Miles From Doogie

Neil Patrick Harris has a grand passion in his life: the theater.

"I am a huge theater fan," enthuses Harris, who came to fame as the wholesome kid physician on ABC's Steven Bochco series "Doogie Howser, M.D."

"Listening to the soundtrack of 'Annie' is what got me interested in acting," says Harris, who hails from Ruidoso, N.M. "I had seen a bus and truck show in Albuquerque. We were living three hours from there, so we drove up and saw it. It wasn't very good, but it was remarkable ."

Harris also was intrigued by the lyrics of the Tony Award-winning musical. "I love lyrics," says Harris, now 20. "I am not a poet or anything, but I am fascinated by, at least lately, rhyming patterns. So listening to that music is interesting to me because it has just so much depth. Stephen Sondheim's stuff is amazing."

This past summer, Harris garnered pretty impressive reviews for his work in the La Jolla Playhouse's production of James Lapine's dark comedy "Luck, Pluck and Virtue." "It was very physical," says the good-natured actor, relaxing this late afternoon in a conference room in his publicist's office. "In the play my character lost his teeth, his eye, his hair, his scalp, his thumb, his leg and his life." Harris says he never realized how intense it was to do a play. "I can understand why a lot of actors don't want to do theater because not only does it require a lot from you physically, you are constantly put up for public displays of ridicule. Even in rehearsal periods, you are asked to do things that are very uncomfortable. It was good (to do) coming off of 'Doogie,' where everything was so speedy, so fast."

Doogie, which he played for four seasons, was basically himself. "He didn't do any emotionally stretching in the show," Harris says of his small-screen alter ego. "He was pretty much the emotional straight man in the show, so whatever I did was pretty much OK and instinctively pretty right." There's very little of Doogie, though, to be found in Harris' new TV movie "A Family Torn Apart," airing Sunday on NBC.

Based on a true story, "Family" relates the chilling story of a double murder within a seemingly perfect family. When the parents of three adopted boys are murdered, the two prime suspects are their teen-age boys: quiet and shy Brian (Harris), and the moody, troublesome Daniel (Johnny Galecki). Harris was exactly the actor that producer John Levoff was looking for to play Brian. Levoff was very familiar with Harris' work from "Doogie" as well as his Golden Globe-nominated performance in the 1988 Whoopi Goldberg movie "Clara's Heart."

"I knew him to be a very good solid actor with lots of fans in town," Levoff says. "The difficulty when you are making a picture with young people in it, is that it's hard to find really proficient actors when the picture depends on their performance. We needed a great actor. In the area of casting young guys, you have a limited number of options--it's not only finding a proficient young actor, you have to find a proficient young actor with an audience, with a public profile."

Before production began, Harris read the book "Sudden Fury," on which the film was based. Harris also talked with its writer, Leslie Walker, when she visited the set for several days.

"It was real interesting to talk with her," Harris says. "It was such a bizarre story, especially with the (Eric and Lyle) Menendez thing." Near the film's conclusion, there's a highly emotional scene in which Brian cracks. Harris says it was a challenge to bring it off.

"I think it's difficult for me at least to display broad emotions because you can so easily look ridiculous doing it," Harris explains.

"It's easy to imitate the movie-of-the-week cry. What I liked about 'Family Torn Apart' is that (director Craig Baxley) wanted real tight close-ups. He wanted you to feel like you were looking at the person and what they were thinking. I'm not interested in doing something if it's sort of bland." Harris' next project certainly isn't run-of-the-mill. In the CBS movie "The Jim and Jennifer Stolpa Story," Harris plays the real-life husband and father who walked eight days in a snow storm in the High Sierra seeking help while his wife and baby waited in a cave. 'It's such a perfect story for a TV movie without having to be a murder or mayhem story. It's a story about unconditional love." As he's gotten older, Harris says, he regrets not going to college. "I said, 'I will think about that when the show's over,' but now that the show's over, I want to keep working," he explains. "I think college for me might be a step backward as well as a step forward. I think it would be awkward for me to take Acting 104. But at the same time, I miss taking history and writing classes. My opinion of late is the more interested I get in stuff, I can take a UCLA extension course."

One thing's for sure, Harris says with a laugh, "I don't have much interest in taking chemistry again. I can safely say I will never use that."

Susan King- Los Angeles Times - Sunday, November 21, 1993

Thanks to Katie for this article.