Neil Patrick Harris, the onetime teen-age doctor of TV's "Doogie Howser, MD," has graduated to grown-up roles, and the proof is at the Walter Kerr Theatre. There, he's making his Broadway debut in the new cast of Proof, playing another young genius — a math student named Hal who is attracted to his gifted professor's troubled daughter, Catherine, played by Anne Heche. On the West Coast, he played Mark in Rent, in 1995, and has come to be known as a formidable "actor who sings." Memorably, he was Tobias in the Lincoln Center concert version of Stephen Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, and he played the young poet in a studio recording of Sondheim's two-character "Evening Primrose." He was cast as Oswald and the Balladeer in the planned Broadway staging of Sondheim's Assassins, but the show was scuttled last fall in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Todd Haimes of the Roundabout Theatre Company has said the dark musical is in the future plans for the troupe. For now, Harris is enjoying Broadway, and, in off-hours, a summer filled with reality TV. He talked to Playbill On-Line's Kenneth Jones about life and work in New York, away from his home in L.A.
Playbill On-Line: One of my favorite moments on Broadway is when the audience gasps after the first-act curtain line in Proof.
NH: Yes. It's always a nice vocal moment in the show. We got an actual, "Ooooh!" followed by an "Ahh!" once.
PBOL: Your character is so complex, and all the characters are so fully written. Over the course of the evening Hal is so many different things.
NH: Absolutely right. That's what's fun for me as an actor to play. You're not sure if he's a guy who finds her attractive, or enjoys talking math with her, or if he has some agenda. It's a wonderfully structured play that way. All four characters are given a lot to do as characters, but are also given a valid viewpoint — it's not like you have this "protagonist girl" and then three arch-stereotype, supporting people who are trying to woo her or sway her one way or another. If you look at it from Hal's point of view, it's very valid, or if you look at it from the older sister's point of view, what she's trying to accomplish in the play is very valid as well.
PBOL: How did you come to be cast in Proof?
NH: I had, for some time, been looking for something to do on Broadway, and I was here about a month and a half ago for a couple weeks. I came in to see 14 shows. They said they were recasting [Proof] and asked if I would be interested. I worked with [director] Dan [Sullivan] before [on Romeo and Juliet at the Old Globe]. I was told I didn't need to audition because Dan knew my work already, so I flew back to L.A. I wasn't there 36 hours before I got a call from my agent here, who said, "You might as well audition — it couldn't hurt to have them see you in the room." I flew back to New York, auditioned the next day, was told I didn't get it because they had not met with Anne yet, and they thought, physically, I looked too young to be her superior. [Hal is 28, Catherine is 25.] A couple days later, my agent, and Anne's agent, who is the same person, sent a videotape of Anne doing a screen test for a movie, where her hair was much longer and she looked much younger. It impressed Mr. Sullivan enough that he thought it could work, and he sent it to the producers, and they all agreed. I got the offer after that.
PBOL: They asked you to grow the beard?
NH: They asked me not to shave. It wasn't a stipulation. They said, "If it looks good you can keep it, if it looks bad you can shave it." PBOL: Are you consciously trying to be a theatre actor — or are you going where the work is?
NH: I think I've always been consciously trying to be in the theatre. I respond to the live theatre. I'll certainly go where the work takes me, don't get me wrong. Being in movies is so rare for an actor that anytime those opportunities come along, I jump at it.
PBOL: You maintain a house in L.A.?
NH: I maintain a house in L.A.
PBOL: That sounds fancy, doesn't it?
NH: [Laughs.] It does. I wish I maintained a house here in New York as well.
PBOL: Could you be a New Yorker year round? Would you want to be here?
NH: I have problems living in New York without purpose. As long as I was working and being productive, professionally, then I would love to live in New York.
PBOL: But you could live in L.A. without work?
NH: L.A. is great when you're not working. Your spread is bigger, you have a nice car, you can drive to nice restaurants where they valet park. You can sort of pretend you're not even a working actor at all — you're just living the high life in L.A. In New York, people are always around you. You can avoid people in L.A. easier, so you don't notice the fact that you have no purpose.
PBOL: Do you find despite your stage credits that you are still pigeonholed as a "TV actor"?
NH: No, it sometimes confounds me that people, 11 or 12 years later, still think that my actual name is "Doogie Howser." That, I find odd. It bothered me less when the show was in syndication because I understood they were seeing me currently as the doctor and then they'd see me live, older, and think it was odd. That's just the power of television. It's a job I really wanted and got. That's the interesting thing about television: You sign on and you get a nice salary for it, but you're really committed to a role and committed to be being known as a role for a longer period of time than you act the role.
PBOL: It didn't help that the guy's name was "Doogie."
NH: That didn't help, no. But it's great — it's fine. The TV-to-theatre crossover is strong right now because they need to try to sell as many tickets as they can.
PBOL: You're an actor who sings. Are you pursuing musicals?
NH: I think because I can sing it opens up that whole avenue of opportunities. I'm really grateful that my first entry into Broadway is in a straight play that allows me to be seen as an actor, primarily. The singing thing is great, but I think that's a stranger label than being a TV actor — being a musical theatre actor, because oftentimes they're not even thought of for regular plays or Shakespeare or things like that.
PBOL: Did you go to college? Was there training, or was it all experience?
NH: Between Jim Sikking and Belinda Montgomery and Larry Pressman [his co-stars in "Doogie Howser"], you couldn't ask for a better theatrical upbringing. I thought about [college], but then I kept working on other things and so it never really happened. I sort of feel like I missed out on general education stuff. I would have liked to have taken psychology classes and art and literature classes. But I sort of knew what I wanted to do and kept working. It would have been a little weird to be the guy that everyone — never mind, I don't want to say that. There is something nice about the concept of being anonymous at college and figuring out who you are in your studies and also in your personal life. I don't think I would have been granted that.
PBOL: Do you watch a lot of TV?
NH: I watch an exorbitant amount of reality television. Can't wait for "Big Brother" — it's on my TIVO. I love "The Mole." Yeah, I watch "Survivor," but all the games are starting to be the same. Loved "The Amazing Race." Love "The Real World." Watching the current "Road Rules." The ones I don't like are the "Temptation Island" and the bachelor things. I don't like the relationship ones, because it encourages people to be so mean toward the other suitor.
PBOL: Don't you think it's kind of ironic that those shows don't need actors and are putting you out of work?
NH: [Pause.] No. I thought about that, and I think the answer's no.
— By Kenneth Jones