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High-Wire Act

Neil Patrick Harris used to be an underage doctor on TV. Now he’s another Hollywood first: an out gay actor who can host award shows, play a womanizer, walk the red carpet with his boyfriend, and then get cast in movies as a straight dad. Neat trick.

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Styling by Sharon Williams/Celestine Talent; Grooming by Cheri Keating/The Wall Group; Production design by Nick Tortorici. Bow tie by Burberry; Shoes by Paul Smith; Vintage vest, pants, and cufflinks. High wire rigging by Ray Pierce/Hollywood Aerial Artists.  

Neil Patrick Harris is kissing the actress Cobie Smulders. It’s an intimate kiss, eyes closed, complete with low moans.

The pair embrace on a New York City stoop, on the Los Angeles set of the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother, which returns to the air next Monday. It’s a cool, late-summer night. “It feels like New York weather,” says Josh Radnor, who plays Ted, the nice-guy lead, as they prep the next take. The show is by design Ted’s story, told to his children, but this season the great romance belongs to his friend Barney, played by Harris. Four seasons ago, Barney was a mere comic sidekick, but Harris’s performance has turned him into a larger-than-life figure, a suit-fetishizing horndog whose catchphrases (“Legen—wait for it!—dary”) are printed all over CBS swag and who even has his own spin-off book, The Bro Code. Now he’s moving into deeper waters, struggling with what it might mean to have more than just another one-night stand. In the scene they’re filming, Barney is trying to behave like a boyfriend—learning, like Pinocchio, to be a real boy.

Again and again, the actors kiss. A writer adds a punch line about breasts pointing two different ways, and Harris incorporates it, getting laughs from the crew. The director takes Harris’s hands and poses them on Smulders’s legs.

Between takes, the two of them banter. “Your mikes look very beautiful, pressed together,” Harris says as technicians adjust the audio. “He’s making a pass at me,” Smulders complains. Harris waggles his tongue like a piece of ham. Somewhere in there, British role-playing emerges.

“Let’s make love and not think about the future—, ” she trills, Merchant Ivory style.

“Not think about the war,” Harris moos back, leaning in again.

Harris is warm and professional, but he is also under stress. He paced back and forth before the first take, as Smulders reassured him that after the Emmys on September 20—which he is both hosting and co-producing—things would get easier. When a car’s engine ruins several takes, he lowers his head, shifting his jaw from side to side. And the moment the shoot ends, to relieved applause, he rushes into a golf cart. It’s already after 9 p.m., and he’s flying to New York the next morning, but there’s more work to come that night, more promotion, preparation, details to nail down. Harris drives away, on to the next act.

Neil Patrick Harris is a magician. I mean this literally: Harris is on the board of directors of the Magic Castle, that dorky-fabulous private club in Los Angeles, where the world’s magicians gather to carouse in black tie and exchange intra-magical secrets—an institution memorably parodied on Arrested Development as the Gothic Castle. He attends meetings to set club policy. Last October, he hosted the Magic Awards ceremony in Las Vegas, and recently directed another member’s one-man show. Years before he was launched into teen stardom on Doogie Howser, M.D., Steven Bochco’s late-eighties drama about a teenage surgeon, Harris was a dedicated magic geek, saving his allowance for visits to see his grandparents in Albuquerque—buying sponge balls, thumb tips, hot rods, then practicing obsessively during the three-hour drive back to the small town of Ruidoso, New Mexico.

An obsession with magic requires a particular personality type: the nerd extrovert. “When you go to a magic conference, and you spend time with 500 magician people, you start to realize … trends,” he says with an arched eyebrow. “It’s the coolest hobby in the world, but people tend to get into magic because no one would talk to them.”

Once you’ve learned that charm, though, everyone wants to talk to you. And as a celebrity, Harris has managed to pull off a truly elegant trick, something no male actor has done to date—he has come out as gay without stunting his career. Instead, his fame has spiked upward. “Our little Neil has really blown up this year,” Smulders tells me in the break room, and it’s true: Harris, who is 36, has become almost supernaturally productive, a kind of human variety show in a range of genres, high and low, mass and niche. With his boyish likability, a gift for banter in the style of Cary Grant (or Hugh Grant—really any Grant), and a versatile range of skills, Harris seems poised to become the first out gay actor to become an A-list star.

His recent résumé is exhausting to contemplate: There’s How I Met Your Mother, a witty underdog series finally getting ratings and critical attention. There’s the Emmys, for which he has also been nominated for best supporting actor. In April, Harris hosted the TVLand Awards; in June, the Tonys. He’s had numerous guest spots with his friend Kelly Ripa; he’s appeared on The View and Top Chef Masters and Big Brother; he recently did a guest-judge gig on American Idol. In the two Harold & Kumar stoner movies, Harris played a spectacularly filthy version of himself; his voice is also featured in the sweet children’s film Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs. On Broadway, he received excellent reviews as Lee Harvey Oswald in Sondheim’s dark masterpiece Assassins, and during the writers’ strike, he starred in Joss Whedon’s online musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog—which is now also nominated for an Emmy. In fact, researching Harris opens up a cavalcade of YouTube clips: a hilarious Les Misérables duet with his sitcom co-star Jason Segel, charming turns as the Fairy Shoe Person on Sesame Street, a role in Prop 8—The Musical on the Internet comedy site Funny or Die, a poignant solo as Tobias in Sweeney Todd, a memorable guest-hosting gig on Saturday Night Live, even an Old Spice ad in which he struts through a hospital wearing a stethoscope, explaining earnestly, “I used to be a doctor for pretend.”


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