He was so lovable as “Officer Clemmons” in PBS’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood – a role he played for 25 years. But Francois Clemmons is, if anything, more lovable and vivid as himself: actor, professional opera singer, retired Middlebury music professor, mentor to hundreds of Middlebury singers, soon-to-be author and eloquent witness about what being black and gay in America has meant over the past 50 years.
Clemmons will relate all that and more Saturday, September 22, in a discussion after the 7 pm screening of Won’t You Be My Neighbor? in the Hop’s Spaulding Auditorium. And, if you ask nicely, he will sing.
Won’t You Be My Neighbor is an uplifting portrait of children’s TV pioneer Fred Rogers, celebrating his legacy and message of radical kindness. Rogers’ career represents a sustained attempt to model how we should best speak to children about important matters. For over 30 years (and 912 episodes), his unique television program gently tackled heavy topics such as racism, disability and homophobia, as well as current events from the Vietnam War and the civil rights movement to the September 11 attacks. Academy Award-winning filmmaker Morgan Neville (Twenty Feet from Stardom) beautifully captures Rogers’ message the impact he has had on generations of children.
Throughout it all, Clemmons was there, helping the series play a positive and even subversive role in a racially divided America. When it came to his sexuality, however, although he was “out” with and completely accepted by Rogers the entire Neighborhood team, he could not be publicly out while he was on the show. In his post-Neighborhood life, he’s been able to be his authentic self, tiaras and all.
Five Francois Facts
Total tenor. A self-described “diva man,” Clemmons has bachelor’s and masters in music/performance from Oberlin and Carnegie Mellon, has sung over 70 roles with opera companies across the country, and has performed as a soloist with orchestras across the US.
Grammy winner! In 1976 he received a Grammy for “Best Opera Recording” as part of the Cleveland Orchestra and Chorus’ recording of George Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess (he played Sportin’ Life).
Coolest collegiate title. From 1997 until his retirement in 2013, Maestro Clemmons was Middlebury College’s Alexander Twilight Artist in Residence – named for an 1823 Middlebury graduate who was the first African-American man known to have earned a bachelor’s degree from an American college or university. Clemmons also was director of the College’s Martin Luther King Spiritual Choir.
Star-spangled. Clemmons is also well known in the Middlebury community for his superb rendition of the national anthem, which he sings at the Middlebury College men’s basketball games, swimming meets and other community fundraising events.
Royal companion. His constant companion is his beloved Tibetan Terrier, HRH The Princess Nepal.
Want more? Here’s a piece on him on NPR and a recent interview he did with in Vanity Fair on growing up black and gay in 1960s Ohio. This recent interview on Vermont Edition gives the deets on his life at a Vermonter.