DATE November 17, 2005 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
PROGRAM Fresh Air
Interview: Ted Koppel discusses his career on "Nightline"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Next Tuesday, Ted Koppel signs off as the anchor of "Nightline." He began the
show in March 1980, after having already anchored that late-night spot for
several months when it was called "America Held Hostage" and was devoted to
coverage of the Iranian hostage crisis. Count me as one of the people really
sorry to leave him--to see him leave the show. I've often stayed up later
than I should to learn about the latest crisis and to learn from and admire
how Koppel handled tough interviews.
Ted Koppel, welcome back to FRESH AIR. So why are you leaving "Nightline"
now? I mean, was it a really difficult decision to make about, like, `Should
I leave? Should I stay? Should I leave right now, or should I put it off
Mr. TED KOPPEL (Anchor, "Nightline"): No, because my contract is up in a few
days, so this is something I began thinking about really a long time ago.
And, in fact, my executive producer, who was a very dear and close friend of
mine and with whom I will continue working after I leave ABC--he and I went to
see our bosses five years ago and said, `Look, it's time to begin preparing
for the transition.' And, frankly, I think five years is a long time to
transition out, but we've been doing it for five years.
GROSS: I'm going to give you the chance to answer a question that I don't
think you're going to answer, which is what are you going to do next? So
here's your chance to make news on our show and tell us first. And then...
Mr. KOPPEL: God, what a temptation.
GROSS: Oh, I know, I know.
Mr. KOPPEL: I am literally holding myself back here, Terry, from wanting to
blurt it all out, but I think I have just enough self-discipline left that I
GROSS: OK. Within the period of about a year, Tom Brokaw retired, Dan Rather
was basically forced out, Peter Jennings died, and now you're leaving
"Nightline." So everyone is calling this the end of an era. Does it feel
that way to you?
Mr. KOPPEL: Well, you know, it may well be the end of an era. We are all of
the same age. Peter was a couple of years older than I. He and I had been
friends for 41 years. We used to joke between the two of us we had put in 83
years at ABC. Tom Brokaw and I have known each other a long time--were born
literally two days apart. So I think it's reasonable that--it's not
reasonable that Peter died at such a young age. But I think it's reasonable
that as a generation of broadcasters, that we are sort of moving out of one
phase and sort of moving into another. And that is not, in and of itself, a
There will always be--I mean, I remember when Peter and Dan Rather and Tom
Brokaw came in as anchors. There was a great deal of tearing of hair and
chest-thumping and people saying, `Well, you know, Brokaw's no Jack
Chancellor,' and, you know, `Rather is no Walter Cronkite.' And Peter
actually was just replacing himself and two other guys, who had been on the
program, Frank Reynolds and Max Robinson. But the sense at that time was,
`Well, we've come to the end of an era,' and we had, and it was the beginning
of a new era and a fairly good one.
GROSS: Do you think that the networks want to use this as an opportunity to
rethink what they want their evening news coverage to look like, and do you
have a sense of--if so, do you have a sense of what that might be?
Mr. KOPPEL: Well, Les Moonves, who controls that part of Viacom which
controls CBS, has made it abundantly clear that he thinks it's time to put an
end to the `voice of God' anchorman image. He has--I'm assuming he was
joking, but he has joked that he had seen in some European country a newscast
in which an attractive young anchorwoman gradually disrobed as she was doing
the news. I would like to believe that even if he could do that on American
network television, he wouldn't, but I'm not altogether sure. Maybe he would.
So, you know, do I think that there are forces out there that want to
drastically change the way that network news has been in the past? Forget
about what I think. You know, the people who are in a position to do it are
GROSS: "Nightline" is getting a new look, and we've seen a preview of that
already 'cause it's going to become a several-segment program. And there's
always--already been a couple of nights a week when it's been that. Do you
regret the change from a single-format show--you know, a single-subject show,
to a show with several shorter pieces with different subjects?
