Neil Patrick Harris: Hollywood Life And His Biggest Controversies

Neil Patrick Harris has had an admirably long career in Hollywood. He began acting when he was a young teenager, and in 2023, he will turn 50 years old. How has he managed to stay in the spotlight for so long? Constant reinvention, the "Matrix Resurrections" star told Backstage. "I don't like resting on my laurels," Harris explained. "I'm trying to do the best work that I can, given what the circumstances are." That means taking on whatever challenges come his way, from parts on television sitcoms to starring roles in mega-budget blockbusters, from gigs hosting awards shows to seeing his name in lights on the Great White Way.

Along the way, Harris' personal life has become the subject of public interest, as well, an experience that has not been without its controversies. A New York magazine headline called him "Hollywood's First (Openly) Gay Breakthrough Star," and in part because of that, he's as much a personality in the culture as he is an actor. Read on for a comprehensive look at the life and career of Neil Patrick Harris — a former child star turned Hollywood funnyman, who's also faced some backlash along the way.

Neil Patrick Harris grew up in New Mexico

Neil Patrick Harris was born in New Mexico in 1973, the child of two lawyers. He was a creative kid, he later recalled, but he had difficulty finding things to do that would satisfy his creative urges. "There were not a lot of artistic outlets aside from howling coyote paintings and making bolo ties," Harris explained to The Guardian. To pass the time, he played soccer; he was nicknamed "Killer" by his teammates for his aggressive style of goalkeeping, per The future star also sang in choir, and he was convinced by his choir director to attend drama camp.

One thing led to another; the camp was put on by playwright Mark Medoff, who had just written a script for a movie that was looking for a kid right around Harris' age. Thanks to his connections, he won a leading role in 1988's "Clara's Heart," opposite Whoopi Goldberg. Everything was new to the budding star, and so everything was memorable. "It was my first foray into this industry at all, so I can recall just about everything: names of the towns, the hotels where we stayed, looking at a camera for the first time," Harris reflected to Variety. "It was a really pivotal chapter in my upbringing, and I was very fortunate it was with such great people." 

Harris' debut won him accolades, including a Golden Globe nomination — the first of many to come.

He became a child star on Doogie Howser, M.D.

His child stardom was on the ascent when Neil Patrick Harris got the opportunity of a lifetime: acting on a show created by someone his family already loved. His parents were lawyers, he told NPR, and so they said the only way they would consider uprooting the family to Los Angeles and letting him do a television show would be if it were created by Steven Bochco, the man behind "L.A. Law" and "Hill Street Blues." Harris recalled, "Sure enough ... a script comes down the pipe for a little precocious teen-age doctor kid, by Steven Bochco, of all people. So we said, '... We might as well audition for it.'" The show was "Doogie Howser, M.D." — and it made Harris' career.

In the series, a teenage NPH played a boy genius who became a doctor by the time he was 14. The show followed drama at the hospital mixed with teenage growing pains, including learning to drive and starting to date. Doogie's lines involved a lot of medical jargon, which sometimes presented a problem for the young actor. Harris later told Howard Stern that he came up with a way to hide his lines on set. "If we were doing any kind of operating scene ... I would rip the little square of dialogue out and just set it in the wound," he laughed.

"I'm very proud of that role," Harris later told The Guardian. "That was my formative college years, even though I was barely in high school."

Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle reignited his career

After "Doogie Howser, M.D." ended in 1993, Neil Patrick Harris spent the following decade acting in smaller roles. Aside from a role in "Starship Troopers," the vast majority of his parts were in television movies and single episodes of shows like "Touched by an Angel" and "Homicide: Life on the Street." In 2004, however, NPH was handed one of the most memorable roles of his career: himself.

In cult-classic stoner comedy "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle," Harris played a heightened, womanizing, drug-addicted version of himself, whom the titular characters pick up hitchhiking late one night. "I had to play this really messed up version of myself," Harris later told GQ. "They let me improvise a bunch, so I was licking things and dry humping things — just a normal day at work!" He also noted that the iconic scene where, high on drugs, he hallucinates that he's riding a unicorn, made him take stock of his life. "How did I go from small-town New Mexico, singing in the Episcopal church choir, to tripping balls on an actual four-legged animal in a green screen room?" he remembered thinking at the time. 

The cameo received rave reviews. The AV Club later wrote that Harris had redefined the very concept of the celebrity cameo, and the star himself credits the appearance with revitalizing his acting prospects. "Three days' work," he told Vanity Fair, "and my whole career took a nice pivot."

