Francois Clemmons, the performer best known as “Officer Clemmons” on “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” says the beloved children’s TV host Fred Rogers once encouraged him not to come out as gay.
He recalled the conversation, which took place in Rogers’ office, in an upcoming memoir and an interview with People magazine.
“Franc, you have talents and gifts that set you apart and above the crowd,” Clemmons said Rogers told him. “Someone has informed us that you were seen at the local gay bar downtown. Now, I want you to know, Franc, that if you’re gay, it doesn’t matter to me at all. Whatever you say and do is fine with me, but if you’re going to be on the show as an important member of the Neighborhood, you can’t be out as gay.”
Clemmons was part of the show for 25 years and says he came to think of Rogers as a father figure and mentor. He told People that the conversation “destroyed” him.
“The man who was killing me had also saved me,” he said. “He was my executioner and deliverer. But, at the same time, I knew that he would know how to comfort me. I didn’t have another mother or father to comfort me. I had no one to go and be a boy with. I was just vulnerable. He got in a few slaps, some tough love, a good spanking. But I was not kicked out of the family.”
Rogers suggested that Clemmons marry a woman, telling him that he could “have it all if you can keep that part out of the limelight.” Clemmons eventually wed La-Tanya Mae Sheridan, a decision he credits to that conversation with Rogers. The couple has since divorced and Clemmons now lives publicly as a gay man.
“Lord have mercy, yes, I forgive him,” Clemmons told People. “More than that, I understand. I relied on the fact that this was his dream. He had worked so hard for it. I knew ‘Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood’ was his whole life.”