High-Wire Act

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.Photo: Art Streiber

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.”

Styling by Sharon Williams/Celestine Talent; Grooming by Cheri Keating/The Wall Group; Production design by Nick Tortorici. Shirt and bow tie by Brooks Brothers.Photo: Art Streiber

In person, Harris is a graceful presence: tall and charismatic, with hollow cheeks, a rangy muscularity, and three expressive lines on his forehead. He lounges, legs spread, on his office sofa, wearing a suit and tie. A bronze skull sits on the coffee table; there’s a suitcase bar near the bathroom. On the shelf is a framed picture of his long-term boyfriend, David Burtka, bed-headed, smiling up from white sheets.

I mention that I’m staying at the Magic Castle Hotel, and he hocks me playfully. “You do know it’s not affiliated with the Magic Castle, right?” he says, looking concerned. “Is it all creepy and Bates Motel? Or cool and magicky?”

He glances down at his silver Mac, flooded with Emmy e-mails. This is Harris’s first major producing gig, and it’s more complicated than he’d expected.

“This may very well be the last year they’re on a network show,” he says of the Emmys on CBS, which he was invited to join after he got credit for the highest Tony ratings in years. “This wheel contract they have, where each year a different network gets the show, as the ratings decline it becomes less of a good thing to ‘get it.’ It’s a very expensive show. Which means they have to get more ad revenue. Ads are less expensive, because ratings are down. So you have to do more ads, which makes the show smaller—and inevitably, when it goes to ABC, the same thing will happen, and finally someone will do it on cable, where there won’t be any commercials. Which will be a wonderful show. Our three-hour show is only two hours and five minutes long, due to economics.”

Still, he’s trying to insert his taste into the proceedings. He’d love this year’s installment to be the “Classy Emmys,” he says, with self-mocking air quotes. Superb dancing. Uncheesy musical guests. He originally wanted the Muppets for the opening number—Statler and Waldorf up in the balcony!—but that plan proved too difficult to stage.

Muppets as an opening act are very much within Harris’s own aesthetic. Along with magic, he adores variety shows, Buster Keaton, slapstick and acrobatics, cryptography and treasure hunts. He worships Sondheim; he collects puzzles. He’s obsessed with competitive reality games—and friendly with several reality stars, including Dr. Will Kirby from Big Brother. He’s “very reverential” about puppets and has been reading Street Gang, a history of Sesame Street. (He hopes to reinvent the children’s-show format someday.) For his 30th birthday, friends created an elaborate scavenger hunt, involving kidnapping and horseback rides. The man is seemingly incapable of having a conversation without making a reference to Cirque du Soleil. This spring, in his spare time, he produced a Hollywood version of Accomplice, an interactive theatrical game in which participants mingle with actors and solve puzzles.

This is the stuff that most attracts him, he tells me—anything stylized, abstract, requiring skill and practice.

At a recent magic conference, Harris marveled at the dexterity of the younger magicians. “These card kids are like crystal-meth-heads, they’re so good. I say that as a compliment. They’re 13 years old, and they can do six cuts—that requires sitting for, like, five hours a day, just practicing cuts.”

He discusses his own performances this way, too, as a technical achievement. “For me, I’ve always had a desire to know how things were done. How things worked.” Though he respects Method actors, who delve deeply into motivation and history, seeking to become the character, Harris prefers to work from the outside in. “When we were filming Dr. Horrible, I was imagining watching it in my living room. When I’m co-hosting with Kelly Ripa, I’m not thinking Neil the Actor, I’m thinking, Housewife, ironing clothes, eleven o’clock. What kind of thing does she want to see?”

You talk a lot about the audience, I point out.

“Well, that’s what we’re doing, isn’t it?” he says. “We’re performing for people.”

Coming out is its own kind of theatrical performance: It’s a reveal. For most of show-business history, it’s been more like an exposure—often in the aftermath of a scandal, as with George Michael. But then there was Ellen DeGeneres, whose famous “Yep, I’m Gay” on the cover of Time seemed to presage a new era of openness, an end to the double life. Instead, it hobbled her career until she returned, years later, as a talk-show host. That was twelve years ago, and each year there’s more give in the social fabric, with openly gay newscasters (Rachel Maddow), talk-show hosts (Rosie O’Donnell), singers (Michael Stipe), American Idols (Adam Lambert), comics (Mario Cantone), and actresses (Wanda Sykes, Sara Gilbert, Portia de Rossi, Cynthia Nixon). Even some long-closeted female stars have quietly shifted their status, including Lily Tomlin, Jodie Foster, and, most recently, Kelly McGillis.

