Casting Neil Patrick Harris As Doogie Howser Was A Complicated Process

Neil Patrick Harris made his debut in the entertainment business at age 13, opposite Whoopi Goldberg in the 1988 movie "Clara's Heart." But his life at the time was nothing like your typical child actor. Instead of living in Hollywood, Harris lived in Ruidoso, New Mexico, raised by two middle-class lawyers. Harris stumbled into Hollywood when playwright and "Clara's Heart" screenwriter Mark Medoff discovered him in a theater camp and advocated for his casting in the film.

Harris' performance in "Clara's Heart" garnered the novice actor a Golden Globe nomination for Best Supporting Actor. The impressive debut led to a tantalizing television opportunity the following year. It wasn't necessarily the lead role in "Doogie Howser, M.D." that caught the attention of the Harris family, but rather its creators.

When Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley created a series about a 16-year-old child prodigy doctor, little did they know they'd be luring an unknown child actor from New Mexico to Hollywood for good.

The family said they'd never do TV

After Neil Patrick Harris' debut in "Clara's Heart," his family realized he had a future in acting. But television was never in their plans. Because both of Harris' parents were lawyers in New Mexico, moving to Los Angles for a year-long television production schedule wasn't an option. But some popular TV shows from the 1980s made them rethink their decision.

In an interview with GQ, Harris explained why his parents changed their minds from being "movie people" to agreeing to do television. Harris said:

"They were huge fans of 'L.A. Law' and 'Hill Street Blues,' which were big giant shows back in the '80s and '90s. And so, wouldn't you know, Steven Bochco wrote this show. Like a half-hour show that starred a smarty pants doctor person. We said, 'Oh, okay, well we should, we'll meet him.'"

The show, of course, was "Doogie Howser, M.D." The sitcom was about a teenage genius who becomes a doctor at age 14 at Eastman Medical Center in Los Angeles. The show ran for four seasons on ABC (and was recently rebooted by Disney). 

But before the show ever aired, the prognosis for Neil Patrick Harris playing Doogie Howser was not looking good.

ABC didn't like Neil Patrick Harris

The Doogie Howser role was complex because of the duality of the character. This was a doctor operating in a professional space, but also navigating life as a teenager. "We found other actors that could really handle the doctor part of the equation but didn't feel like a normal kid to us," show co-creator David E. Kelley told Vulture. "It was an exhaustive search. In comes this kid, Neil Patrick Harris, we love him. He's got an intellect you can actually believe in as he's spewing up the medical jargon, and there's something about him, you care about him as a kid."

After casting Harris as Doogie Howser, it still wasn't a done deal. Next, producers had to convince the network that Harris was the right actor for the job. Although Bochco and Kelley thought they found the perfect actor, network executives at ABC disagreed. They didn't like Harris as Doogie Howser, and Bochco had to fight for him. Kelley said:

"I think under the terms of Steven's [Bochco] deal, if the producers have their actor, and it's the network that nixes the project, then Steven qualified for a penalty, and it was an enormous penalty. There was a bit of poker being played at the end, and Steven called their bluff."

Even after shooting the pilot episode, ABC still resisted, arguing they didn't like the pilot or Harris. But when the network showed the pilot episode to test audiences, the reviews were favorable. So favorable, in fact, that ABC conceded and greenlit the show with Neil Patrick Harris as Doogie Howser.

And once the show finally aired, Doogie Howser became an iconic character that would follow Neil Patrick Harris for the rest of his career.

Years later, people still call him Doogie

A lot had to happen for Harris' breakout role as Doogie Howser to occur. He never planned to do television, and it took ABC a while to come around on him. But in some respects, it became a career-defining role for the actor. To this day, nearly three decades after the show ended, fans still call him Doogie. Harris, who is now almost 50, told The Guardian he is often confused with the character from early in his career. The actor said:

"It's a little bizarre that people — what is it, 30 years later? — still refer to me as that. People say, 'Hey, Doogie, I like your new show!' But hey, better than anonymity, I suppose."

Since then, Doogie — excuse me, Harris has seen incredible success in film, television, musical theater, and even as an author. Harris penned a four-part children's book series, "The Magic Misfits" and a New York Times best-selling autobiography. He has hosted the Oscars, the Emmys, the Tonys, and plenty of other awards shows. However you slice it, Neil Patrick Harris is entertaining.

From a modest New Mexico theater to one of today's most well-known entertainers, it's been an incredible career for Harris ... even if he still gets confused for Doogie every now and then.