Mr. Mass Appeal
Delta Sky Magazine, by David Anderson, January 01, 2011
Neil Patrick Harris
The scene is the LA set of The Talk, and co-host Sharon Osbourne has just claimed that she and hubby, Ozzy, once had sex 13 times in one night. The women of The Talk are aghast and amazed. The audience is at full-throttle applause, but there’s no question this show is heading down a dark, prurient alley known as the Osbourne boudoir.
Thankfully, Neil Patrick Harris joins the fray minutes later. He is the great American harmonizer, the man who seems to have hit the sweet spot of mass public appeal. Whether he’s a gay guy playing the funniest straight guy on television, Sondheim Broadway star, Emmy host, video game voice-over guru or Harold and Kumar’s lecherous and psychedelic druggie friend, the former Doogie Howser M.D. child star has found a way to make just about any demographic happy.
Harris, with his princely good looks, sits down with the ladies of The Talk, his brow crinkling perfectly with his welcoming smile-and-laugh combo. Today, Harris is coming out as a father (he came out as a gay man to People in 2006). It’s his first interview since a surrogate gave birth last October to Harris and partner David Burtka’s twins, Gideon Scott and Harper Grace.
The Talk women shower him with baby gifts, including a mobile with dangling photos of the ladies’ faces. “They’re all so sassy,” he says as the photos jiggle like bobble heads.
When I catch up with Harris the next day, there’s little sass. Instead, there’s an anxious and thoughtful new dad who’s been delayed by his twins, again. “Just when they’re down and calm and quiet and you think you’ve got this all figured out…there’s an explosion of spit-up and fevers and madness,” he says. “And just when you think you can’t take it anymore, they look up at you and they randomly smile and you’re calm again.”
Calm is not a word to describe Harris’ last year. In addition to welcoming the twins, he was named one of the 100 most influential people by Time magazine, shot the next Harold and Kumar movie, won two Emmys, played lovable lothario Barney Stinson on the sixth season of How I Met Your Mother, directed Rent a the Hollywood Bowl, became the voice of a Disney roller coaster, starred alongside Vanessa Hudgens in the upcoming film Beastly and prepared for his film directorial debut this summer. Oh, and he’s still a working magician, though these days he mainly uses his prestidigitation skills for swaddling the babies. “It’s like a rope trick,” he says of the swaddle.
When I ask where this vaudevillian career trajectory comes from, he says, “Sometimes performers tend to take themselves a little too seriously in what they’re willing and not willing to do to craft a ‘career of approval.’ I just like to do things that amuse me.”
As a kid growing up in a small ski resort town outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico, Harris devoured Circus of the Stars and Doug Henning TV specials. Before he was a teenage star, he visited LA with his mom and saw one of the original Cirque du Soleil tent shows. “I just couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Shanghai Chinese acrobats, 15 of them, on a bicycle going around in a circle. I just went gaga over it.”
Then came Doogie at 16 and all the trappings of childhood celebrity. “The albatross of being recognized for something that you did when you were younger weighed heavily,” he says of the transitional years after the show’s ending in 1993. He credits the Landmark Forum, a transformational personal training seminar, for helping him lose the child star “baggage” and get “back on the right track.”
For the moment, Harris is focused on his budding directorial career. He’s working on the tentatively titled script Aaron and Sarah, a high school romantic comedy, taking place in four acts. Harris claims it’s not a typical high school genre movie. When I mention his casting of Josh Hutcherson and Emma Roberts as the two leads, he goes into focused director voice: “She’s great and a real chameleon. And he’s very subtle…I think he’s just perfect.”
There’s certainly nothing subtle about Harris’ longest-running character, Barney Stinson, the alpha male who has slept with more than 200 women on the CBS hit show How I Met Your Mother. It’s a character Harris often credits for his successes both on and off the screen. When the editors of Time named him one of the 100 most influential people last year, they wrote: “He can get the girl and sing about the boys and it all works. The public’s perception of gay men is shifting because of this guy, and they’ll be too entertained to notice.”
It’s a flattering assessment, and when I ask Harris about it, he’s momentarily at a loss for words as he searches for an answer. “I am enormously lucky that as someone who was a really gawky teenager with big ears and an ‘80s kind of mullet-y hairdo, I am still able to be seen as some sort of sexual being at 37,” he says, trailing off with a little laugh. “I thank Barney Stinson for most of that. We live in a progressive time, and I think when someone is OK with who they are it makes people more intrigued by them in general.”
With his candor, Dick Van Dyke-like swagger and willingness to take his career in irreverent directions, Harris certainly seems to be cool with himself. And that charming NPH mix in turn makes a lot of us happy, too.
But what makes NPH happy?
“Smiling babies and cold sake,” he shoots back. Like any great showman, he paused for dramatic effect and adds, “Not necessarily in that order.”