NPH has complicated feelings about Barney Stinson

2005 saw the premiere of "How I Met Your Mother," a comedy about a group of friends and their various romantic entanglements. No one on the show had more entanglements than Barney Stinson, played by Neil Patrick Harris. The character was a serial womanizer, a suit-wearing lothario who seemed to live purely to pick up women. Barney became an instant fan favorite thanks in part to NPH's performance, and the actor went on to receive multiple Emmy and Golden Globe nominations for his role.

Looking back on the character, though, Harris allows that attitudes toward such gleefully-misogynistic characters have changed in the years since the show went off the air. "Well, my take on 'How I Met Your Mother' is that it was not all real," he told The Guardian, explaining that the show was structured around Ted Mosby (Josh Radnor) retelling his friends' exploits. "He's fictionalizing the narrative and he's talking about his friend who was the wing man, the buddy, the guy that was always wanting to party and have fun and make any experience an event," Harris said.

Still, Harris said that Barney probably wouldn't be appearing on spinoff show "How I Met Your Father" any time soon. In a 2022 issue of his newsletter Wondercade (via E! News), which featured a conversation with "HIMYF" star Hilary Duff, Harris confessed, "I worry Barney's antics, his overt delusions of grandeur, would likely get everyone in trouble."

Perez Hilton tried to out Neil Patrick Harris

In 2006, rumors swirled that Neil Patrick Harris was gay. In particular, blogger Perez Hilton tried to out NPH, posting photos of the actor online and asking his readers to send him proof that the "Starship Troopers" star was in the closet (via the Advocate). According to Towleroad, ContactMusic published a statement from Harris' publicist, insisting, "He's not of that persuasion." However, Harris is indeed of that persuasion, and he cleared the air in an interview with People that November. "I am happy to dispel any rumors or misconceptions and am quite proud to say that I am a very content gay man living my life to the fullest," he said. 

Years later, Harris reflected on the incident. He told The Hollywood Reporter that he avoided the question before it became unavoidable. "I had gone out of my way in interviews to be gender neutral," he said. However, when NPH did reveal his sexuality, he found people more accepting than he expected. "It was pretty much no big deal," Harris explained. "I'm not sure if I should be offended by that ... or whether it was such a great indicator that our society has shifted so much."

For his part, Hilton later expressed regret for outing people. "I never needed to be so mean or cruel," he wrote in his memoir "TMI: My Life in Scandal," adding, "I also regret that I thought it was OK to out celebrities. That is something I no longer believe."

Neil Patrick Harris' relationship with David Burtka

Neil Patrick Harris has been in a relationship with media personality David Burtka since 2004. In an essay for Out magazine, Harris wrote that they met at an "American Idol" watch party, which is the most early-2000s thing we can think of. Harris fell hard and fast. "I was in love with him before he was comfortable saying it, and I think that speaks to our past experiences," the "Beastly" star recalled. "I remember saying, 'I think I love you,' and he was like, 'That's really nice,' which is not necessarily what you want to hear."

In an interview with the same outlet nearly two years after he came out, Harris said he was "striving to be an example of normalcy" with his relationship. "I'm a big proponent of monogamous relationships regardless of sexuality, and I'm proud of how the nation is steering toward that," he said, mere months before California passed Proposition 8, outlawing same-sex marriage until the ban was later deemed unconstitutional. Some members of the LGBTQ+ community were upset by NPH's comments, which the actor acknowledged years later while speaking with The Guardian. "People were bothered by that use of the word 'normal,'" Harris admitted. "I think one of the most exciting parts about queer culture is being able to live your most fabulous life. ... There's no one that loves the extreme more than myself."

After a decade together, Harris announced on Twitter that he and Burtka were married. "Yup, we put the 'n' and 'd' in 'husband,'" he joked.

Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog made him a geek legend

In 2008, amid the historic Writers' Strike that ground Hollywood to a halt, "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" creator Joss Whedon got to work. He and several collaborators wrote a musical geared toward distribution on the Internet, and "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog" was born. The three-episode web series starred Neil Patrick Harris as the titular character, a hapless, wannabe supervillain. Dr. Horrible spends his days working on his Freeze Ray and trying to perfect his evil laugh in the hopes that the other bad guys will take him seriously. The role cemented NPH as a geek-culture icon.

"It was such a strange little, interesting, intimate project that happened through circumstance," Harris reflected on the red carpet of a cast reunion hosted by PaleyFest. "To have something like that, that only took a few days to make on very limited budget with a lot of passion, to see that it has legs and that it lives beyond it, especially in Comic Con land — very exciting."

