The next time you run into Neil Patrick Harris, you might want to think twice before asking him about a certain child-prodigy physician named Dr. Douglas Howser. "That's what stun guns are for," jokes the 26-year-old actor, who's sick of answering questions about his TV alter ego. "Shuts people right up. You'd be surprised--it takes only, like, three seconds, but if you hold it there for seven or eight, they really clam up."
Here's another shocker: A whole decade has gone by since Harris made his TV debut at the age of 16 on Steven Bochco's saccharine dramedy Doogie Howser, M.D. This season, Harris is taking a grown-up pass at series TV with NBC's newest Thursday-night entry, Stark Raving Mad. As germ-phobic book editor Henry McNeely, who is assigned to massage the spooky output of horror novelist/nutty prankster Ian Stark (Wings' Tony Shalhoub), Harris, in a surprisingly strong comic turn, may finally stop well-meaning passersby from greeting him with "Yo, Doog!"
"I think it'll be neat," says Harris, whose notable post-Doogie performances include a starring role in the Los Angeles production of Rent and an effete French royal in the Emmy-nominated CBS miniseries Joan of Arc. "All the people who still see [Doogie] reruns will be able to see me as I am today--a little more adult, doing some wacky comedy." He's made a quick believer out of Stark creator Steve Levitan, who thought to cast Harris after he and director James Burrows saw him camp it up opposite Kelsey Grammer in a stage production of Sweeney Todd. "We knew he was talented," says Levitan, "but we didn't know for sure how funny he was. And we never dreamt that he could do the physical stuff."
Believe it or not, Harris' slapstick prowess comes from a secret desire to be a carny. "If I could run away and join Cirque du Soleil, I would do it tomorrow," says Harris, who destresses by practicing flips on a trampoline he installed on the Stark set. Another tidbit from the Who Knew? department: Harris is also a huge magic buff and has performed tricks for Carson, Letterman, and Arsenio. So it's no ill-ooo-sion that his favorite moment of the summer was meeting one of his heroes--longhaired '70s magician Doug Henning. "He was cool," recalls Harris. "He signed a Genie magazine cover for me, 'Magically yours, Doug Henning.'"
Lately, though, Harris has turned to a slightly hipper hobby: shopping on eBay. While he scours the site primarily for magic-related gear, Harris admits to having another burning passion. "I buy as much Doogie memorabilia as I can," he says, only half joking. "I'm trying to get it all for a big bonfire."