Mr. KOPPEL: I don't know. I know that we tried it. Back in the early '80s
the news division and the network decided they wanted "Nightline" to go to an
hour. I think it was motivated more by the sense that they could sell twice
as much advertising in an hour than it was by any sense that it would make a
better program. But we tried it. We did it for a little less than a year,
and it was a disaster. Now, clearly, I didn't know how to do it. Maybe the
new guys do. I think that there are--certainly there is an abundance of
television programming, news programming out there that has several topics on
in each program. We call them magazine shows or evening newscasts.
The thing that made "Nightline" unique for a while is precisely the fact that
we only did one subject a night. That certainly doesn't mean that that's the
only way of doing it or the only way of being successful. In fact, it may be
that the age of doing that is destined to be over now and that they're going
to try something new. I'm not about to judge it until I've watched it for
about three months, and then if I like it, I'll say so, and if I don't, I'll
GROSS: How did you learn to do the long-form interviews that you've done on
"Nightline"? Is that something that you learned basically on the air? And
you know, I'm--because I'm thinking that kind of interview is different than
the type of interview you would have done as a reporter, knowing that you
would just be choosing, you know, quotes from that to use.
Mr. KOPPEL: I mean, you're right, it's a different discipline. If you can do
an hour's interview and then cut out the best three minutes, in some respects
that's a lot easier than saying, `We have eight minutes for the interview.'
But that's all you've got--is eight minutes. And when the clock starts, you
have seven minutes and 59 seconds to finish that interview, and whatever you
don't get in those eight minutes you won't get. I didn't find it that
difficult to do. I mean, basically, you can't afford to be as polite as
you're being to me right now when I ramble on. You have to, every once in a
while, sort of jump in and say, `With all due respect, you're not answering my
question, and let's take another crack at it.'
GROSS: Well, I'm glad you brought that up because I want to play--I mean,
I've always just really admired your mix of respect for your guests but
unwillingness to settle for evasion or spin. And I'd like to talk with you
about that, and I thought we could start by playing a fairly recent interview
from September 1st of this year with Michael Brown, who then was the head of
FEMA. And this was basically the day that he recognized the problems at the
Convention Center in New Orleans. And you express your amazement that he's
been telling reporters that he'd found out earlier that day about the problems
at the Convention Center, and you say to him, `Don't you guys watch
television? Don't you guys listen to the radio? Our reporters have been
talking about this for more than just today.' And I want to play an excerpt
from this interview that you did with Michael Brown.
(Soundbite of "Nightline," September 1, 2005)
Mr. KOPPEL: Mr. Brown, I--you know, forgive me because I can't imagine what
it must be like to have the burden on my shoulders that you have on yours
right now. But here we are, essentially, five days after the storm hit, and
you're talking about what's going to happen in the next couple of days. You
guys do war games. You have gamed out what is going to happen in recent
months after a Force 3 or a Force 4 or a Force 5 hurricane. To say, as the
president did, `Well, we didn't know the dams were going to break,' or `We
didn't know that the levees were going to break' is factually true. Of course
you didn't know it, but you could have assumed it. You could have made
preparations for what would happen in the event that. You knew it was going
to be a Force 5 storm that was going to hit in that region. Why didn't you?
Mr. MICHAEL BROWN (FEMA): Ted, we had people prepositioned to move in
immediately. And what happened, which is unusual, in this disaster was two
things. First and foremost, the disaster continued long after Hurricane
Katrina had (technical difficulties) make sure that we take care of those
people. And I just want to say to the American public that they do need to
understand exactly how catastrophic this disaster is, and they do need to know
that we're going to have every available resource to do everything that we
can. We going to take care of these victims. We're going to make it right.
We're going to make certain--we're going to make absolutely certain that the
devastation that has been wreaked upon these people is taken care of and that
we get their lives back in order.
Mr. KOPPEL: Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead. They're beyond your
help. Some of these people that--have died because they needed insulin and
they couldn't get it. Some of the people died because they were in hospitals
and they couldn't get the assistance that they needed.
GROSS: That's Ted Koppel on "Nightline" interviewing Michael Brown, who was
then the head of FEMA when this was recorded September 1st of this year.
