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‘Doogie Howser, M.D.’: 10 Little-Known Facts About Neil Patrick Harris’ First Series

Find out why ABC almost didn't pick up the series, and Neil's crazy school schedule!


One of the most offbeat television hits of the late 1980s/early ’90s was Doogie Howser, M.D., starring Neil Patrick Harris as the 16-year-old medical prodigy who had graduated from Princeton University at the age of 10 and has just been hired as a surgeon at Los Angeles’ Eastman Medical Center.

Created by the late Steven Bochco and David E. Kelley, Doogie Howser, M.D. aired on ABC from 1989 to 1993, and surrounded Harris with a variety of characters, among them Max Casella as best friend Vinnie Delpino, Lisa Dean Ryan as girlfriend Wanda Plenn, James B. Sikking as Doogie’s father, Dr. David Howser; Belinda Montgomery as his mother, Katherine; Lawrence Pressman as Dr. Benjamin Canfield and Kathryn Layng as Mary Margaret “Curly” Spaulding, a nurse at Eastman.

What follows is an opportunity to dig a little deeper into the world of Doogie Howser, and learn some things you might not have known.

1. The idea of Doogie Howser, M.D. came in the bathroom

Steven Bochco
Steven Bochco in 2009Munawar Hosain/Fotos International/Getty Images

In an interview with the Television Academy, Bochco shared that the concept for Doogie Howser, M.D. came to him while he was “in the can.” He was reading an issue of New York Magazine and there was an article about two gifted kids in the same family.

“One was a musical prodigy and the other was, I think, a mathematical prodigy,” he recalled. “My dad had been a prodigy and the idea right then and there was, ‘If you can be a musical prodigy or a mathematical prodigy, under the right circumstances why couldn’t you be any other kind of prodigy?’ So I put the magazine down and by the time I was finished with my shower, I had the whole thing. I figured out who the boy was, why he’d become obsessed with medicine at a very early age, who his family was, who his father and mother were … Literally, within half an hour, I had the entire thing laid out in my head and it made absolute sense to me.”

2. ABC nearly backed out when they read the pilot script

Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris and Max Casella in episode two of Doogie Howser, M.D. 1990s©20th Television/courtesy

Bochco had been very successful at NBC, creating shows like Hill Street Blues and L.A. Law for NBC before he was wooed over to ABC, where he created the John Ritter dramedy Hooperman (one of the first shows to coin that description).

Next up for the network was Doogie Howser, M.D., the pilot script for which did not thrill executives. “When they read it,” says Bochco, “they got very nervous. I think they were expecting a half-hour sitcom with an audience and laughs and a little goofy kid, and here’s this episode where this kid has to give his girlfriend a pelvic because she had appendicitis. So they got nervous and almost backed out. And I said, ‘Look, this is the show I want to do. If you don’t want to do it, that’s one thing, but I’m not going to change it into something else.’ They very reluctantly went forward. Nervously.”

3. Execs doubted Harris could pull off Doogie Howser

Neil Patrick Harris
ABC really didn’t want Neil Patrick Harris cast as Doogie, but series creator Steven Bochco insisted on it©20th Television/courtesy

Considering the successful career he would have, it’s hard to believe that ABC had no faith at all that Neil Patrick Harris would be able to carry the lead role of the series, despite the fact that he was the first actor Bochco felt was believable as the character. Given that the network would have to make a huge pay-out if the project was canceled (that’s the kind of clout that Bochco had at the time), they allowed Harris to film the pilot. It was only after that episode received top marks from preview audiences that they backed down.

4. Neil’s parents told him the only TV show he could do would be one from Steven Bochco

It seems like a pretty specific demand, but when Neil was breaking into acting and was looking to do television, his parents, who are lawyers, told him the only TV show he could do was one produced by Steven Bochco.

There was actually a very good reason for this, as he related to Howard Stern: “They said we would never do a TV show, because it would uproot us as a family. And on a TV show, they would be required to be within X number of feet of me by state law. Also, they’re lawyers in New Mexico and not in California, so they can’t just start practicing law there. They’d have to pass the Bar. Weirdly enough, they didn’t know this, but Stephen Bochco was planning a TV show about a teenager who’s so brilliant that he goes to medical school at 17.” Not much argument left for mom and dad to have, it seems.

