It's hard to believe that Fred Rogers would be such an integral component to a series of films where the flesh eating undead roam the Earth. But it was just the boost that George Romero would need to fine tune his filmmaking skills for the big screen.
Most filmmakers seem to gravitate to the Hollywood system of Los Angeles or the down and dirty grime of the New York film scene. Romero did things in reverse. The Brooklyn native would find himself a Pittsburgh transplant once graduating from Carnegie Melon University in 1960. George's new Steel Town home would become a deeply personal appendage to his films. However, there was one personality in the late 60s that was about to reign The Iron City.
Fred Rogers' unlikely demeanor and soft-spoken approach to children's entertainment was about to create one of the most beloved series of all time. His unorthodox approach, speaking directly to the children was like no other. Fred wanted the children to know the truth and understand how to deal with the reality set before them. MISTER ROGER'S NEIGHBORHOOD spent part of the show in 'The Land of Make-Believe' talking to Daniel Tiger and King Friday XIII, and the rest of the show with Fred himself, in segments on the hard hitting subjects like "How Light Bulbs Are Manufactured" and "Things That Are Soft".
Just out of college George was already working on short films and TV commercials and looking for any work before he was prepared for his feature debut. Fred hired George to film a dozen or so segments including the two previously mentioned as well as "Mister Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy." “Fred was the first guy who trusted me enough to hire me to actually shoot film,”, George, said. The future Godfather of the Dead would consider this segment to be his first big production “I still joke that 'Mr. Rogers Gets a Tonsillectomy' is the scariest film I’ve ever made. What I really mean is that I was scared sh*tless while I was trying to pull it off.”
"Everyone from Pittsburgh who I know from that period, who is still working in the business in any capacity, started with Fred. Fred was so supportive of people.", said Romero. But there are limitations to Fred Roger's support. George wanted to cast local actress, Betty Aberlin in the role of Barbara (or possibly Judy) in NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. However, Betty was better known to the inhabitants of 'The Land of Make Believe' as Lady Aberlin and Fred would not allow his cast to be seen in any unsightly manner.
George continued on with his project of the dead and with no animosity towards Fred's protection over his cast. “He was a beautiful guy. He was the sweetest man I ever knew. What you see is what you get. That was Fred. He was dedicated to educating kids and telling them ‘There’s nothing wrong with you. I like you just the way you are.’"
Everything worked out in the end. Judith O'Dea took on the role of Barbara. Romero and his Pittsburgh crew would make one of the most influential horror films ever set to film. And Fred's unabashed compassion for people brings us some of the most groundbreaking news yet. Mister Rogers himself has sat through Romero's original horror masterpiece as well as it's mall bound sequel, DAWN OF THE DEAD even going so far as to tell Romero, "It's a lot of fun, George."