“Franc, you have talents and gifts that set you apart and above the crowd,” Clemmons recalls Rogers telling him, according to People. “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.”
In a separate interview with the outlet about the harrowing ordeal, Clemmons recalls breaking down in tears as his role on the television show relied upon keeping his homosexuality a secret.
Clemmons remembers Rogers saying, “You must do this Francois because it threatens my dream,” the outlet said.
“I was destroyed,” Clemmons told the magazine. “The man who was killing me had also saved me. 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.”
Following his direction to not come out as gay, Rogers also encouraged Clemmons to marry a woman.
“By the time I left his office, I had made up my mind to marry La-Tanya Mae Sheridan,” Clemmons writes in the memoir. “At the wedding reception, Fred and [his wife] Joanne approached me and my new wife. It felt as if Fred and I were sealing some kind of secret bargain.”
Clemmons and Sheridan divorced in 1974 and he later came out.
Today, Rogers’ confidante says he forgives him.
“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,” he said.
The show stayed on the air until 2001. The television icon died in 2003 after a bout with stomach cancer. “Officer Clemmons” will be released on May 5.