Pittsburgh-area native David Newell claims he has never really worked a day in his life.
The actor’s career has been mostly all fun since he forged a lifelong working relationship and friendship with the late, great Fred Rogers. Now at age 80, Newell, better known to the television world as the delivery man, Mr. McFeely, on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, continues to uphold Rogers’ legacy of the long-running children’s show.
Newell, 80, who lives in suburban Pittsburgh, said in a telephone interview Monday that he is eagerly anticipating his visit to New Castle on Saturday, when he will lead the city’s Hometown Holly Days Christmas parade as its grand marshal.
He will also be the keynote speaker at a Thanksgiving service at Westminster College the next evening. The observance will begin at 6:30 p.m. in Wallace Memorial Chapel on the Westminster College campus and is free and open to the public. An offering of non-perishable foods for the City Rescue Mission and school supplies for the Wilmington Area School District will be received.
Newell is a fount of knowledge, reciting dates and lore about Fred Rogers and his decades-long television show.
“It’s been a wonderful journey,” he said.
He looks forward to the Nov. 22 release of the movie, “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” in which actor Tom Hanks portrays a striking likeness to Mister Rogers. Mr. McFeely, and others in the TV show, are played by different actors in the film, but Newell said he and other original production members appears in a cameo near the beginning.
“You have to look fast. Don’t look down at your popcorn or you’ll miss it,” he said.
The scene takes place at a restaurant table. As Hanks talks to the author in the scene, he says a line about thinking of people who helped him make his career, and everyone stops eating and looks up, Newell said. The movie is not so much the story of Rogers, he explained. It represents a time when an author interviewed Rogers, and Rogers impacted his life.
“Basically it’s a story of friendship,” Newell said, noting that “Hanks has the essence of Fred. It’s been getting very good reviews. It has premiered in the Toronto film festival, and the reviews out of there were wonderful.”
Newell enrolled as a teen in a two-year course at the Pittsburgh Playhouse School of Theater, which led him to work with the children’s theater and to volunteer for WQED. While touring in Europe in 1967, he received a telegram from a mutual friend of his and Fred Rogers, who told him that Rogers had received underwriting by Sears and Roebuck to take his program from a regional to a national program. The friend set up an interview between him and Rogers, and that’s where it all started for him.
What Newell thought would be a one-year stint turned into a 52-year career and close friendship with a man whom he, and the rest of the world, will forever admire.
“We started taping the program in Sept. 1967. It aired nationally Feb. 19, 1968, and I was on for the entire run,” Newell said. “My job was not only to be Mr. McFeely, but to be in charge of all of the props and costumes. When Fred Rogers interviewed me, he said he wrote a part as a delivery man and asked me to play that role.”
Newell also was in charge of the public relations for the past 15 years.
Rogers’ first program, Children’s Corner, originated in Canada in the early 1950s and started on WQED in 1954. This is the 65th anniversary year.
The company, called Fred Rogers Productions, is part of the PBS-streaming kids channel now featuring the show, “Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood,” which is gaining worldwide popularity in multiple languages, Newell said. The show uses Daniel Tiger, the puppet on the original Children’s Corner.
“The first wave of children who grew up with Mister Rogers are now in their early 50s, but kids are still watching it,” Newell pointed out. “It makes me feel good to have been part of something so positive.”
Newell said of Rogers, “He was the real thing. It was not an act. He was a very smart man with a wonderful sense of humor. He was a caring person, and his kindness just came out of him.”