Clockwise from left, as Doogie Howser, M.D., 1989; In Harold & Kumar Escape from Guantanamo Bay, 2008; As Barney on How I Met Your Mother, 2009; With David Burtka; Hosting the Tonys, 2009.Photo: Clockwise from left, 20th Century Fox/Everett Collection; New Line Cinema/Everett Collection; Cliff Lipson/Courtesy of CBS; Jeff Vespa/WireImage; Dimitrios Kambouris/WireImage for Tony Awards

Yet there’s one set of performers for whom coming out is still considered a career death sentence: male actors, particularly those who play romantic leads or star in action films. The few who are out—Alan Cumming, Nathan Lane, David Hyde Pierce, Ian McKellan—are seen as niche performers. Rupert Everett, once a contender for the first Gay Bond, has been relegated to the margins of the industry. When Grey’s Anatomy’s T. R. Knight came out, it underlined his lack of chemistry with his female co-stars. Meanwhile, a retinue of major stars hover in limbo, their relationships haunted by the suspicion that it’s all for show, their performances (onscreen or on talk shows) scrutinized for indicators of some hidden self. The assumption is that they have little choice, since the conventional wisdom hasn’t budged: An out male star can never be a leading man. Straight women won’t be able to fantasize about him; straight men won’t be able to relate.

Harris has violated all these expectations. He staged his own revelation beautifully, with a clear and upbeat statement for People magazine in 2006, an interview with Out, and a good-sport appearance on Howard Stern, in which he shot back “whatever you please, man” when asked whether he was a top or a bottom. The idea all along has been to acknowledge the fact of his sexuality, then change the subject to his talent. Still, there was a kind of alchemy involved. Maybe it was Harris’s easy style of masculinity, at once unthreatening and seductive. Maybe the timing was right, coming after he’d proved he was more than a Trivial Pursuit punch line. Or maybe he’d learned, from his own extended personal coming-out process, how to handle the expectations of a wider audience.

Harris is careful never to complain about stardom. He always adds a caveat explaining that he is very lucky, that he is grateful for every opportunity, that he has learned a lot. But if there’s a strain of early fame that feels like heavenly power—when you’re the most super-popular person in the room and everyone wants you to take them to bed—that’s clearly not what Neil Patrick Harris experienced at 16. Mention Doogie Howser, M.D., the diary-keeping prodigy he played on the show, and Harris’s whole body language changes. He grimaces, and an extra diagonal line on his forehead appears like an arrow pointing far away.

Back in those strange L.A. years, Harris says, he was preoccupied almost entirely by work. It was a distraction that allowed him not to think about dating. “There were gay adults in L.A., and that kind of made me panic a bit?” His voice rises uncertainly with the memory. “Made me a little sweaty in my palms—and uncomfortable. That was just kind of the elephant in the room. Or not the elephant in the room, but the ringing in my ears: that that was some sort of horrible inevitability. And I tried many different angles to head in a different direction. Dating different girls, being the funny, witty guy at the party, to avoid being the sexual being. I wasn’t thought of in a sexual way, which is easy when you have big ears and the neck and are called Doogie all the time. So I just never really contemplated physicalizing any kind of sexual ideas until much, much later.”

Harris had been launched into stardom as a child, when playwright Mark Medoff (who’d discovered him at drama camp) cast him as a child of a broken marriage in the movie Clara’s Heart. It was a different time, he points out: There were no LGBT school groups, few openly gay figures of any kind, no out peers he could talk to. “Back in the late eighties, there were lots of kids that for all intents and purposes, now you think they’re gay, but back then, they just seemed kind of hip. I mean, Depeche Mode was cool back then—so if a guy had blond streaks in his hair and wore a painter’s cap sideways and overalls with one of the straps dangling down, you didn’t raise an eyebrow.”

The result was an acute self-consciousness, exacerbated by the attention he received when he became a poster boy for TV Guide. (“He loves candy bars … He thinks his allowance is too low … But, ooh, those Hollywood girls!”) “I was a late bloomer, and when you’re a youngster, and you’re in the public, and people are recognizing you—it’s hard to behave normally. It was like a circus sideshow. You’d wear a hat and walk fast, because if someone recognized you, they’d shout your character’s name. And no one would come up—it was just like everyone was watching you, whatever you did.”

