David Newell Visits Our Neighborhood To Talk About Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, His Role As “Mr. McFeely” And The Importance Of Public Broadcasting< < Back to
ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — David Newell, who is best known for portraying Speedy Delivery character “Mr. McFeely” on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” visited Ohio University during Homecoming weekend.
Newell sat down with WOUB’s Destiniee Jaram and Curtis Feder to talk about his career, the legacy of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” and his family.
Q: What were your early career aspirations? Did you always know you wanted to perform?
A: I always wanted to be in some form of theater and that was my background, actually. When I was about twelve years old, I went to Saturday afternoon classes at the Pittsburgh Playhouse, which is a local theater in Pittsburgh. They had classes for kids. The bug bit me, the theoretical bug bit me. So, I finished high school and before going to college I had enrolled in the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of Theater. I went there for two years and it was an intensive course in theater. How I got into children’s media is that I was the clown for the Pittsburgh Playhouse Junior. They did all the classics, Cinderella, and so forth. But they had a host every Saturday who greeted the kids. The host was a clown and his name was Bimbo. I was Bimbo the clown. My aspirations were to get into theater. Television is a form of theater and film is a form of theater. My first love is theater but I loved what I did for my living, working for Mister Rodgers Neighborhood. I never thought I would be here talking to you today, I thought I had a job for one year and here I am. It’s been a wonderful, wonderful experience.
Q: What was meeting and working with Fred Rogers like?
A: I knew who he was but I had never met him before. I got a telegram and a mutual friend who said Fred Rogers was taking “Mister Rodgers’ Neighborhood” nationally. It was a local program before.. I said ‘Oh that’s great,’ not expecting much. I came back and met Fred. He asked me all about myself for an hour. We talked about just personal things, nothing to do with the job, and about an hour into the interview, he said ‘When can you start?’ I think he knew that I could do the job. My job then was to be in charge of production, be in charge of the props.
Q: How did you end up playing Mr. McFeely?
Before I left the interview, Rogers said ‘Oh, by the way. I’ve written a delivery man role into the program and I want you to play it.’ On the first day of taping, everything was ready. I was in my uniform and the phone rang. It was “Mr. McCrudy” from Sears Roebuck’s calling. The Sears Foundation was the ones who gave the funding for the program and he was the president. Fred named the delivery character after him as a thank you for the money. “Mr. McCrudy,” said please don’t call the delivery man “Mr. McCrudy,” it’s a little too self-serving for us. So Fred came back into the studio and said ‘We have to get you a new name.’ Before he finished the sentence, he said ‘McFeely, that’s who you are.” McFeely is Fred’s middle name and the real “Mr. McFeely” was his grandfather. He was pulling it out of the air really because we had ten minutes before we were taping. So, here I am, “Mr. McFeely.”
Q: When you first got the role and were performing, obviously, Rogers had a lot of fan mail. Did you get any fan mail?
A: I did. Fred got most of them. We got so much mail that you couldn’t handle it. We had to have people just do the mail. But he signed every piece of mail that left the office. He may not have sat down and typed it all but he had a hand in everything that left the office. He was very personal. I would get mainly pictures drawn of “McFeely” with Speedy Delivery and a mailbag. Very crude, you know, three-year-old versions of “McFeely”— oh and bicycles I got a lot of pictures of bicycles. That’s what I would get. In fact, I still get letters. I have a stack at home to answer. I now get letters from the people who sent in those bicycles that are now, some of them, in their 50s. It’s been very rewarding.
Q: What do you think the legacy of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is with children growing up?
A: I hope we had an impact and I think we did. A lot of children are afraid of scary images because they don’t separate reality and fantasy. I thought, maybe we could try to find the actress who played the witch in “Wizard of Oz,” Margaret Hamilton. So I did. She was doing some Broadway shows and her agent said “She would love to. And she watches ‘Mister’ with her grandchildren.” She came and she showed the witch’s outfit and the result was after it was broadcast, we got a lot of letters thanking us for helping children understand that it’s pretending. We’re demystifying it. That’s just a small example of what I think the program has done: helping children with everyday concerns. We’ve done a lot of topics like that. Going to the doctor or the dentist was another one. We forget about all of that, but for a three-year-old and four-year-old, it’s very important. And that, I think we helped with. And maybe cleared the way for other programs to help with social and emotional subjects too, that is part of the legacy also.
