Neil Patrick Harris is unlike almost any other top actor working today in that he grew up in front of our eyes and he’s still coming into our homes via the small screen with regularity. Sure, other queer child actors grew up in front of us as well, notably Jodie Foster (mainly in films), Kristy McNichol (as Buddy on Family), and Sheila Kuehl.
The latter shot to fame as teenaged Zelda on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis in 1959, and she spent years as a regular on shows like Broadside and Beverly Hillbillies, before turning to politics. A former California state senator and Assembly member, in 2014 Kuehl became the first out LGBT member of the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors.
While Kuehl was consistently told she wasn’t right for Hollywood (i.e. too butchy), Harris had the right kind of star power from the get go. First as the titular Doogie Howser, M.D. and later as Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother, Harris came into our homes each week as a beloved character, and a believably straight one.
That’s why of all the out celebrities, Harris’s coming out changed how many Americans view gay people. Even now, an out gay man with a husband and adorable twins continues to change perceptions. He’s been on People magazine’s Sexiest Man Alive short list; he’s hosted the Oscars (the first out gay man to do so), The Emmys, and Tonys; and over the course of 30 years, Harris redefined himself from the squeaky-clean Doogie, to the rabid, coke-snorting horn- dog in Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (a role that revived his career), to the brilliant womanizer Barney Stinson, on How I Met Your Mother.
Once out, Harris helped lead the way in terms of advocacy and visibility, especially for gay parents. The 43-year-old five-time Emmy winner is currently starring as Count Olaf in Netflix’s adaptation of A Series of Unfortunate Events, which was recently renewed for a second season. In addition, he’ll be releasing a new middle school-aged fiction series, The Magic Misfits, and he’s producing In & Of Itself (“a show constructed as a metaphoric labyrinth, filled with allegorical illusions and centered around a single paradoxical truth”), which is playing Off Broadway. We pinned our favorite funny man down to get a few straight answers.
Did you ever have an idea you’d have that kind of impact on the world?
No, and I’m still not certain that I do. Or, did. I’ve really just been scrapping to stay employed, and in doing so, trying to keep as many avenues open, as many demographics as possible aware of what I do, and hopefully I can provide some worth. If that translates into acceptance somehow, that’s golden, but not necessary. There are many other people doing vastly more impactful things than me. I’m just trying to make mostly good choices, and hopefully those choices will make a positive imprint on our children.
How does it feel to be called one of the LGBT individuals to have the most impact on the world in the last 50 years?
It feels smooth. And sort of, shiny. Hard, too. A bit like a QVC Samurai sword — impressive to put on the mantle, but if you feel it for too long, you’ll likely get cut. And you won’t likely get much for it at a garage sale.
What does it mean to have largely influenced a lot of middle-American moms to help accept their gay children?
I do think about that sometimes. Mostly when I’m co-hosting with Kelly Ripa on her morning funfest. The audience there — and watching at home — largely consists of middle-American moms. And I think it’s kind of super awesome that I can speak freely about whatever — my family, crushes, anniversaries, etc. and nothing feels strange or different. I give a lot of credit to those very moms for being willing to reassess their beliefs or ideals and not charge at me with pitchforks instead. [Laughs]
You’re a part of the first generation to be out and have a successful Hollywood career. What do you make of the younger generation like Gigi Gorgeous or Troye Sivan, who are doing this at a much earlier age?
The road has been paved. There may be a few cracks, an errant pothole, but it has never been smoother or had more off ramps and shortcuts. That said, modern transportation is quickly outpacing cars so ... I guess that travel analogy is both antiquated and apt.
What LGBT people most influenced you?
There have been so many. Honestly? Just so many. If I started to list them here, I’d be filled with regret by omission. Answering in the immediate, I think Dan Savage is making huge positive change by being so candid and honest and vocal and hilarious and real. His podcast is important.
Did high profile LGBT performers coming out like Ellen DeGeneres and Rosie O’Donnell influence your own decision to come out?
Not really, no. I was super proud of both of them, such a crazy time. But I figured it was an inevitability for me and I was honestly just hoping that the circumstances surrounding the scrutiny were as positive as possible.
What do you hope your legacy will be?
I hope my family gets to do great things in their lives, have countless adventures, affect some sort of positive change, and not have to worry for money. That’s pretty much all I want. Oh, and an EGOT.
[Editors note: an EGOT is an Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, and Tony.]
Savas Abadsidis is The Advocate's Manging Editor. Follow him on Twitter.