Wanna see a magic trick? Okay: Take a teenager — ideally a late bloomer who’s 16 but looks 12 — and have him star as a brainiac on an occasionally heavy-handed sitcom. And give him a weird name, something easy to holler out on the street. Like, ”Hey, it’s Doogie!” Then yank his show off the air after four seasons, leaving behind a young actor pigeonholed before his time as something he never quite was.
We’ve seen this trick a hundred times. We know how it ends: Poof! The kid just disappears. Right? Except…Neil Patrick Harris is still here. And not just here — he’s cool, cool in a way that, logically, he should never be.
In a popular culture that staunchly resists allowing young actors to grow out of their breakout roles and keep a career going, Harris is more beloved at 36 than he was at 16. Everything about him defies the logic of hip: The boy who was Doogie Howser, M.D. is now a man who loves dweeby things like Dick Cavett and puppet improv comedy, and who harbors a life-long passion for magic so intense that he sits on the board of L.A.’s Magic Castle. Yet we are delighted to watch him do pretty much anything: bring the funny as How I Met Your Mother‘s boorish Barney, guest-judge American Idol, do Broadway, belt out love ballads in a sci-fi Web musical. On Sept. 20, he’ll even host this year’s Emmy awards — again, we feel delight. And when he came out of the closet in 2006, he did so without fuss or scandal, and then effortlessly slipped back into his weekly role as a lady-killer. (Now there’s a trick!) ”He’s the Sinatra of TV right now,” says Joss Whedon, who cast Harris as the titular mad scientist in 2008’s Emmy-winning viral craze Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. ”Not just because he can croon and a suit hangs well on him, but because he makes people feel like TV’s cool.”
Doogie is cool — how the eff did that happen? ”I’m able to swing wildly different demographics in wildly different mediums,” Harris surmises. ”The die-hard Sondheim fans think I’m cool, the Baptist 70-year-old ladies think I’m cool from the TV movie [The Wedding Dress], the stoner kids think I’m cool from Harold & Kumar.” He smiles. ”Momentum has been gaining,” he says. ”I don’t have any idea where it’s all headed, but I’m having a swell time while I’m running very quickly.”
As the entertainment world’s most prominent supporter of circuses and illusionists and acrobats, it’s apropos that he chooses a three-ring word to define himself: ”plate spinner.” A man with many divergent talents, he calls his wide-ranging career ”tangential.” As a young actor growing up in New Mexico, he never thought much about showbiz as a career; it just happened to him. ”All these random things started coming my way before I was able to make any decisions.” After being discovered at theater camp (again: not cool) and cast alongside Whoopi Goldberg in 1988’s Clara’s Heart, Harris says he lived a relatively normal life, ”every once in a while getting this phone call from my then agent/now manager, who would say, ‘Do you want to spend four weeks in Big Bear with Patrick Duffy and Loni Anderson playing a handicapped kid who gets drowned in a lake?’ I didn’t have to audition. It was just like, ‘There you are.”’
And just like that, he got a medical degree in his teens, overcoming the doubts of ABC. ”He was so gifted, [but] in their infinite wisdom, the network wasn’t sure,” recalls veteran TV producer Steven Bochco, who cast him as the precocious Doogie in 1989. ”I think because he wasn’t a cliché. He was a very specific guy. There’s something accessible when you look at his face. He’s real. That’s priceless.” When the show was canceled in 1993, Harris — who cringingly remembers his Doogie image as ”geeky, curly hair, big ears, acne, Adam’s apple, long neck, bolo tie” — says, ”I wanted nothing to do with television for a while. I felt like I had lived that chapter, and everyone recognized me as someone who I wasn’t. I was ready for anonymity.”