Neil Patrick Harris is just keeping busy
You’d have to be living under a rock — one with no entertainment in any medium — not to have come across Neil Patrick Harris lately.
The former child star and “Doogie Howser, M.D.” alum has been as ubiquitous as Betty White and with similar results. Though he’s all over prime-time TV, feature films, musical theater, kids’ shows, reality competitions, chat fests and Internet spoofs, there’s no discernable backlash.
That’s quite a hat trick, even for a magician like Harris.
“It’s impossible to get tired of him,” said Jon Hurwitz, a creator of the “Harold & Kumar” franchise, in which Harris will reprise his outrageously debauched character in “A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas” this holiday. “When you see him, you smile.”
In just the last few months, Harris charmed critics and drew big ratings for his second singing-and-dancing go-around as emcee of the Tony Awards, hosted a fundraising gala for President Obama and championed same-sex marriage legislation in New York via his Twitter feed.
That’s after wrapping the sixth season of the sleeper hit “How I Met Your Mother,” directing a sitcom pilot under consideration at CBS, stumping for his two current independent films and prepping “The Expert at the Card Table,” a play he’s directing that launches this weekend at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica.
All that and also Harris is a honcho at the L.A. landmark, the Magic Castle, a producer of the immersive theatrical game, “Accomplice: Hollywood,” and an affable presence on shows as varied as “Sesame Street,” “Live With Regis and Kelly,” “The Howard Stern Show” and “American Idol.”
His voice doesn’t even get a rest, popping up as the narrator on kids’ audio books and in TV series like “Robot Chicken” and “The Penguins of Madagascar.” And he and longtime companion David Burtka welcomed fraternal twins by a surrogate last fall; Gideon and Harper are 9 months old now.
Harris, who admits that even this exhaustive list is just scratching the surface of his comings and goings, said he sometimes feels like “a vaudevillian plate spinner.” Not one to complain — in fact, he’s quick to use words like “grateful” and “fortunate” — he said he simply likes to be busy and strives not to pigeonhole himself.
“I like to make decisions based on things I’m interested in doing, not what seems like the next move in my quote-unquote career,” Harris, 38, said recently after a grueling press junket for his upcoming family comedy, “The Smurfs.” “I’m not trying to climb a ladder — I’m casting a bit of a net.”
He tends to underplay the effect of the public revelation he made in 2006 that he’s “a very content gay man” and said he feels like other gay performers had already blazed the trail.
“There are so many examples of talented actors working today, no matter how they live their private lives,” the Albuquerque native said. “I’m lucky that people believe me when I’m in character.”
Industry colleagues, though, said his subsequent success and high visibility in the cultural mainstream is nothing short of precedent-setting. He’s been able to slip easily from being himself on major awards shows — joking in song that the Tonys aren’t just for gays anymore, walking the red carpet with Burtka — to playing aggressively heterosexual men like “How I Met Your Mother’s” rakish Barney Stinson.
“The fact that he’s made his sexuality a nonissue is a particular kind of triumph,” said writer-director Joss Whedon, mastermind of the Internet smash “Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog” in which Harris starred as the title character who’s smitten with a woman from the laundromat. “He’s managed to create, maintain and embody a persona that transcends sexuality. He might not have set out to be a groundbreaker, but he is one.”
Harris’ deft coming-out has been “extremely significant,” Hurwitz said. “It’s things like this that may bring about change” in Hollywood casting.
It’s still to be determined if Harris will play big romantic leads or action star roles in mainstream films, which usually have been reserved for actors who are not openly gay.
Though Harris announced he was gay while “How I Met Your Mother” was still getting its foothold, he never asked for any changes in how the womanizing character behaved, or rather, misbehaved, according to executive producer Carter Bays.
Harris had been a bit of a dark horse in the running for Barney Stinson, with the creators having more of a John Belushi or Chris Farley type in mind. But when Harris spiced his audition with some unscripted physical comedy during a laser tag scene, Bays was convinced he was the right choice.
“He went into this shoulder roll that was really acrobatic,” Bays said. “It’s hard not to give the part to the guy doing somersaults.”
That moment set the tone for the next six years, Bays said. “He will always go a little further than necessary,” he said. “You get the sense that he doesn’t just know his lines — he’s worked them 99 different ways until he found the funniest way to say them.”
Barney had been envisioned as a scoundrel, “not the guy you would want your friend to date.” But Harris gave the character a decent, vulnerable quality that wasn’t planned in the original writing.
“He brings all the good stuff to Barney,” Bays said. “He’s so likable that when you put him in this role, Barney never seems like that bad of a guy. That’s not so much acting — that’s Neil at his core.”
With seemingly everyone, including the Muppets and “So You Think You Can Dance’s” Nigel Lythgoe, clamoring to work with him, how will Harris decide what to do next? He mentioned scaling back his myriad activities to spend more time with his young family, but he also has his eye on more directing and producing projects. He’d love to try his hand at being a modern-day Ed Sullivan, and he’s percolating ideas for children’s TV shows.
Another “Dr. Horrible,” which is in the works, “would take precedence,” Harris said, though he’d have to fit it into what he calls “the Tetris game that is my professional life.”
Whedon, who directed Harris in his Emmy-winning guest turn on “Glee,” said it’s no wonder he’s in demand. He has “a Sinatra quality” that makes his shifts between genres and platforms look effortless.
“Through the force of his own personality and wit, he’s become something bigger than the roles he plays,” Whedon said. “People look at him and don’t see any one of those parts — they see that guy they love.”
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