Looking For A Creative Life After "Doogie Howser M.D."

LOS ANGELES -- "He feels very different" was the warning from Neil Patrick Harris's publicity agent. Sure enough, when the erstwhile star of "Doogie Howser, M.D." arrived at the Santa Monica restaurant, it was evident that the baby face that used to smile down from posters on sleeping preteen-age girls had hardened and the beanpole body had filled out. More startling, this Neil Harris was sporting hipster sunglasses and close-cropped, chemically concocted yellow hair.

For the 24-year-old Mr. Harris these days, it's all about being different -- different, that is, from Doogie Howser, the sweet-natured protagonist of the ABC sitcom that kept its giddily high concept (he's a child and he's a doctor!) going from 1989 to 1993. Mr. Harris is winding up a triumphant run as the video artist Mark Cohen in the West Coast production of "Rent" (thus the peroxide perm) and waiting for the release of two films that he hopes will get Doogie off his back.

The first is "Starship Troopers," Paul Verhoeven's much-anticipated adaptation of the Robert Heinlein science-fiction saga, which opens on Friday. In it, Mr. Harris plays Carl Jenkins, the whiz-kid best friend of Johnny Rico, the young hero of Earth's war against extraterrestrial insects. Early next year, movie audiences will see Mr. Harris as another cerebral character, a 1930's Harvard Law School graduate, in "Tempting Fate," also starring William Hurt, Madeleine Stowe and Kenneth Branagh. Mr. Harris's character is hired to father a child with a feminist writer (Ms. Stowe) whose husband (Mr. Hurt) is sterile.

"I'd like to echelon myself up a bit," Mr. Harris said with a trace of Doogie Howser's precise diction, then he confessed to coveting the sort of film roles claimed by his bad-boy contemporaries. "To get Leonardo DiCaprio's seconds would be really nice."

Those comments capture two traits that make Mr. Harris an interesting person to talk to: a boyish effervescence and a sagacity about the industry in which he has grown up. 'He's many-faceted," said Michael Greif, who directed Mr. Harris in "Rent." "In some ways he's wise beyond his years and very mature for his age, and at other times he's not. He's chameleonlike, and that's a good thing."

Indeed, this actor's actor who is fond of the portentous pronouncement "The two biggest attributes I hold dear are creativity and authenticity" is likely the next moment to crack wise or ask, "Does that make sense?" And the California dreamer who finds everything "awesome" offered an erudite analysis of why some actors who excel in "three camera" sitcoms stumble when they make the transition to "one camera" movies.

Of course, the transition that matters most to Mr. Harris is his own metamorphosis from teen-age television star to mature actor. "Starship Troopers" could accelerate that process, even though his character, in military intelligence, isn't part of the front lines in the war against the alien insects. "I have one scene with the bugs," Mr. Harris said, "but they're just sort of behind me. I'm explaining to the troopers how to kill them: 'Aim for the nerve stem! Put them down good!' But there was no bug there; it was added later by special-effects wizards."

Interacting with an invisible insect is actually much less of an acting challenge than Mr. Harris has faced in his television work since the cancellation of "Doogie Howser, M.D." He has appeared, to generally effusive reviews, in what he calls a "slew" of made-for-television movies, playing characters as diverse as a serial arsonist and a memory-impaired adolescent. And well before he auditioned for "Rent," he appeared in New York and Los Angeles in "Luck, Pluck and Virtue," James Lapine's dark-comic adaptation of the Nathanael West novel "A Cool Million."

"I had heard wildly enthusiastic things about Neil from a number of people I knew and trusted," recalled Mr. Greif, who directed "Rent" in New York as well in California. But that buzz was about Mr. Harris's acting, and "Rent" is a musical. "He came in to sing, and he sang terrifically," Mr. Greif said.

Mr. Lapine called Mr. Harris "a really funny fellow, a great physical comedian." And the director Lesli Linka Glatter, who chose Mr. Harris over 40 other actors for "Tempting Fate," chimed in, "He's fabulous." But until "Starship Troopers," Mr. Harris's talent had gone begging in the film business. His last major theatrical release was his first, "Clara's Heart," in 1988.

Is Doogie Howser to blame?

Mr. Harris mused that the problem might be as simple as his old character's nickname: "It's such a funny, stupid name. It sticks." But whether it's the D-word or the image of a boy detouring from his driving test to treat an injured man, Mr. Harris is worried that some filmgoers won't "grow with me as I grow." "There won't be any 'Doogie Howser' reunions," he said. "That I can assure you."

"That's the kid in him," Mr. Lapine said, suggesting that as Mr. Harris ages he'll come to a greater appreciation of the positive aspects of the "Doogie Howser" experience.

Actually, Mr. Harris was full of praise for the show (and for Steven Bochco, one of its creators), "because that's where I got my discipline as an actor," he said. But the downside of Doogie is only a mouse click away for Mr. Harris, who jokes that he surfs the Internet to be abused. On a "Starship Troopers" Web site, for example, an alleged insider posted this dispatch during filming a year ago: "Neil Patrick Harris, aka Doogie Howser, still looks about 14. He's around all the time with a camcorder, filming just about everything. Hope he likes his home movies."

Home is where Mr. Harris's career began. As the second son of lawyers in Albuquerque, N.M., he enacted his own drama of the gifted child, to an appreciative audience. "When I was a little kid -- 9 or 10 -- I dealt with adults so well," he recalled. "I could just talk to them; I just got it. I loved movies, I loved plays and musicals."

The transition from community theater and the school choir to Hollywood proved absurdly easy. "I went to a drama camp for a week to hang out and play improv games," he said, "and Mark Medoff was in charge of that camp and he had written 'Clara's Heart' and he had me put on tape, and I ended up getting that gig and that led to an agent." He was 14.

Robert Harbin, now a Fox Television executive, handled the casting for the pilot of "Doogie Howser, M.D.," Mr. Bochco and David E. Kelley's "dramedy" about a 16-year-old physician. Mr. Harbin remembers Mr. Harris as a boy who was disarmingly definite about his career goals. "Even then it was, 'Well, yes, I loved doing that movie and, yes, I loved doing some TV things, but I want to be on the stage.' Those of us who were a bit more tarnished in this business were like: 'Do a play? Are you crazy?'"

After all these years Mr. Harris still complains about the teen magazines. "Kids don't need to be exploited," he said. "Kids need to be acting. If they're poster boys, then they're going to be a flash in the pan."

Although he has made several appearances on network television since the demise of "Doogie," Mr. Harris isn't enthusiastic about returning to television on a regular basis. That leaves theater and film. "I would love for my feature film career to advance to the stage where I can probably live in New York or not be required to live in L.A. and be seen at auditions, but I could choose what roles I wanted to do and then work in the meantime in the theater," he said.

He acknowledged that he wouldn't be right for every role. "It's ridiculous for me to audition for a movie where I'm playing a high school football jock," he said. Mr. Harris isn't a drug addict or a hustler either, but those are among the roles that intrigue him, as are light-comedy parts la James Stewart.

Given his painful memories of teen magazines, would Mr. Harris balk at appearing on the covers of glossy celebrity magazines that some would argue are simply young-adult versions of Tiger Beat? What if Details wanted to put him on a cover? "I would cheer," he said. "I'm trying to break free of wholesome, of 'smile, show your teeth, be a nice good boy' and try to be more mysterious, sexual, warped."

The doctor is definitely out.

Michael McGough - The New York Times - 11-02-97

Thanks to Katie for this article.