First of all, I want to mention that in that interview you start with--in the
part we heard, you start by saying `Forgive me, but.' Is that something that
you think is helpful in what is going to be a fairly combative interview like
this? You're kind of expressing your understanding that, `This is going to
hurt, but I'm going to ask you this question.'
Mr. KOPPEL: It wasn't just expressing an understanding that this is going to
hurt. It was expressing an understanding that he had, at that time, a far
more difficult job than I. He, after all, has the burden of responsibility
here. And it's easy for those of us who just sit on the sidelines and carp
about what officials are doing to criticize because we don't bear that
responsibility. So when I say `Forgive me' and when I followed up by saying,
you know, `I can't imagine what it must be like to bear that responsibility,'
I really mean that. Having said that, he does bear the responsibility, and
therefore he must be held to account when he doesn't perform his job well.
This isn't a question--I mean, when I'm sitting there interviewing
someone--and I suspect, Terry, it's the same with you when you're interviewing
someone--you don't represent Terry Gross, and I don't represent Ted Koppel.
You represent the entire radio audience of your broadcast, and I represent the
entire television audience that's watching my broadcast. And they tend to sit
there, either watching or listening, as the case may be, and to begin with I
think they identify with the interviewer, with you and with me. And they say,
`OK, go ahead. Do your thing.' And if you ask the right questions, they will
continue to identify with you. If you become too combative or too rude too
quickly, they will lose their sympathy for you, and they will transfer their
sympathy to the person being interviewed.
So it's always a bit of a balancing act to wait for the right moment to say,
`You know, I've asked you that question twice now, and it's possible you
misunderstood me the first time. I'm pretty sure you got it the second time.
So you're dodging my question. You're not giving the answer,' because at that
point I think the audience at home is saying, `Come on, Terry, get in there,'
or, `Come on, Ted, get in there. The guy's not answering your question.'
That's our job. That's what we're supposed to be doing.
GROSS: Now in this interview excerpt that we heard, you know, Michael Brown
says to you that he hopes that he--they can help people get their lives back
in order. And you say, `Mr. Brown, some of these people are dead.' And I was
just wondering, like, what was going through your mind during that point
of--like, how are you going to answer what he just said?
Mr. KOPPEL: What was going through my mind is that we had just seen--I forget
whether it was a piece by John Donvan or Chris Bury, but both of my colleagues
were down there in New Orleans at the time, and both of them had done very
powerful pieces. I think it was Chris who had done the piece at the
Convention Center showing bodies lying outside the Convention Center; showing
these people who had been waiting for days for proper food, for toilet
facilities, for water, for some kind of assistance to get them out of that
place and not getting it. And here is this man now telling me, `Well, I just
found out about it today.' How was that possible?
GROSS: My guest is Ted Koppel. He signs off as the anchor of "Nightline" on
Tuesday. We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Ted Koppel. And Tuesday night
is his final "Nightline" broadcast.
I--my next question comes as a viewer and as an interviewer. I'm wondering if
your sense of etiquette as an interviewer has changed over the years. When
you're interviewing somebody in a position of power, who is just evading your
answers and, you know, not giving the information that you feel you want and
that you feel your viewers should have--and, you know, I was leafing through
the book that you wrote several years ago called "Nightline: History in the
Making and the Making of Television." For instance, you have an interview in
there with Evan Mecham, who was the governor of Arizona during--in 1987 when
you recorded this interview with him.
And he wasn't answering your questions, and at some point he says to you,
`We've spent so much time on this one issue.' And then you say to him, `You
have spent so much time evading. If you'd just answer the question a little
more directly, Governor, then we could have gotten through this in about a
minute or two.' And then later on you say to him, `If you're not going to
answer my question, at least be forthright enough to say, "Ted, I'm not going
to answer your question."' Did you always feel comfortable being that
forthright when you felt that somebody had pushed too far in evading?
