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Saved from Doogie -- by Barney

Neil Patrick Harris scrubs his straight-man kid doctor stature and clicks with the back-slapping, catchphrase-crafting sidekick of 'How I Met Your Mother.'

November 20, 2005|Maria Elena Fernandez | Times Staff Writer

IS Barney any better than Doogie?

That's the question Neil Patrick Harris asks himself a lot now that he's on a hit TV show again -- CBS' Monday night sitcom "How I Met Your Mother" -- and his irreverent character is becoming something of a pop figure.

Harris, 32, had been longing for the days when the "Doogie" reference -- from "Doogie Howser, M.D." -- would not be attached to his name. And now that those days are here, Harris can't help but wonder: "Going from Doogie to Barney, is that a step up? It's more of a horizontal step, isn't it?"

It's the kind of thing a grown-up child actor worries about, even before a pilot is picked up for a series. "The first thing he said to us when we told him he got the part was, 'Guys, couldn't you have named me something cool?' " said "How I Met Your Mother" co-creator Craig Thomas. "Now people are gonna yell 'Barney' at airports."

The moniker may not be a winner, but the role is proving to be. Harris' portrayal of suit-wearing sidekick Barney is one of the fall season's breakouts. The fast-talking, seemingly rich, who-knows-what-he-does-for-a-living player is already being quoted in conversation, and the Internet is filled with his Barneyisms, including: "Suit up," "What up" and "Have you met Ted?" He's the kind of guy you'd love to pal around with, but would never recommend to your sister for a date. After all, he is the originator of the "Lemon Law for Dating."

"You can't be a single person living in a major city without knowing a Barney," co-creator Carter Bays said.

"He swoops in like a superhero in the superhero costume," Thomas said. "We're gonna learn more about him -- how did Barney become Barney? Right now, I kind of like that he's this Batman sort of enigmatic presence that swoops into stories and takes them into crazy directions. It would be funny if it turns out he works at Kinko's."

But the Barney that best friends Bays and Thomas had imagined for their pilot script was nothing like the tall, lean, blond Harris. The original was more of a "Jack Black-John Belushi jovial fat guy who probably died in his late 30s because of too much steak and beer, but still would wear a suit and stuff," Thomas said.

The line of Jack Black look-alikes wanting to play Barney outside the "How I Met Your Mother" casting office was pretty long. But Bays and Thomas had watched "Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle" and couldn't get Harris out of their heads. "He just comes into the movie and hijacks it when he's there," Thomas said.

"We called our casting director and told her she had to get Neil Patrick Harris in here," he said. "The next thing you know he was in there auditioning and he was so head-and-shoulders funnier than anyone else we had seen. We didn't have to change much of the dialogue. He's so funny that he just comes in and makes the dialogue his own."

Lured back to the small screen

EVEN funnier was that Harris was running fast from all sitcoms. The last one hadn't gone well -- NBC's "Stark Raving Mad" was canceled after 13 episodes, a victim of "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire" madness -- and the actor who had been focusing on theater ("Rent" and "Assassins") and films said he preferred a dramatic role.

"But then I got this crazy-[Barney-like expletive] script and I found it funny and I thought the part was so extreme," Harris said. "I don't often get to play someone so extreme.... I jumped at the opportunity. I didn't have much fear going into the audition because I didn't think I was going to get it. I wasn't that portly, Jack Black kind of guy. But I am always looking for a funny and Barney's always kind of looking for a funny."

Like the nickname he gave himself on the Halloween episode, "the Barnacle." That's a name that Harris probably could live with, but it might be wiser to stick with Barney. Look what it did for the purple dinosaur.

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