'Doogie Howser, M.D.': Neil Patrick Harris Wasn't the Network's Favorite Casting

When TV shows require a child star, casting can be tricky. It can be hard to predict how a child star will mature into their acting abilities, and many of them will struggle with the transition from childhood into adulthood as their role continues. Child stars are also often navigating a complex world of pressures, and many of them bring family baggage and anxieties onto the set.  Finally, there’s the simple fact that child stars are, well, children! Their talents are still being honed, and their experience is limited. Choosing the best child star for a series that puts them front and center can be a difficult task. 

Neil Patrick Harris rose to fame as the child star of Doogie Howser, M.D., but it turns out that he wasn’t the network’s top choice for the role. 

Neil Patrick Harris starred in ‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’

Premiering in 1989, Doogie Howser, M.D. cataloged the life of a child prodigy who lives in two worlds. On the one hand, he has the normal childhood problems of navigating the teenage years: girlfriends, social pressures, and learning life’s hard lessons. At the same time, he’s a licensed physician navigating a challenging residency program and facing the very adult concerns that come along with such a life-and-death role. The show ran for four seasons before wrapping up in 1993. 

Neil Patrick Harris, who was born in 1973, had already started his acting career prior to landing this important role. According to IMDb, his filmography includes the 1988 drama Clara’s Heart in which he plays a rich but troubled teen who bonds with a Jamaican housekeeper played by Whoopi Goldberg. That same year, he also had a role in a TV movie titled Too Good to be True and a somewhat bizarre sci-fi comedy flick titled Purple People Eater. It was the starring role in Doogie Howser that defined Harris’ rise to fame, however, and he would use that success to become one of Hollywood’s A-list stars. 

Neil Patrick Harris has gone on to a long career

Many child stars have trouble making the leap into acting as adults, but Harris handled it with skill. Once the series went off the air, Harris leaped into TV movies, playing substantial roles in Not Our Son (where he played a troubled arsonist) and Legacy of Sin: The William Coit Story (where he played the title character). The late 1990’s saw Harris hopping through guest roles on TV shows and small parts in more mainstream films. In 1999, he landed a starring role in the short-lived comedy series Stark Raving Mad. 

Just as it was a television show that made him a household name as a child, it was another TV series that gave him a substantial resurgence as an adult. In 2005, he took on the part of Barney Stinson in How I Met Your Mother. The show’s popular nine-season run kept Harris busy until it went off the air — with a much-anticipated conclusion — in 2014. Since then, Harris has remained active with voice work, authoring a children’s book, TV and film appearances, and multiple projects in the works. 

ABC was not impressed with Neil Patrick Harris as Doogie Howser

Clearly, Harris is a successful and talented actor who was able to bring those skills forward even as a young child, but the network executives at ABC were skeptical of that when Doogie Howser began. As Mental Floss reports, producer Steve Bochco brought the show to ABC, and the executives didn’t want Harris in the role. They pressed forward with a pilot anyway, and executives once again voiced their dislike, but test audiences had a different opinion. Creator David E. Kelley explained, “It tests a high number, and it’s put on the air because of how it tested—not because anybody at the network believed in it.”

Replacing Harris wasn’t on the table for Kelley and Bochco because it had been incredibly hard to cast the part. Kelley told Vulture that they had “searched forever” but struggled to find someone who could believably pull off being both a doctor and a normal kid. When they saw Harris, they were hooked: “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. So he’s our Doogie Howser.” 

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