America is the land of second acts, but still, a gay former child actor who loves magic isn't supposed to return as an icon of cool masculinity. Yet at 36, Neil Patrick Harris, who played a genius teenage doctor on Doogie Howser, M.D., has used rat-pack swagger to climb the hosting rope in record time, from emceeing the TV Land awards in April to the Tonys in June to the Emmys on Sept. 20. He's up for his own Emmy this year for his role as an over-the-top straight guy in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother. And he has parodied this image of suit-wearing cockiness by playing a hypermasculine version of himself in the Harold & Kumar movies. If Frank Sinatra had wanted a gay singing-and-dancing magician to party with--and no doubt he would have--Harris would have gotten the nod.
The role of Doogie might have seemed an impossible one to recover from, but Harris' secret is that he is neither embarrassed by nor unduly proud of his past. "It's a strange thing to shed, and it's a strange thing to own," he says of the role over sushi. "Because it's not you while you're doing it, and it's certainly not you after you do it. You're just an actor some casting director hired for the gig. But you have to own it." He has owned it, playing a clueless doctor in an Old Spice ad ("As a former make-believe doctor, there's one product I can recommend ...") and delivering a version of the Doogie theme song when he hosted Saturday Night Live. He has affection for Doogie, but he doesn't need to hang out with him, nor does he need to kick his ass.
That's partly because, unlike most young actors whose parents drive their early choices, Harris found Doogie himself. He went to acting camp in his home state of New Mexico, where the writer Mark Medoff, who was an instructor at the camp, cast Harris in his 1988 movie, Clara's Heart. His parents moved with him to L.A. during Doogie's four-year run, and after it ended in 1993, Harris kept working in TV, film and theater, acquiring exactly the skills you'd need to go into show business in 1890: magic, acrobatics, singing and dancing. Because his fame came early, he's now more interested in doing fun stuff--reading at the Christmas show at his beloved Disney World, serving on the board of Hollywood's Magic Castle (a club for magicians), producing an interactive-mystery-theater piece called Accomplice: Hollywood--than in managing his career toward lead film roles. All of which has made him famous for being himself.
It started when a buddy told him there was a script floating around, titled Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, in which Neil Patrick Harris appeared as a selfish, arrogant jerk. "My friend thought it wasn't very funny and thought I should talk to my lawyer about it," he says. Instead, he signed up for the role and played it to the hilt. Because that character called himself NPH, Harris now uses those initials to sign autographs and identify himself on his voice mail. "He's extremely comfortable with who he is," says Harold & Kumar co-writer Jon Hurwitz. "He's not somebody who seems to have a lot of demons and is torn up inside about his place in the world."