Shirt and vest by Brooks BrothersPhoto: Art Streiber for New York Magazine

When the show was canceled in 1993, Harris went through a period of retreat. He made some lightweight but lucrative TV movies; then, at 25, he appeared in the L.A. company of Rent, an experience he found liberating. “This gypsy world of people who are just so appreciative of each other’s individuality!” Harris says, grinning at the memory, his arms held wide. “Where some people are super-gay and have girlfriends or boyfriends for twenty years, and others swing both ways—or are straight and have a wife but they’re okay with gay men giving them foot massages and don’t freak out. And you’re singing about that: no day but today, and there’s only us and there’s only this, and don’t regret.”

The audience became a mirror for his own struggles. “You can see young couples, old-guy couples, clutching each other, openly sobbing,” he tells me. “And you’re singing at them, to them, sobbing too. It’s very cathartic. And it certainly put to rest my weird personal concerns, because there’s a much bigger picture.”

Harris also went home to New Mexico for a few years, to live in an adobe house with some “rock-climbing friends.” He went through the self-help seminar the Forum (up two levels) and to a Tony Robbins seminar in Mexico. He slowly came out to friends and family, including his parents, lawyers who now own a restaurant in Albuquerque. There was some disappointment, but also a lot of “bear hugs” from people who said they already knew. “Everyone has their ‘rackets,’ ” he says—a Forum term for psychological blockages—“and for me it was the recognition from when I was younger: It was hard for me to not see everything through the veil of that. But, you know, when you’re interacting on a self-help level with a 68-year-old woman who was molested at 10 and it ruined her life, it puts a lot of things in perspective.”

Finally, Harris committed to the fact that “if I wanted to be in the business, I had to be in the business.” It’s a cliché that Hollywood actors go back to “their first love, the stage” when they can’t get parts, and Harris recognized that for producers, his teen-idol name was something to lure ticket buyers. But there was also his undeniable talent. In New York, he took over the Alan Cumming part as the ambisexual emcee in Cabaret, and in 2004 took a challenging dual role in Assassins, a politically charged production that was postponed initially after 9/11. “That forced me to be much more full-body and much more in tune with a savvy audience member—they’re much more discerning,” he says, recalling the trial-by-fire that was the audience at Assassins. “Some nights, standing ovations. And some nights, people would literally refuse to applaud and just scowl at us.”

“I wasn’t thought of in a sexual way, which is easy when you have big ears and are called Doogie all the time.”

His time in Cabaret lent Harris a different sort of freedom. “That was also extraordinarily liberating, but more in a Sam Mendes, weird, Cirque du Soleil kind of way. It wasn’t just ‘musical-theater world,’ it was real”—his voice drops an octave—“rrrough. It was dirty, and everyone could have been sued, or won, for sexual harassment. I’d be standing stage left, upstairs, with a cigarette in my hand, and two girls would come by and start fondling me and sucking on my neck and then leave. And I’d push ’em away and sit on someone’s lap and grab their junk. It was insane!” He laughs out loud. “It was an insane time.”

He emerged from these experiences as a very different performer from the child actor he’d been, with that puff of apricot hair and owlish watchfulness. He was physically adroit and sexually self-confident. And instead of cringing from his relationship with an audience—bridling at the mutual manipulation, the necessary seduction—he had begun to lean into it.

It was also while starring in Cabaret that he met actor David Burtka, who was playing Tulsa in Gypsy. Like Harris, Burtka was “a relationship guy,” and at first Harris assumed he was straight and dating a mutual female friend, Kate Reinders, who played Baby June. “I said, ‘Oh, Kate, nicely done.’ ” But Burtka was already involved, raising twins with his long-term male partner. “So I sort of gazed from afar until that had run its course. And thankfully I got to hear from Kate on the phone, every now and again, when she’d say, ‘They’re fighting! They’re fighting! You might have your chance!’ ”

After Burtka and his partner broke up, he and Harris went on a date, “and it was all very quick and fast and I’m still head over heels and we’re five-plus years in.”

Like many stage actors, Burtka had never been in the closet: In live theater, it’s accepted that a wide proportion of performers are gay. “We yin and yang very well,” says Harris. “We’re both Geminis, but I, you can probably tell, I process what the options are, and figure out what to say, and he tends to just say what he is feeling. I’m just bowled over by him. He’s made my life exponentially more livable. He’s just—great. I’m his forever protector, and I’m happiest when he’s happy.”

For several years, Harris was out privately but in the press maintained the “glass closet” situation common these days among young gay actors. There were no fake girlfriends, but he didn’t mind answering a People-magazine question about his “dream date,” leaving out a pronoun. When he heard about the script for Harold & Kumar, in which he plays a coke-snorting former child actor named Neil Patrick Harris who rants about craving “fur burgers,” he was unsettled—was his gayness part of the joke? (The writers actually had no idea he was gay, although they did during the sequel. “The character we wrote isn’t gay,” says Harold co-writer Hayden Schlossberg. “He might even be slightly homophobic.”)