Years later, when he reunited with Dr. Horrible's nemesis, Nathan Fillion, in "A Series of Unfortunate Events," Harris talked about the possibility of a sequel series. "I'm no spring chicken," he told TVLine. "At a certain point, Dr. Horrible isn't Billy the Internet geeky kid anymore. I'm a grown man. So they'll probably have to cast Nick Jonas in it." Harris, evidently, missed the memo that Nick Jonas is very much not a kid anymore either! 

Neil Patrick Harris and his husband had twins

Neil Patrick Harris and David Burtka welcomed two additions to their family with the help of a surrogate in 2010. They introduced their twins to the world on an episode of "Oprah's Next Chapter," explaining that Harper and Gideon were born when an embryo containing NPH's DNA and one with Burtka's both "took." Harris told the talk-show icon, "They're super healthy and they're happy." He also explained that their kids are going to grow up with a lot of love, because everything about their birth was intentional. "We really, really wanted kids. We really had thought it through financially, emotionally, relationship-wise," the actor said. "... These kids come into our world with nothing but love."

Harris seems to enjoy fatherhood. When the twins were around four, he appeared on "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" and proudly relayed their love of knock-knock jokes. "When they start getting older, now you can sit back a little bit and be amused by them," he said.

Nowadays, his kids are older still; in fact, they're entering their teenage years. This, of course, presents a whole new host of parenting problems, which the "8-bit Christmas" star described in an interview with E! News. "You spend a lot of time with kids as parents, trying to instill values and humor and agency with them," Harris noted. "... Now that they're older and they don't like you anymore, you can sort of see how that plays out."

Gone Girl showed off a different side of the star

For the most part, Neil Patrick Harris' film roles primarily consist of cameos, comedies, and voice work in animated films like "Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs." In David Fincher's 2014 film "Gone Girl," however, the actor got a chance to show off a more dramatic side of his acting talent. He played Desi Collings, a man who finds himself involved with Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike), a conniving woman with murderous intent. The role was a big change for the actor, not least because it involved nudity thanks to a particularly shocking, memorable, bloody sex scene.

In an interview with Out magazine, Harris explained that the sex scene required a lot of rehearsal. "We had to rehearse the sex scene with David, like every inch of it," he said, quoting Fincher as saying, "'Then you put your mouth on his d**k here, and then this number of thrusts, and then you ejaculate.'" Harris added, "He wanted it to be almost robotic, that we know exactly where we are, position-wise, where everything goes."

"There's the camera crew, and that's your butt," he recalled thinking in an interview with Conan O'Brien. "But that just, you know, it had to happen." It turns out the embarrassment was worthwhile; NPH received praise for his role, including a nomination for "Depiction of Nudity, Sexuality, or Seduction" from the Alliance of Women Film Journalists.

Neil Patrick Harris is also a stage star

Neil Patrick Harris has proven himself a capable star of both film and television, but that's not the only arena he's conquered. In addition to his on-camera work, Harris has been on Broadway several times. Notable credits include playing Lee Harvey Oswald in the original Broadway cast of Stephen Sondheim's "Assassins," playing the Master of Ceremonies in a 2003 production of "Cabaret," and acting in "Proof," a Pulitzer Prize-winning play by David Auburn — not to mention taking on Mark Cohen in the 1997 national tour of "Rent."

In 2014, Harris originated the role of Hedwig in the stage adaptation of James Cameron Mitchell's cult classic film "Hedwig & the Angry Inch." The character is a queer rockstar, and Harris confessed that playing such a flamboyant role onstage helped him get more comfortable with his sexuality. "I have never thought drag was intoxicating," he told Out. "I've lived my whole life being attracted by masculinity — it's why I like guys. I'm not a super effete person, and I have to turn into that, and in doing so it brings up a lot of homophobic insecurities within myself." Furthermore, NPH said, the character broadened his horizons: "It certainly has changed my views about things and I hope I'll be able to instill a more inclusive set of views to my family and my kids."

Harris committed to the role well enough that he won a Tony Award for his performance. Upon accepting the award, he said, "This is crazypants."

NPH: Awards Show Host

Sometime in the late 2000s, society caught on to the fact that Neil Patrick Harris is a big theater kid at heart. That makes him perfectly-suited to host an awards show, considering a hosting gig typically requires stage presence, a musical number or two, and the ability to keep a crowd entertained throughout events that have a tendency to run long. Harris has been able to try his hand at hosting some of the biggest awards shows in the biz, including the Tonys, the Emmys, and even the Academy Awards.

