Oscars 2015: Who is Oscars host Neil Patrick Harris?

From TV to the silver screen, via Broadway, nothing seems to faze Hollywood's biggest gay star. Next up, the Oscars

He’s set to grace our screens tonight as the host of this year’s Oscars ceremony but who is Neil Patrick Harris?

The actor is probably best known for his role as Barney Stinson in the American sitcom How I Met Your Mother. But the star has had a long and distinguished career that began when he was a teenager starring in Doogie Howser, MD, a series about a child prodigy who is a doctor but faces the same problems as most adolescents of his age.

Ironically, this year Harris nearly ended up getting nominated for an Academy Award himself for his performance as a creepy ex-boyfriend in Gone Girl.

Tonight though he faces on his toughest gigs as he presents the Oscars, which is always something of a poisoned chalice. Family Guy creator invoked the anger of many viewers after his jokes about women and Jewish people two years ago.

A further two years before that James Franco also failed to impress. His detached style made him appear stoned (a charge he later denied), and the actor lacked anything like chemistry with his peppy co-host, Anne Hathaway.

David Letterman’s eclectic brand of late-night humour failed to amuse the Hollywood crowd, and his 1995 hosting routine has gone down as one of the worst in the 80-plus-year history of the Academy Awards. Even Jon Stewart, a comedian beloved by liberal Hollywood, joked on The Daily Show about his below-par performance as Oscar host in 2006.

Yet this year’s Oscar frontman, the unfailingly chipper Neil Patrick Harris, appears almost unperturbed by the prospect. “I’ll admit that I’m nervous to host,” wrote Harris recently, in a piece for The New York Times, “but it’s much less pressure than being a nominee...

 

“Then you’re sitting in your chair, your heart’s pounding and you have 15 names that you pray to God you don’t forget – and your name’s not called. Or... your name is called, and you’re blinded by adrenalin and panic. That’s much more nerve-racking to me than going out and saying, ‘Our next two presenters are the stars of this movie. Please welcome Brad and Angelina.’”

Harris was in danger of entering the Oscar race himself this year, with his creepy supporting turn in David Fincher’s Gone Girl. He already has a Tony for playing the transgender title role in the 2014 Broadway revival of Hedwig and the Angry Inch – not to mention five Emmys, four of which he earned for hosting the Tonys. He has also hosted the Emmys, twice. And after next Sunday’s 87th Academy Awards, he’ll be the only person ever to have hosted all three ceremonies.

The 41-year-old isn’t just the most reliable awards anchor in the movie business; he may also be its most high-profile out gay actor. In that capacity, he is almost single-handedly responsible for dispelling the hoary Hollywood notion that an out gay man cannot plausibly portray a straight character. Harris was nominated for four Emmys and two Golden Globes for his most famous role, as incorrigible skirt-chaser Barney Stinson in the sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which ran from 2005 to 2014. He also appears in a particularly athletic boy-girl sex scene in Gone Girl.

Showbiz all rounders don’t often emerge from Albuquerque, New Mexico, where Harris was born in 1973 – let alone from Ruidoso, a rural ski town several hours’ drive away, where he grew up. His parents, Sheila and Ronald, were lawyers, not entertainers. But at an early age their son developed a taste for a particular type of performance: magic. After saving up his allowance for weeks on end, Harris would splurge it all on conjuring kit while visiting his grandparents in Albuquerque. Then he would spend the next few weeks obsessively perfecting the tricks.

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Hollywood’s biggest gay star Neil Patrick Harris (Illustration by Lauren Crow)

His acting career came about by accident, not design. During the summer before he was due to start secondary school, Harris attended a one-week drama camp led by the playwright Mark Medoff, who had just written the script for the film drama Clara’s Heart. Medoff was looking for a boy to act opposite its star, Whoopi Goldberg. Harris went to LA to audition, and before long he was at the first of many awards ceremonies, the 1989 Golden Globes, nominated for Best Supporting Actor.

That year he was cast in the role that would make him a child star, as the titular teenage medical prodigy in Doogie Howser, MD. The show ended in 1993, but the wholesome, heart-throb role remained the basis for the actor’s reputation for at least a decade to come.

It was an image that endured until Harris’s outré performance as “himself” in 2004’s Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle, a role he would later reprise in two sequels. The Harold and Kumar version of Harris was a cursing, Class A-hoovering horndog, whose first words to the film’s title characters after they offered him a ride in their car were: “Come on dudes, let’s pick up some trim at a strip club. The ‘Doogie’ line always works on strippers.” That part proved to be the perfect rehearsal for Barney, the unrepentant womaniser of HIMYM.

As the sitcom’s first series was broadcast in 2005, Harris was a year into his relationship with his now-husband, the actor and chef David Burtka. But while performers of past generations agonised about remaining in the closet, for Harris there was no such turmoil. Out to his friends and family for years beforehand, Harris has said that announcing his sexuality to the world was a “non-issue”.

When the gossip blogger Perez Hilton, who had made it his mission to out gay celebrities, appealed publicly for information from anyone who had “slept with Neil Patrick Harris”, the actor opted to burst the bubble of speculation himself, issuing a statement via People magazine in November 2006. “I am happy to dispel any rumours or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest and feel most fortunate to be working with wonderful people in the business I love,” he said.

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Neil Patrick Harris plays Amy Dunne's creepy ex-boyfriend in 'Gone Girl'

Two years later, in his first big interview about his private life, Harris told Out magazine that he was “striving to be an example of normalcy”. In 2010, he and Burtka fathered a twin son and daughter, Gideon and Harper, via a surrogate mother. The couple married in Italy in 2014. Their friend Sir Elton John performed at the reception.

Another aspect of Harris’s life had also long escaped the notice of the wider world: his facility as a song-and-dance man. He had appeared on Broadway several times, including in Sam Mendes’s long-running production of Cabaret, before first hosting the Tonys in 2009. Oscar producers, beware: he has scant regard for the censors. During the opening of the 2011 Tonys, in a number called “It’s Not Just for Gays Anymore”, he sang the line “Come in and be inspired, there’s no sodomy required”, flouting a CBS edict to change it to the clunkier, “no same-sex love required”.

Still a magic nerd, Harris is the current president of the board of directors of Hollywood’s conjuring venue, the Magic Castle. Perhaps warming up for his first Tonys, he hosted the 2008 World Magic Awards. This month, he told Vanity Fair that his “idea of perfect happiness” was “being granted all-access to a Disney theme park” with his family.

His childlike tastes were also reflected in his new autobiography, Neil Patrick Harris: Choose Your Own Autobiography, which is written with the same multiple-choice structure as the “Choose Your Own Adventure” books of his childhood.

With such an array of talents and interests, it’s not surprising that Harris is now developing his own variety show based on the British programme Ant and Dec’s Saturday Night Takeaway. In 2014, he turned down an offer to replace Letterman as the host of the Late Show on CBS, one of the most coveted jobs in television, saying he feared becoming bored by the repetition. But if there’s any show that he can surely do better than Letterman, it’s the one next Sunday.

A life in brief

Born: 15 June 1973, Albuquerque, New Mexico.

Family: Father was Ronald Gene Harris and his mother Sheila Harris, both lawyers and restaurateurs. Married to actor David Burtka. They have two children.

Education: La Cueva High School, Albuquerque.

Career: First cast in Clara’s Heart (1988) after being spotted at a summer drama camp. Notably played Barney in How I Met Your Mother, nominated for four Emmy Awards. Will host the Oscars next Sunday.

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