Mr. KOPPEL: Yes, for the reasons I explained to you before. It's not just
Ted doing the interview any more than it's just like--you know, that it's just
Terry doing the interview. You're doing it in behalf of your listeners. I
was doing it in behalf of my viewers. They have a right to a straightforward
answer to the question. Otherwise, why bother tuning in? If all you want is
a press release from the governor's office of Arizona, you can probably write
to them and they'll send you one every day.
GROSS: What do you think is the most respectful way of saying that to
someone? I mean, or...
Mr. KOPPEL: I think there are a hundred respectful ways of saying that, and
I think you have to become a little bit edgier and a little sharper the more
often they evade your question. Sometimes people aren't evading your
question; they simply didn't get the question the first time around. And I
think you have to make allowances for that. But by the second or third time,
it's quite clear that they have decided not to answer you. I, frankly, think
it's a lot easier--and if I were advising, you know, people in that business
how to deal with folks like me, I'd just say, `Look, I'm not going to answer
that question for reasons that you may or may not understand. But if you do,
great. If you don't, too bad.'
GROSS: We're talking about people who are evasive. Can you think of one of
the most surprising things you were told that you didn't expect to be told by
somebody in office?
Mr. KOPPEL: I was in Moscow a number of years ago, and the then-foreign
minister had agreed to an interview. And the president at the time was--I
believe was Boris Yeltsin. No, I guess it was still Gorbachev. And when I
went in to do the interview and before we had actually sat down, the foreign
minister was walking me around his office and showing me pictures of his
family. And then at one point he turned to me, sort of looking stunned, and
said, `Gorbachev just fired me.' And I said, `Really?' thinking that this was
prelude to his saying, `And so you can understand I won't be able to do the
interview.' And I said, `Well, let's sit down and start talking.' And he
said, `OK.' And we started talking, and he told me all about it.
And we got through the first reel of videotape--or the first cassette, and we
were about to start on the second cassette, and I said, `Tell me something.
Have you informed your counterpart? Have you told Secretary of State'--I
think it was Jim Baker at the time. And he said, `No. Do you think I
should?' And I said, `Well, I'm sure he'd like to know about it.' So with
the cameras rolling, he walked over to his desk, picked up the phone, told his
secretary to get Secretary Baker on the phone for him and clearly woke him up
at his ranch in Texas and said, `Look, Jim, you're the first one I'm telling
this--well, actually the second. I just told Ted Koppel, but I thought you
should know I've just been fired.' And then they had a little conversation,
and then we went back to our interview. In some respects, that was sort of
the most bizarre.
GROSS: Is there a "Nightline" broadcast that you think had the biggest
Mr. KOPPEL: Hard to say. I think we did a week in South Africa on the
subject of apartheid back in the mid-'80s that had an extraordinary impact
within South Africa. The South African Broadcasting Company had decided that
they were going to rebroadcast our programs the next day. And while they did
some editing on those programs, nevertheless, what they broadcast made
headline news all over South Africa. And I think--you know, apartheid was
clearly on the way out, but I think that may have hastened the process just a
GROSS: I know you're going to be going on to other projects, and I don't know
whether that's going to be daily journalism or weekly or, you know, long-form
documentaries or some of all of the above. But I imagine there will at least
be--maybe I'm wrong--a short period of time in which you're not on the air
Mr. KOPPEL: That's true.
Mr. KOPPEL: In fact, I'm going to take a few months off. That much I can
GROSS: That sounds like a really smart idea, I have to say. Is there
anything that you think you might actually miss about that, more or less,
daily dose of adrenaline that you've been having...
Mr. KOPPEL: Oh, everything.
GROSS: ...for years and years? Yeah.
Mr. KOPPEL: Oh, everything about it. I mean, it is--look, I quit smoking a
long time ago. I still miss it desperately, and, you know, I'd light up at
the drop of a hat. And I get a similar kind of adrenaline rush from daily
broadcasting. Of course I'm going to miss it.
GROSS: So after your last "Nightline" broadcast, what do you think you're
going to be doing 11:30 or 11:35 weekday nights? Do you think you'll be
sleeping or watching the show?
