You may have read it on the internet or heard it from a friend: Before Fred McFeely Rogers became a beloved TV legend, he was a sniper in the Vietnam War. Then he took to the airwaves, adopting his signature sweater to cover his full-sleeve tattoos, using his platform to abuse children and flipping off television cameras along the way.
Everything in that paragraph is untrue—so why do these stories keep being repeated? The persistence of these stories, and their stark contrast from the truth, tells us a lot about urban legends and how they spread. In fact, folklorists, who study how people express themselves in everyday life, say that the stories we tell about public figures can actually tell us a lot about ourselves.
Mr. Rogers’ real biography reads like a squeaky-clean fable: A Pittsburgh native, he entered a seminary but left to pursue a career in children’s television. A deft puppeteer and storyteller, Rogers had a deep love of—and respect for—children that made him a uniquely qualified kids’ entertainer. “Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood,” his iconic TV show that debuted 50 years ago this month, ran for 33 years on public television and is still shown in reruns. Rogers’ soft-spoken persona, his inventive puppets and the familiar residents of his “neighborhood” turned the show into a much-loved kids’ classic filled with gentle lessons and quiet entertainment. The cherished star made a famously emotional plea for public television before the U.S. Senate Subcommittee on Communications in 1969, and was a devoted Presbyterian minister who neither smoked nor drank.
He’s also the subject of a string of tall tales. Supposedly, he flipped off a television camera in an uncharacteristic show of aggression, captured in a GIF that’s reached meme status. (In truth, he was raising his fingers during an innocent on-air game of “Where is Thumbkin.”) Other myths have it that he fought in Vietnam or was a particularly violent Navy SEAL. (He did neither, though he did receive a Presidential Medal of Freedom from George W. Bush for his work in television.) Some even claim that Rogers created his show in order to abuse kids, despite the fact that no one ever actually alleged misconduct by the star.
Trevor J. Blank, an assistant professor of communication at the State University of New York at Potsdam, who studies folklore and urban legends, has an idea why Rogers is the subject of so many baseless legends. “He’s an individual to whom we trust our children,” says Blank. “He taught kids how take care of their bodies, associate with their community, how to relate to neighbors and strangers.” This makes Rogers the perfect target for urban legends—especially ones that counter his upstanding public image.
But what is an urban legend, anyway? “Fictional stories that have some kind of believable component,” Blank explains. Usually, these outlandish tales seem credible because they supposedly happened to a friend of a friend—someone we know, but who is far enough away that we can’t verify or confirm the veracity of their claims. That’s what makes legends different than rumors, which tend to be about people you know.
Often, says Blank, urban legends concern themselves with issues of morality and life lessons. So it makes sense that Rogers—associated with childhood, purity and moral decency—would inspire a few tall tales of his own. In one such story, which has spread in various permutations since Rogers’ death in 2003, criminals stole the TV star’s car, only to return if after realizing they’d taken the vehicle of the esteemed childhood figure.
But these mythologies can also serve to take beloved figures down a notch. “Urban legends sometimes distort the positive to create a sense of intrigue,” says Blank. Folklore has to be significant in order to be spread, he notes, and the thought of a trusted childhood icon actually being evil certainly gets jaws wagging.
“Mr. Rogers, by all accounts, seems like a very mild-mannered, Puritan-esque character,” Blank says. “Him having a very macho back story or being a ruthless killer is kind of titillating; it runs counter to what you’re presented as true in your day-to-day experience.”
Indeed, says Blank, the legends are even more intriguing when they concern people generally thought of as wholesome. That’s what happened to John Gilchrist, who was a freckled three-year-old when he played “Mikey” in a long-running series of ads for Life cereal in the 1970s and ’80s. The commercial, which shows a kid who usually turns his nose up at unfamiliar foods happily enjoying a bowl of Life, turned Gilchrist into a star and the words “Hey, Mikey!” into a catchphrase.
It’s saccharine stuff—but during the 1980s, a popular urban legend about Gilchrist caught fire. The story goes that he died after eating a supposedly fatal combination of Pop Rocks and a carbonated beverage. In real life, Gilchrist is just fine; he’s middle-aged and working in media sales.
The reason celebrities are so susceptible to these legends is simple. The are “intimate strangers,” Blank says. “You can know a lot about them even if you’re not in relationship with them.”
After all, he adds, “Every time I tie my shoes, I have a little bit of Mr. Rogers in me.” He’s thinking of the real TV legend—not the creepy character of urban myth. But as long as the star is loved and remembered, Blank says, people will likely tell tall tales about Mr. Roger’s supposed evil—precisely because they’re so difficult to believe.