Harris turned the role into an outrageous exorcism of his own teen-idol past; the poster for the sequel even showed him on a unicorn, with the tagline “What Would NPH Do?” He asked to be credited as “Neil Patrick Harris,” not “Himself”: “I didn’t want it to seem like I was saying, ‘Hey, America, I’m really like this!’ ”

He also wasn’t precisely out when he was cast as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother in 2005, although he brought Burtka to the first cast barbecue. But as Harris’s star rose, it became inevitable that his life—however open to those who knew him—might become a tabloid story. The blogger Perez Hilton was on the attack. And Harris and his team met to strategize, striving to make their statement succinct and positive. “No one was ever old-school Hollywood, with a cigar in their mouth, saying ‘You can’t do this, see! It’ll ruin your career, kid.’ ” With his mild New Age streak, Harris expresses faith that intentions are what matter: “So long as you’re representing yourself well, you’re making good choices for good reasons, all of the circumstantial things will vanish.”

Now Harris and Burtka walk the red carpets together. They wear rings, although they are not legally married. Despite rumors of a surrogate, they are not having a child yet, he tells me, but he believes “we’d make very good parents.” (When they spend time with Burtka’s twins, Harris says he gets to “be the fun guy who takes them to Disneyland.”)

The psychological effects of being closeted are well documented. But living in a “glass closet” has its own risks, since any sexual references a celebrity makes—toward either sex—risk coming off as coy, even hypocritical. Some actors (Jodie Foster comes to mind) respond by developing an oddly asexual vibe. But perversely, Harris’s wholesome statement to People about being “a very content gay man,” paired with his marital stability, seems to have freed him up to be a polymorphously flirtatious celebrity, catalyzing crushes from all corners.

When we talk about the danger that his new romantic plotline might alter the character of Barney, taking away his ability to make “tit jokes,” Harris veers into a description of his co-stars, both new moms: “They have great tits this year, by the way. They’re both milking, so they have these fantastic, real”—he makes a very Barney-esque gesture—“they’re amazing, I can’t stop staring at their breasts, all of them.” When a reporter asked him about seeing Jason Segel’s penis full-frontal in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Harris deadpanned, “He’s very interested in what I think of his genitals … He’s got such a huge crush on me, I didn’t want to let him down.” On our second meeting, he rather randomly brought up a bachelor party he’d attended at the Lower East Side nightclub, The Box: “It’s so dark and awesome!” he raved happily about one of the club’s notorious stage shows. “This woman, she started nude, and then she dressed herself by pulling things out of her Afro. And then her vagina. And then her butthole.”

In his late twenties, shortly after he starred in Rent, Harris was inspired by Danny Roberts, a gay cast member on The Real World: New Orleans. “He was a unique entity at that time, as someone who was seemingly so confident in their own skin that they didn’t need to wear their sexuality, uh—” He begins to stumble slightly, realizing he’s about to cross into a minefield of rhetorical missteps. “Or to flaunt their sexuality? To be more of one thing or another.”

He pauses to rethink. “And I—it’s a personal thing, I suppose, but I personally responded to his lack of overt grandstanding. Again, tricky waters, because if I say something like ‘He didn’t wave flags,’ it sounds like I’m disrespecting people that do, who I think are tremendously important, but there’s more than one way to get into people’s psyches.”

Danny was also distinctly masculine, I point out: the first gay cast member who could easily pass as straight.

“Oh, he was very sexy, but everyone thought so,” says Harris drily. “One wants to be sexy to everyone.” It’s one advantage of coming out, he tells me: “As Barney, I get to make out with all sorts of girls. And I’m allowed to say that women are sexy and not have them say, ‘That’s not true!’ But I’m now in a really fun position, where I can tell a guy that he’s sexy, and most”—he raises an eyebrow—“aren’t put off by that.”

“Love looks like love on a human face,” Joss Whedon says about casting Harris as the straight anti-hero of Dr. Horrible, a role that depends on the audience’s belief in the character’s romantic obsession. Whedon knew Harris from his Broadway roles; he’d auditioned him for a part in his short-lived Fox series Firefly. But for Dr. Horrible, an experimental musical about a nerd who dreams of being a super-villain, Harris was Whedon’s first choice. He could sing, he could dance, he could project the yearning and fury that ground the stylized plot.