Mr. KOPPEL: Oh, I...
GROSS: Watching something else?
Mr. KOPPEL: Well--no. I--look, the good Lord has created TiVo, and I--there
is no reason whatsoever to stay up until 11:30 at night to watch it. I can
watch it over breakfast the next morning.
GROSS: And that's what you'll be doing?
Mr. KOPPEL: Oh, sure.
GROSS: Well, Ted Koppel, I'm going to miss you on "Nightline."
Mr. KOPPEL: Thank you.
GROSS: And thank you so much...
Mr. KOPPEL: You're...
GROSS: ...for all you've done on "Nightline." Thank you.
Mr. KOPPEL: That's very kind of you. Thank you, Terry.
GROSS: Ted Koppel's final broadcast as the anchor of "Nightline" is next
Tuesday. I'm Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: Coming up, Neil Patrick Harris talks with us about growing up on TV
while he played a TV doctor on "Doogie Howser" and how he went from "Doogie"
to a role in Stephen Sondheim's revenge musical "Sweeney Todd." He's now
starring in the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
Interview: Neil Patrick Harris discusses his acting career and
his new television sitcom, "How I Met Your Mother"
TERRY GROSS, host:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Neil Patrick Harris has the distinction of having started his career playing
one of the more preposterous characters on TV, a brilliant and lovable
teen-age doctor named Doogie Howser. "Doogie Howser, MD" ran from 1989 to
'93. The second season was recently released on DVD. Where do you go after
playing Doogie? Harris took a surprising turn into music theater. He
performed in the Stephen Sondheim revenge musical "Sweeney Todd" and starred
in a production of "Rent." He's been in several films. Probably his most
memorable role was his funny cameo as himself in "Harold and Kumar Go to White
Castle." Now Harris is back on TV in the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."
The show is set in the future. The framing device is that the main character,
Ted, is telling his children the story of how he met their mother. The story
picks up with flashbacks set in 2005 when the father and his friends were in
their 20s. Harris plays the obnoxious friend Barney. Here's a scene from the
series pilot. Barney is calling Ted on his cell phone.
(Soundbite of "How I Met Your Mother")
Mr. NEIL PATRICK HARRIS: (As Barney) Hey, see, know how I've always had a
thing for half-Asian girls?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRIS: (As Barney) Well, now I've got a new favorite. Lebanese girls.
Lebanese girls are the new half-Asians.
Mr. JOSH RADNOR: (As Ted) Hey, you want to do something tonight?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Barney) OK, meet me at the bar in 15 minutes and suit up!
(Soundbite of music)
Mr. RADNOR: (As Ted) Hey.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Barney) Where's your suit? Just once when I say suit up, I
wish you'd put on a suit.
Mr. RADNOR: (As Ted) I did, that one time.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Barney) It was a blazer!
GROSS: Neil Patrick Harris, welcome to FRESH AIR. How would describe your
role on "How I Met Your Mother"?
Mr. HARRIS: I'm sort of the awful friend that you have and don't really know
why you have. He's sort of the know-it-all about women, yet he doesn't
really date them very much, he just sort of wants to play the field and be
absolutely non-committal towards any commitments. He's the commitmentphobe,
womanizing, other friend. He's sort of the Larry from "Three's Company."
GROSS: Do you like...
Mr. HARRIS: And a bit Jim from "Taxi."
GROSS: Now I thought that after "Stark Raving Mad," you insisted you'd never
do a TV sitcom again. Why did you change your mind?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, `insist' is a tough word. I don't know. I was interested
in doing television again, having done a lot of theater in New York for the
past three years or so. If nothing more than the financial benefits of
television are much stronger than the theater at the moment. And I was
looking forward to being home in Los Angeles where I live. So I looked into
television and, you know, when you do a pilot season, which is what it's
called when you're just trying to get on a new show--happens every January,
February--you read a lot of scripts and you see whether you're interested or
not. And there were some one-hour things that were good, but then came along
this bizarre little half-hour comedy. And the structure's a little bit
different on the show. It's sort of like one big flashback, one big yarn
told by a middle-aged Ted about his crazy 20s in 2005. And I thought that
that structure was good. And then I read Barney, who is just such a crazy
guy; in the pilot episode, he is insisting on playing Lazer Tag; he always
dresses in suits and ties; he's obsessed with Lebanese girls. And it just
seemed so strange and funny that I went in, met with the guys and was just
kind of insane in the audition and ended up getting the job.
