It’s You I Like,” featuring celebrities like Michael Keaton, Sarah Silverman and others discussing Rogers’s legacy and influence.
The anniversary and special come at a time that finds Rogers, who died in 2003, re-emerging as a pop culture figure. “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a documentary about his life, made its debut earlier this year at Sundance, and an coming biopic, titled “You Are My Friend,” will star Tom Hanks as the genial host. This month the United States Postal Service will release a stamp bearing Fred Rogers’s portrait.
The key themes of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” were kindness, civility and empathy, Margy Whitmer, a longtime producer, said. Another message: It’s O.K. to make mistakes.
“Fred thought it was important that kids understood that you’ve got to make mistakes so you get better and that making mistakes helps you grow,” she said in a phone interview.
Ms. Whitmer, discussed some of the show’s most memorable moments.