Next year, Harris plays a married father in The Best and the Brightest, an upcoming independent comedy about New York private-school admissions, also starring Amy Sedaris. First-time director Josh Shelov tells me he was looking for a comic actor who, in contrast to the slacker style of many contemporary actors, could exude masculine maturity. “There was a four-second conversation about sexuality,” he recalls of the day the question was raised. “But our team were big How I Met Your Mother fans. And we basically felt like the audience has spoken already, they’ve said they find him acceptable in a straight role. There’s no stigma here, it’s a pure talent issue at this point.”

This is Harris’s own version of breaking the Bro Code: By shuttling so easily along the continuum of masculinity, from frat-boy stud to dapper showman, he’s raised questions about what might be possible for other actors, gay and straight. It’s an attitude that meshes nicely with current comedy culture, in which soft-spoken actors like Michael Cera are romantic-comedy leads, and “bromances” abound. If more actors were out, if the larger culture felt more like the accepting Utopia Harris glimpsed during Rent, perhaps masculinity might feel like just another performance—something playful, not scary or loaded.

I ask Harris if he’d ever found himself watching, as many young gay men do, other men for hints of how to “pass.” He finds a different way into the question.

“I always felt uncomfortable in my skin. To this day, I feel like my posture’s weird, and certain parts of my body, I don’t feel like I use them like I should.” He pauses. “But I don’t know. I’ve seen certain people who feel they should act more overtly masculine, to either prove something to others or hide something from others. But I’ve always thought people should act to accomplish whatever they need to get. I don’t feel like if you’re talking professionally with your boss—if you talk strip clubs with him if he’s the kind of person who goes to strip clubs—that means you’re being a kiss-ass. It just means that you’re being effective.”

A few days later, Harris appears on Letterman. I meet him the next morning at a Starbucks near his Harlem apartment, which he and Burtka have had for three years. As we stand in line for oatmeal, I ask how Letterman went and he looks quizzical, even behind his movie-star sunglasses. It was “weird,” he says, letting those three forehead lines do the wave. “When the ‘Top Ten’ list isn’t that funny, he can be grouchy. I think he knows I can take it, so he sort of—came at me. It was a little strange.”

I TiVo the show. It is strange. Harris makes pleasant banter about a CBS-paid trip on the Orient Express. In response, Letterman snarls like a prosecutor. At one point, he chuckles sourly, “I appreciate it, you’re doing your own segues. Don’t count on me for anything tonight.” Harris sidesteps the hostility, even when Letterman addresses him, out of nowhere, as “Mr. Limo Driver Suit.”

In daylight, Harris seems slighter, less showmanlike than he was on the set. He’s been grinding through Emmy details, he tells me, trying to fit the pieces of that stubborn puzzle. With the Muppet number not an option, they’d planned to film a new comic “cold open.” Unfortunately, “due to budgetary restraints and Alec Baldwin pulling an about-face, we’ve had to scrap the whole thing.”

Why did Baldwin drop out? I ask him.

“That seems to be the question of the hour,” he says, doing that eyebrow thing.

Interrupted by polite fans, we discuss his plans for the future. He’d “love to be Ed Sullivan” someday; he has a concept for an interactive kids’ show. But I realize I’m privately bridling at any suggestion of him moving behind the scenes, becoming a host like Ellen, like Rosie, instead of opening movies: I want him to be the Great Gay Hope—the one who shows that it can be done. “I appreciate that,” he tells me. “But it feels weird to own that.” He doesn’t want to be the “litmus test,” he tells me, “because I’m suddenly ‘that guy.’ ”

Maybe this is its own kind of Houdini act, as difficult as coming out of the closet or even escaping teen stardom. Lower yourself into the role-model box and you might never break those chains.

I offer him a deck of cards and ask him to demonstrate a trick: to show me how to “force” a card on the audience. He does so, patiently, with a polite “Well played!” But he also lets me know there are limits to his tolerance. “It goes against my nature to be teaching journalists the secrets to card tricks. Soon I’ll be like the Masked Magician, a pariah. Some dumbass named Valentino who isn’t welcome in the magic world, so much.”

He has to fly back to L.A., but before he leaves, he describes the scavenger hunt his friends arranged for his birthday. Despite his fascination with games, he ended up 1,000 feet off course: “I had a compass, but it was supposed to be reversed.” Lately, he’s been poring over the journals of online scavenger hunt players, reverse-engineering their methods from the inside out.

That’s the thing about puzzles one hasn’t mastered yet, he tells me. “I like to know that there are solutions. I don’t have to solve it necessarily. But I like to know it can be done.”

Watch Neil Patrick Harris clips and read more by Emily Nussbaum at her TV blog, SURF.

High-Wire Act