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Among copious multi-hyphenate celebrities in Hollywood, Neil Patrick Harris is something harder to find: a true entertainer and consummate showman. Culturally, he’s as modern as they come, but he has the cool aplomb of greats like Dean Martin Johnny Carson and Billy Crystal. He can pull off a little song and dance, a bit of ad-lib banter and a few magic tricks with the same effortless cool as a big opening number. He’s hosted the Tony Awards four times, for which he’s won several Emmys (see how that works?), and the Emmys themselves twice, not to mention the Academy Awards. The AP drama desk recap of the 2013 Tonys ran, “The reviews are in: It was a great Tony Awards. The dancing was inspired, the singing top-notch and the humor sly – and that’s just for the host. Neil Patrick Harris once again proved how invaluable he is.” The show’s co-producer Glen Weiss explained why. “He’s completely the real deal, totally multi-talented. He cares about the theater and you can’t make that up.” The audience certainly didn’t fake the two-minute standing ovation they gave his opening number.
Hosting the Academy Awards is probably the most fraught gig around, but Variety said his handling of the 2015 Oscarfest suggested he was the right guy for the job. “Harris celebrated the movies in a cheeky but earnest way… An old pro in these settings despite his boyish looks, Harris immediately brought an infectious personality to the proceedings that let a little air out of all the puffery.
Harris is the host, but he’s also having a great time at the party.
And that’s saying something for a guy who’s been in the business since age 15. His parents sent him to a drama camp in his home state of New Mexico, partly in hopes he’d get an idea of how tough it was to make it in show business. Instead he got discovered and cast opposite Whoopi Goldberg in Clara’s Heart. The next year he was starring in Doogie Howser, M.D., which ran for four years. While he’s never quite escaped association with the role, he’s managed to escape the box it could’ve put him in. In fact, his sense of humor about it might be the very thing that prevented such a fate. He gleefully (but lovingly) spoofed our Doogie-fied perception of him by playing a wild, coke-snorting libertine in 2004’s Harold & Kumar go to White Castle. So it was less of a stretch for creators of How I Met Your Mother to see him as Barney Stinson, the womanizing, hyper-hetero connoisseur of all things bro, generating legion catchphrases and fans. The series ran for nine years and earned him four Emmy nods. Variety once again called it in its review of the show’s first season: “The major breakout here is Neil Patrick Harris (Doogie!) as Ted’s peculiar friend Barney.” The same year HIMYM was winding down, movie work picked up. In 2014 Harris played a just-slightly-off, ill-fated ex-boyfriend in David Fincher’s dark Gone Girl and a less-drastically ill-fated ex-suitor in A Million Ways to Die in the West, of which RogerEbert.com said, “A scene-stealing Neil Patrick Harris can do more with a raised eyebrow than Seth MacFarlane can with an entire monologue.” We refer any remaining doubters to Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog or the four-character tour de force otherwise known as A Series of Unfortunate Events. NPR cited his Count Olaf as the reason the Netflix version worked even better Jim Carrey’s big-screen take. “Mostly, Harris’ Olaf vibrates at a lower frequency. When he’s not being performatively nasty, he seems merely … annoyed. Tetchy. Distracted. Impatient. Vexed at the world for not appreciating him. It’s smaller, and feels truer, than anything Carrey managed to find in the character.”
But back to that “caring about the theater” thing. Since 1997, he’s performed in 15 stage productions, including Rent, Sweeney Todd, Proof, Cabaret (as Emcee, who else?), Assassins, and in 2014, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which required losing 20 pounds, straining his vocal chords and (we’re assuming) doing things he’s never done in heels before. The New York Times theater critic wrote, “As ‘an internationally ignored song stylist’ of indefinable gender, Mr. Harris is in full command of who he is and, most excitingly, what he has become with this performance. That’s a bona fide Broadway star, the kind who can rule an audience with the blink of a sequined eyelid. But Mr. Harris has much more than marquee and recognition value. He also has a master entertainer’s gift for making the rough go down smoothly. From the moment his Hedwig makes her David Bowie-esque entrance, we’re his to do what he will.” It’s a good thing he didn’t host the Tonys that year; it might have been awkward presenting the Best Lead Actor in a Musical award to himself, though his acceptance speech would no doubt have killed.
Harris has done what the industry doesn’t often let you do – escape a role or label. He played Doogie for years, Barney for even more, then announced he was gay and just moved on. Professionally, anyway. In his personal life, he’s become somewhat of an icon of gay acceptance. Time named him to their 100 Most Influential People list, and with a Twitter following of 10 million, it’s hard to argue. Producer/director Josh Whedon: “He’s been nominated for an Emmy three times for his role as hetero hound Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother not because he’s playing straight but because he’s very funny… 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. That’s more than a good trick. That’s magic.” In a hilarious guest spot on The Colbert Report, Colbert accused him of an insidious plot to make us like gay people. No matter how bro-ish, disturbingly creepy, or downright evil he might be as any given character, making us truly dislike him is an acting feat even Harris might not be able to pull off, unless the impish glint in his eye can be surgically removed. It probably can’t be helped; he loves what he does too much. And with well over 100 film, TV and theater credits to his name, it seems he can’t do too much of what he loves. As he puts it, “I’ve never been a fame whore. I just like working.” Too bad they don’t gave out awards for understatement.
He’s also written two books; his Choose Your Own Autobiography spent two weeks on the New York Times bestseller list, and his kids’ book The Magic Misfits came out earlier this year. He’s also the creator and host of NBC’s upcoming Genius Junior, a game show testing the smarts of brilliant kids. Like history’s best hosts, he has a restless, inventive, and wonderfully nutty mind and a warm and wicked wit. He puts it like this: “I’m a big fan of making happiness and education and entertainment.” Let’s hope the NPH show goes on for a long, long time.