Michael A. Lipton
December 07, 1998 12:00 PM

For those who still think of him only as Doogie Howser, M.D., the teenage medical prodigy in the early ’90s sitcom of the same name, Neil Patrick Harris has a few tricks up his sleeve. Like the one he’s performing in the office of his cozy two-bedroom house in an L.A. suburb. That piece of paper Harris has been holding—voilà!—suddenly becomes a $20 bill. An amateur magician since his teens, he has no illusions about turning pro. “Where do you go?” he asks. “Birthday parties? There’s only a handful of magicians that work the good gigs.”

Besides, Harris, 25, has been getting some pretty good nonmagic gigs lately. In July 1997 he made his musical debut in L.A.’s production of Rent, playing Mark, the bleached-blond wannabe filmmaker. “People were a little leery because Doogie Howser was going to be in it,” he says. “I had to prove myself to them.” Which he proceeded to do—for the next six months. Despite having no prior dance training and only a few singing lessons, “Harris not only has a winsome voice,” wrote a Los Angeles Times critic, “he’s lanky and light on his feet.”

Then, this past September, Harris did the Shakespeare thing at San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre, portraying Romeo with what another reviewer called “casual confidence.” And on Dec. 6, he’ll turn up in The Christmas Wish, a CBS TV movie in which Harris portrays a hotshot Wall Street broker whose grandmother is played by Debbie Reynolds. “She is so friendly and funny,” he says. “She’s also got the mouth of a sailor.”

Reynolds, 66, found her young costar “charming and sweet. He ran all of my movies,” she says, “and then he would come in the next day and say, ‘That was really good!’ So then I had to sing ‘Singin’ in the Rain’ for him. He loves to sing.”

He also loved his Doogie days—despite their drawbacks. The younger of two sons of New Mexico attorneys Ron and Sheila (now a writer), Neil was 16 and had already made his film debut (in 1988’s Clara’s Heart, with Whoopi Goldberg), when producer Steven Bochco tapped him to play the precocious Doogie in ’89. “It was a very fast but wonderful education,” Harris says. But it was also “four compacted years of scrutiny,” he says. “When you’re that age, when your body is changing, you’re very nervous about how you appear, and it was just…” He pauses. “It was a trip.”

The ride ended in 1993, when ABC, revamping its lineup, pulled the plug on Doogie. The cancellation was “shocking,” says Harris. “We never had a final episode.”

But by then he had gained pop-icon status. “It was nutty crazy,” says his best friend Ed Alonzo, a comedic magician. “When we were at Disneyland, people would be three inches away and snap a photo without asking.” Even today, without a stethoscope around his neck, fans still honk their horns and holler, “Hey, it’s the Doog!” Not that Harris minds. “I’m glad I’m recognized for work that I’m proud of,” he says. “You get some [heckling], but that’s sort of the karmic equivalent to getting a good table at a restaurant. It’s the yin and the yang of it all.”

Along with the choice seating comes a steady income from Doogie syndication royalties, which allows Harris to work whenever he chooses. He worked a lot post-Howser, making a string of TV movies. “They were good,” he says. “Rarely as an actor do you get to play a serial arsonist and then a kid who hacks his parents with a wooden mallet.”

Harris was in Boston in 1996 filming Kenneth Branagh’s The Proposition when he heard that Rent was coining to town. Already a fan, he began hanging out with the roadshow cast, who urged him to audition for the L.A. production. Landing the role, he says, “was definitely a big deal for me. It was like fulfilling my rock-star fantasy.”

But when it comes to romance, Harris—who lives alone—remains unfulfilled. “I don’t want to date lots of people and have three-or four-night stands. Sadly, that’s kind of the way it is in Los Angeles,” he muses. But if he could work his magic? “I want a courtship. I want to date a month before we hold hands.” He sighs. “I miss the meaning of a kiss.”

Michael A. Lipton

Amy Brooks in Los Angeles

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