Q: How did your time working on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” impact the lives of your children?
A: I think it impacted my youngest, he’s now a mailman. He works for the post office and I feel like he related to the program the most. It had a big impact on him too because he’s the one who follows the program and follows articles about Fred or children’s television. But they all took part and I would take them to the studio. It had an impact on my kids in a very positive way.
Q: Did you ever try to find other roles besides “Mr. McFeely”?
A: I did. But what I was doing when the show actually stopped taping, I was working for the company. I was in charge of the public relations and I was on staff to help promote the packaging of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” because it showed in reruns for years.It’s still showing. I pursued a few other roles. But what stopped me was I got married, I had three kids, I had to pay the bills. So, “McFeely” was a good way to remain in one place. As an actor you travel unless you have a series. During that time I would do small parts in films that were shooting in the Pittsburgh area. Once I was in L.A. for an event and I saw an agent. I was sitting there thinking, ‘What am I doing? I love what I’m doing. I don’t know if I want to do other things right now.’ So, I came back to Pittsburgh and I stayed and I just loved every moment of it. I felt I was helping children rather than just making another series that pays much better. It depends on what you want for yourself and what makes you happy, and that’s what made me happy.
Q: You have a very tight connection to Pittsburgh, born and raised there. You’re currently retired there. What significance does living in that neighborhood, in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, have to you?
A: Most people working in the media as an actor end up in L.A. or in New York. But Pittsburgh has a public television station that was producing national products. It lent itself to Fred’s sensibility. It wasn’t a big noisy city as New York would have been. He grew up in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, which is about an hour away and resembles very much the neighborhood in the show. I think in some ways Pittsburgh inspired him to do stories that helped children. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” fit better in Pittsburgh and I think I did too. My friends were there, my family was there. Pittsburgh was just the perfect spot to live and work.
Q: What would you like to work on next?
A: I don’t consider myself totally retired. I am trying to put a book together talking about my years working at “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” There are funny stories, there are poignant stories and I just want to be able to put them down so people like you all can maybe read them. Another thing is to keep the legacy of the “Neighborhood” going. The program still resonates. The pace of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” is slower than most programs but it still resonates with a lot of young children. The pace is what a preschooler needs, they don’t need a fast pace. We have a follow-up program, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” and now there’s another, “Donkey Hodie,” carrying on the emotional legacy. And we have sweater drives. Every year public stations collect sweaters and they give them to people who can use them. So all of that is sort of a residue of what I did when I was on the program. Still delivering!
Q: What do you want people today to take away from “Mister Rogers Neighborhood”?
A: I hope that this generation, or any generation that watched it, got his kindness. You know we hear a lot about that, but he was talking about being kind 35 years ago. I think there is some impact with that. I hope in some way, maybe they watched the show and maybe caught something. Attitudes are caught, not taught. And if you do something you love in front of children, they’ll catch that enthusiasm. I think that’s how Fred Rogers used television. He loved what he was doing and he had a mission to use television to help. Instead of selling popcorn, he wanted to help with emotional feelings, rather than sell things to kids. He didn’t want to make consumers out of children.
Q: I’m wondering about your thoughts on the importance of public media, and if that played a role in how you approached Mr. Rogers Neighborhood.
A: Fred always said that public television, PBS, enabled him to do what he wanted to do. On commercial television, he would have been restricted. He couldn’t have done what he wanted to do, and public television was the perfect medium for Fred. Perfect. And again, it was set in Pittsburgh. WQED in Pittsburgh, where we made the program, was the first community-supported station. That was another reason we stayed in Pittsburgh because he helped start the station. And then the conduit of the PBS mission was perfect for Fred and his mission. And it made all the difference in the world. I think because we were on public television. That’s why I’m here talking to you now. It’s because they supported his mission and I’m glad I was part of it.
This interview was edited for clarity and length.