'Doogie Howser, M.D.': ABC Hated Neil Patrick Harris, But the Pilot Was Shot Anyway

There are a lot of TV shows that almost went differently before making it to air in the form fans came to know and love.

The Gilmore Girls was almost known as The Gilmore Way, which would have put the focus more on the family legacy than on the relationship between the mother-daughter stars. A potential Seinfeld finale would have been much different — and probably better received by fans. 

Many of the “almosts” of the television world involve casting. Some stars were considered for one role and ended up in another. Others ended up getting the part, but then a conflict required a replacement before the series started shooting. We’re left wondering what the series might have been like if things had gone differently. 

For the case of Doogie Howser, M.D., it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the title role. Neil Patrick Harris’ career was launched playing the precocious physician, but the network was actually determined to find someone else. 

Neil Patrick Harris has risen to TV fame

These days, Neil Patrick Harris is probably best known for his time on How I Met Your Mother. From 2005 to 2014, Harris portrayed Barney Stinson on the beloved sitcom, and the role helped solidify his adult career. Since landing the part of Stinson, Harris has seen his career explode.

He’s had plenty of voice work in animated series like Robot Chicken and The Penguins of Madagascar. He’s also had short arcs on popular series like American Horror Story. Harris clearly enjoys his work and has done lots of pet projects such as the TV series Neil’s Puppet Dreams as well as portraying himself on Fraggle Rock: Rock On! 

He also had a recurring role on A Series of Unfortunate Events as Count Olaf. His reputation for playful projects was on full display when he participated in the pandemic-inspired fan remake of The Princess Bride

Harris has several future projects in the works, and they demonstrate a potential shift from TV to film. With roles in The Matrix 4The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent, and Spinning Gold, fans will certainly get to see more of Harris’ signature acting style soon. 

‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’ was a breakout role for Harris

Long before he was playing Barney Stinson, Harris captivated television fans with his portrayal of the child genius Doogie Howser. The series followed the life of a brilliant teenager who was facing the day-to-day struggles of any adolescent: crushes, friendship conflicts, and peer pressure. 

At the same time, Doogie Howser was also a practicing physician completing a difficult residency program. The tension between Doogie’s everyday teen qualities and the very adult scenarios of his career made for great entertainment, and Harris remained in the role for the series’ entire run from 1989 to 1993. 

ABC did not want Harris as Doogie Howser

It’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Doogie Howser, but for the executives at ABC, it was easy to imagine anyone else in the role. They were not sold on Harris’ performance and didn’t think he was the right person for the part. 

As Mental Floss reports, producer Steven Bochco had to really fight to keep Harris in the part, insisting he was the only hopeful whose audition had demonstrated the right mix of child-like innocence and adult-like maturity. 

Bochco, protected by a clause in his contract that gave him a hefty fee if the series was canceled, decided to shoot the pilot despite the misgivings, but the executives watched it and still didn’t like Harris’ portrayal of Doogie. Ultimately, though, it’s not up to executives — it’s up to the fans. Test audiences adored the pilot and Harris’ portrayal, and their opinion mattered more. 

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