Francois Clemmons, who played Officer Clemmons on Mister Rogers' Neighborhood for 25 years, briefly discussed how Fred Rogers asked him to "stay in the closet" as a gay man in the acclaimed documentary Won't You Be My Neighbor?. Now, Clemmons is revealing even more about his relationship with Rogers in his upcoming memoir, Officer Clemmons: A Memoir. In the book, Clemmons revealed Rogers suggested he marry a woman, but he has since forgiven Rogers.
In an interview with PEOPLE, Clemmons called Rogers "the spiritual love of my life," despite their difficult off-screen relationship. The two met at church and were introduced through Rogers' wife Joanne. By then, Clemmons had already survived a difficult childhood and soon became a major part of Rogers' life. He began appearing on Mister Rogers in 1968 and remained on the series until 1993.
One day, Rogers asked Clemmons to come into his office. "Franc, you have talents and gifts that set you apart and above the crowd," Rogers told him, Clemmons recalled in his memoir. "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 said he began crying at that point. He realized, "I could have his friendship and fatherly love and relationship forever... but I could have the job only if I stayed in the closet," Clemmons told PEOPLE.
After Rogers told Clemmons he had to stay in the closet, Clemmons said he was "destroyed." "The man who was killing me had also saved me," Clemmons 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 told Clemmons he could "have it all if you keep that part out of the limelight." Then, he suggested Clemmons get married, which caught him off guard. Clemmons did agree though, and married La-Tanya Mae Sheridan. The two amicably divorced in 1974, and Clemmons has been living as an openly gay man ever since.
"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."
Clemmons, 75, is a Grammy-winning singer. He has spoken out about his decision to make a personal sacrifice to stay on Mister Rogers in the past. Last year, he told Vanity Fair he decided he wanted to keep the platform he had as an actor on a beloved children's television show.
"Sacrifice was a part of my destiny," Clemmons said. "In other words, I did not want to be a shame to my race. I didn't want to be a scandal to the show. I didn't want to hurt the man who was giving me so much, and I also knew the value as a black performer of having this show, this platform. Black actors and actresses—SAG and Equity—90 percent of them are not working. If you know that and here you are, on a national platform you're gonna sabotage yourself?"