5. On-set schooling was a challenge for Neil

Neil Patrick Harris, Doogie Howser
Finding time for schooling on the studio lot was a challenge during the making of the show©20th Television/courtesy

Given that he was 16 during the filming of season one, Neil was only allowed by law to work for nine and a half hours a day, and three of those had to be spent in school at the studio in 20 minute increments. As a result, scenes would be rehearsed, he would be rushed to school while the set was lit and the second assistant director would be watching his watch intently. As soon as 19:59 turned to 20 minutes, there would be a knock on the door, Neil would be whisked out to set and filming would begin before the cycle kicked in again.

6. Neil’s script was placed on the body he was operating on

Lisa Dean Ryan and Neil Patrick Harris Doogie Howser
Neil Patrick Harris with Lisa Dean Ryan, who played Doogie’s girlfriend on the series, 1991©20th Television/courtesy

Portions of each Doogie Howser script would include a great deal of medical jargon, which, being a genius, the character would be great at espousing. “Part of the dialogue,” said Neil, “was that he would just spout out all these things in the middle of whatever. So we would get these mini script pages that you would use to rehearse, and then you would fold it up and put it in your pocket. But if we were doing any kind of operating scene, I would just rip the little square of dialogue and just set it right in the wound — and it was perfect. I would put my lines on every clipboard and write them in different places so it didn’t look like I was just reading. I would flip the page on the clipboard, and there’d be the second half of the line.”

7. Doogie Howser represented a breakthrough role for My Three Sons actor Barry Livingston

Barry Livingston and Atticus Shaffer Doogie Howser
Barry Livingston, who rose to fame as Ernie Douglas on My Three Sons, had a recurring role on Doogie Howser, M.D, 1992©ABC/courtesy

Barry Livingston, who was so well-known for playing Ernie Douglas on the classic TV sitcom My Three Sons, feels that his Doogie Howser recurring role of Dr. Rickett in seasons two to four allowed him to finally grow up on camera.

“Up until that point,” Barry says, “you always play the young guy, the kid, the goofy college student who can’t get the girl. And you’re always the guy in the story who never has the answers; you’re always asking the stars, ‘Gee, what do I have to say to get a date?’ And, of course, the star always gives you the information. But on Doogie Howser, he was the kid and I finally became the adult who knew more than the other guy. That seemed to be a real turning point for me.”

8. Season five would have been a very different version of Doogie Howser

Neil Patrick Harris in Doogie Howser Doogie Howser
Had the show gone a fifth season, Doogie would have given up medicine for writing, 1993©20th Television/courtesy

By the end of its fourth season, the character of Doogie Howser had gone through a number of changes, not the least of which was the fact that he and girlfriend Wanda Plenn broke up when she went off to college and Doogie moved into his own apartment. What Bochco intended was for a season-long arc in a proposed fifth and final season that would have seen the character losing his passion for medicine and deciding to pursue writing. The closest they got to this was having him quit his job and leave for Europe in what turned out to be the series finale.

9. How to survive Hollywood after Doogie Howser

Neil Patrick Harris and the cast of How I Met Your Mother Doogie Howser
Following Doogie Howser, Neil’s next big show was How I Met Your Mother©20th Television/courtesy

Like many actors coming off of a multi-season TV show, there’s no guarantee that work will be waiting for you, and Neil, like so many others, had his struggles following the end of Doogie Howser, M.D. What saved him, or allowed him to keep his head on straight, was the advice given by Bochco.

“He said that fame comes in like waves,” Harris explained. “You paddle out there, you get a great wave. It’s super amazing. it feels great. You ride it, the wind is fantastic, but the wave ends and crashes onto the shore and you have to decide whether you turn around and swim back out. In doing so, you’re going to get hit by all these waves as they come in, but you finally make it past them. Then you have to sit there forever, waiting for the right wave to come back again. I liked that.” From 2005 to 2014, he would enjoy another huge wave in the form of the sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

10. ‘Doogie Howser’ reboot: Meet Doogie Kamealoha, M.D.

Peyton Elizabeth Lee Doogie Howser
Peyton Elzabeth Lee as Doogie Kamaloha, M.D.©20th Television/courtesy

Between 2021 and 2023, the Disney+ streaming service offered up a reboot of sorts of the series titled Doogie Kamealoha, M.D., starring Peyton Elizabeth Lee as the title character, a 16-year-old University of Hawaii Medical School graduate. Given her status, she is given the nickname of “Doogie” in tribute to the original series. 20 episodes in all were produced.

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