Hard as it is to imagine, there was a time when Neil Patrick Harris was something less than cool. As the child star of ABC's Doogie Howser, M.D. (1989-93), Harris was saddled with an adolescent starring role on a major network series and an unforgiving nickname: like Punky and Gomer before him, “Doogie” is a hard handle to live down.
Harris persevered, kidding about his own reputation as the "kid doctor" and eventually finding more success in films and on television. As for Doogie? The precocious physician now has his very own set of facts.
1. THE NETWORK DIDN’T LIKE NEIL PATRICK HARRIS. OR THE SHOW.
Doogie Howser, M.D. was brought to ABC by Steven Bochco (Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law), a producer with an impressive track record. Despite his reputation, the network wasn’t pleased with his choice of Neil Patrick Harris in the title role. But Bochco was undeterred: He went ahead and shot the pilot episode (which was written by series co-creator David E. Kelley) since he had a crucial clause in his contract that paid him a significant penalty if executives chose to bury the project. ABC didn’t like the pilot, either—but test audiences did. "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," Kelley told Vulture. "And the rest is history.”
2. BOCHCO THOUGHT UP THE SHOW WHILE "SITTING ON THE CAN."
In an interview with the Archive of American Television, Bochco recalled the moment the idea for Doogie struck him: he was sitting on the toilet reading New York magazine when he came across a piece about child prodigies. “The idea right then and there was, well, if you can be a musical prodigy or a mathematical prodigy, under the right kind of circumstances, why couldn’t you be any other kind of prodigy?” Bochco put the magazine down, finished his business, and had the concept for Doogie before he was done showering.
3. IT REGULARLY BEAT
IN THE RATINGS.
Though it was never a runaway ratings success, Doogie had enough fans to deliver a beating to NBC’s Seinfeld during the 1991-1992 season. The two shows aired head-to-head at 9:00 p.m. on Wednesdays. Seinfeld, which had not yet matured into one of TV’s biggest successes, was getting trounced by the kid doctor weekly. Despite the victory, ABC sensed Seinfeld was on the verge of exploding and slotted Home Improvement against it the following season, dropping Doogie to an earlier time slot.
4. REAL DOCTORS GAVE IT A POOR DIAGNOSIS.
When Doogie premiered in the fall of 1989, it left audiences wondering if a 16-year-old could really operate as a surgical resident. To find out, TV Guide asked Harvard Medical School admissions officer Helen Rakin. "Doogie Howser would have had to graduate from college at nine, start medical school at 10, graduate from medical school at 14, then, after one year of internship and one year of residency, obtain his license to practice at 16," she said. "I don't think so." The Los Angeles Times also chimed in, quoting the then-dean of students at Johns Hopkins as saying he would never admit someone of Howser’s age.
5. DOOGIE ONCE MET DOC BROWN.
Long before Marvel Studios made character crossovers a thing in popular culture, TV networks frequently showcased unlikely meetings to boost ratings. For a 1990 Earth Day special, ABC filmed a segment in which Back to the Future's Doc Brown (Christopher Lloyd) arrives in his DeLorean and rushes into a hospital tending to a gravely ill Mother Earth (played by Bette Midler). Doc proceeds to sternly lecture Doogie about the looming threat of global warming. It's not as funny as it sounds.
6. HARRIS’ SHOE SIZE CHANGED FIVE TIMES IN THE FIRST SEASON.
The perils of casting a still-growing star: when Harris, 16, was filming the first season of Doogie, his shoe size changed five times over eight months.
7. SCIENTISTS NAMED A SMART NEW BREED OF MOUSE AFTER HIM.
In 1999, neurobiologists at Princeton University were able to alter one gene in mice that influenced the formation of memories. With more cranial storage space, they effectively became “smarter” than your typical vermin. Dr. Joe Z. Tsien, who led the study, named the new strain “Doogie.” More than 33 strains followed, though the manipulation does have some unwanted effects: Doogie mice were found to be more susceptible to pain after gene alteration.
8. "VINNIE” WAS IN HIS MID-20S.
Max Casella was cast as Doogie’s perennially hormonal pal Vinnie when he was 21 years old (the character was 16). Casella was 25 years old when the series ended. Owing to his pubescent looks, Casella says he was often mistaken for a younger man by fans and was sometimes stopped by police who asked if he was joy-riding in his parents’ car.
9. FOR SUTURING SCENES, PRODUCERS USED RAW CHICKENS.
As trauma specialists, Doogie and his colleagues would often be called upon to sew up (primetime-friendly) gaping wounds. To add to the believability, Harris and his co-stars were asked to buy raw chickens from a nearby Ralph’s supermarket and practice stitching their skin together. The chickens were also used on camera and surrounded by gauze to replicate human epidermis.
10. DOOGIE WAS SUPPOSED TO BECOME A WRITER.
Though Bochco left the show after three seasons to tend to his other series commitments, he had planned on concluding the series by having Doogie leave medicine to become a writer. (All of those late-in-episode journal entries were apparently his way of foreshadowing.) Unfortunately, ABC delivered an abrupt cancellation notice late in the fourth season: There was just enough time to ship Doogie off to Europe, his future uncertain.
11. HARRIS STILL WATCHES IT.
Having survived the often-tumultuous years that follow child actors, Harris has enjoyed remarkable success as a sitcom star, Broadway actor, and awards show host. Maybe that’s why he has no problem sitting down to watch reruns: He told CBS late night host James Corden in August that Doogie appears on his TV from time to time, though he finds it “weird” to watch due to his high-pitched voice. “I sound like I was in The Wizard of Oz,” he said.