Ahead of a gig hosting the Tonys, Harris told the Daily Beast that he didn't worry that serving as host made him somehow less-than in any of his other arenas of stardom. "I think that in my professional world right now people recognize me as both an actor and a bit of a personality, and I'm fine with that," he said. "I enjoy being a hyphenate. I've always thought of my career as a plate spinner in the circus. My life has been filled with a lot of plates."

Memorable moments as host include his gig at the Oscars, when he appeared onstage in his underwear. Harris insisted on a post-show episode of "Live with Kelly and Michael" (via People) that he hadn't, shall we say, stuffed. "They had to take a second pair of underwear and sew it to the first to make it so you couldn't see through it," he claimed. "But ... no sock!" 

Neil Patrick Harris is an author several times over

Not content having conquered stage and screen, Neil Patrick Harris made a foray into another aspect of the entertainment industry: writing. In 2014, the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" star published an unconventional memoir called "Choose Your Own Autobiography." In the style of those old "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, where readers flip around the pages depending on which choices they make, Harris retold his life's story in typically witty, charming fashion. 

"I thought, rather than have a book that tries to find a common thread between all of [the weird, different things that I've gotten to do in my life], [the book] essentially allows you to be me and choose your own version of my autobiography," he explained to NPR. The book received positive reviews, with Paste magazine writing that it was "clever, heartfelt, smutty, hilarious, [and] cheesier than a 10-ton block of gouda."

Harris didn't stop there. In 2017, he launched a series for young readers called "The Magic Misfits." The multi-talent told WBUR, "I think because I have such weird likes that kind of run all over the place, putting together a middle grade fiction series was exactly where my brain often sits." The series is about a group of kids who are into magic, and the actor insisted that the subject matter wasn't too different from his day job. "There's a big connection between magic and acting," he said. Ultimately, the series included four books, concluding in 2020.

His love of Halloween has gotten him in trouble

Neil Patrick Harris and his family are legen...(wait for it)...dary for their yearly elaborate Halloween costumes. After all, it pays to be a Hollywood superstar who knows (and can afford) top-tier makeup artists and costumes. Harris, David Burtka, and their twins always win praise online for their over-the-top looks, like in 2022, when they each dressed as iconic fast-food mascots and posed for a photo surrounded by wrappers and trash. "Brilliant," "Law & Order: SVU" star Mariska Hargitay commented on NPH's Instagram post of the costumes.

"I was always, when I was young, obsessed with Tom Savini and all the crazy makeup stuff, prosthetics — love the gore. I love the fake blood. I love Halloween," he told Wired. Unfortunately, his love of gore and prosthetics got him in trouble when he took things too far. In 2011, at a Halloween party thrown by Harris and his husband, a meat platter was made up to look like then-recently-deceased singer Amy Winehouse (via BuzzFeed News).

"Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson's husband, Justin Mikita, tweeted a photo of the grotesque display, and the photo resurfaced online a decade later, leading to a fresh wave of backlash. Harris eventually addressed the situation. "A photo recently resurfaced from a Halloween-themed party my husband and I hosted 11 years ago. It was regrettable then, and it remains regrettable now," he stated to Entertainment Weekly. "Amy Winehouse was a once-in-a-generation talent, and I'm sorry for any hurt this image caused."

Neil Patrick Harris' Netflix series Uncoupled

In 2022, Neil Patrick Harris returned to television in a sitcom called "Uncoupled," from "Sex and the City" and "Emily in Paris" creator Darren Star. In the series, Harris plays Michael, a real estate agent whose boyfriend dumps him after almost two decades together. Michael must learn how to date again in a world that has changed dramatically since the last time he was single. 

Harris, too, told USA Today that the world explored in the show is foreign to him, because he's been with David Burtka since before apps like Grindr were a thing. "It seems that app-based dating in the gay world is much less about long-term connection. It's much more carnal, which is refreshing because if that's what you want, you don't have to go on a third or fourth date," he said. "At the same time, it does feel like you're potentially missing out on a deeper connection."

Nevertheless, Harris was particularly happy that the show explores a side of queer life beyond a simple coming-out story. He was also happy about getting to do a show with so much sexual content, considering his age. "I've never felt better in my own skin at 49 years old," he told Entertainment Weekly. "I don't feel dusty at 50. I got a lot of life left to live and a lot of other co-stars to hump."