Neil Patrick Harris may be approaching 50, but to a generation he will always be the child prodigy Doogie Howser, the 14-year-old doctor he played as a teenager. It’s a little bizarre that people what is it, 30 years later? still refer to me as that. People say: ‘Hey, Doogie, I like your new show!’ But hey, better than anonymity, I suppose.
It is a long time since Harris, 48, has been anonymous. He made his acting debut at 15, starring opposite Whoopi Goldberg as a disillusioned teen in Clara’s Heart, a drama about a Jamaican woman who moves to Baltimore to become the housekeeper for a rich family. Since then, he has established himself as a versatile actor in musical theatre, film and TV and a host and presenter of high-profile awards shows such as the Oscars. His CV is particularly impressive when you consider how often child actors struggle to establish adult careers, or find themselves traumatised by their formative experiences.
So, how did he succeed where so many have failed? The way he tells it, being a teenage actor was exciting enough on its own to stop him from being distracted by the worst excesses of fame.I love process, he says, emphatically.I’ve always really been most excited about learning how things work. Fame is a bit of an ether fog and you can get overwhelmed by the treatment, as opposed to the work.
Harris may seem an incongruous choice for a serious sci-fi franchise, but his career has been full of zags, which he puts down to being an extroverted, curious child. He spent his younger years trying desperately to find a creative outlet in Ruidoso, his small home town in the mountains of New Mexico.
There were not a lot of artistic outlets aside from howling coyote paintings and making bolo ties, he says, drily. Harris grew up with his parents, who were lawyers, and his older brother. He sang in a church choir and played various instruments in a band; by 10, he was directing plays at his local theatre. But there was really no opportunity to act on any level except at the country club, where they would put up a weird play twice a year.
His choir director encouraged him to attend a drama summer camp run by the playwright Mark Medoff at New Mexico State University. Medoff took a shine to Harris and encouraged the teenager to audition for Clara’s Heart, which Medoff wrote. When Harris landed the role, he was delighted – despite the pressure of being in the public eye.
He was nominated for a Golden Globe for his performance in Clara’s Heart. Doogie Howser, MD followed shortly after. His affection for the show, for which he earned another Golden Globe nod, is clear.I’m very proud of that role, he says.That was my formative college years, even though I was barely in high school.
But, as with college years, there are some scenes that are best left in the past. Earlier this year, a cringe-inducing clip of the show went viral on Twitter. In it, Doogie is led into a dark room by an adult nurse; she says she likes younger men, then pushes herself against him and undoes his trousers.
I remember the scene and I remember filming it, says Harris, who had not heard it had resurfaced. I appreciate that you shouldn’t be doing certain creative things like you used to. But I also was in Cabaret on Broadway, where the Emcee was encouraged to wander through the audience and sit on anyone’s laps and grope the ensemble.we do live in a world where you have to be much more cognisant of everyone being OK with everything. So I applaud that.