GROSS: Now you're best known to many people from the role that you had when
you were in your teens as Doogie Howser, but you've had a really interesting
music theater career since then. You've sung three Stephen Sondheim roles.
You were in "Sweeney Todd," "Assassins," and a musical written for television
that Sondheim did called "Evening Primrose." How did you get your first
Mr. HARRIS: I was in the musical "Rent." That was the first big musical
thing that I did in LA. I think the West Coast...
GROSS: This wasn't the Broadway production; this was the LA production?
Mr. HARRIS: The second national tour. Michael Greif directed it in La Jolla,
where he was artistic director, and then it moved to the Ahmanson Theater in
LA and played for a while. It was sort of the first leg of the tour. And
some people who had seen me in "Rent" were doing just a concert version of
"Sweeney Todd" at the Ahmanson with Kelsey Grammer and Christine Baranski in
the leads, and they thought I'd be right for Tobias, which is a role in
"Sweeney Todd." And so I ended up doing that and Stephen Sondheim came to see
that and thought I would be good to do another concert version of "Sweeney
Todd" for the New York Philharmonic that Patti LuPone and George Hearn ended
up starring in.
GROSS: So the first Sondheim role that you sang, the first production of
"Sweeney Todd" that you did, you had not yet met Sondheim, but subsequent to
that, you did meet him. And I don't know how much of a chance you had to talk
about the scores that you were singing, but did he give you any useful
insights into his writing that helped you as a singer?
Mr. HARRIS: We, Steve and I, became friends less through the work we were
doing together and more through our mutual love of games and puzzles. He's a
gamesman, and I love me some puzzles and murder mysteries and that sort
of--that genre. And he does, too. So we started talking about computer games
and crosswords. And he used to do a big thing where he'd have people come to
his house and he'd have set up this big group puzzle thing where you'd go from
room to room and solve puzzles that would take you--sort of a treasure hunt;
take you to a clue, to another place. And I was infatuated by that idea. I
think that stuff is great. And so we became friendly that way.
And I think it's better to talk to someone as incredible about Stephen
Sondheim about things other than his work, 'cause I think he's probably
dealing with people that tell him how great his work is and how amazing he is
all the time. So I sort of tried to just talk to him about regular things
that I liked that I knew he liked as well.
I'm so impressed by him in a structural way because he writes music and writes
vocal parts with very specific actors' thoughts in mind, not just how they're
going to say the words but actual thoughts. He'll put a quarter rest instead
of an eighth rest or a full bar's rest because the character in his mind is
taking time to think of what to say next, or he'll repeat a stanza twice and
on the third time, the last note will raise up a third step. That's not just
'cause he was bored, but he's actually thinking that the character on the
third line is repeating himself and then realizing something, and that
realization would cause you to raise your pitch a third. So I think, not
unlike Shakespeare, he maps out what the actor should do in his mind very
specifically in what he does. And there's a lot of patter in what he writes.
And if you can wrap your head around that structure and really try and
decipher it, then I think he hands you a better performance.
GROSS: Would you apply what you just said to a Sondheim song that you've
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, like, "Not While I'm Around," that Tobias sings, has a
bunch of weird minor thirds 'cause it's--he's in thought process and sort of
confused by the whole thing, repeats himself a lot. In "Evening Primrose,"
there's a great song, "If You Can Find Me, I'm Here," that sort of repeats
itself a lot, but has little minor changes to it that are--as he's walking
around and if he's startled by something, there's a, you know, two-bar pause
while he looks around before he commences again.
GROSS: I'd like to play your song from "Sweeney Todd," "Not While I'm
Around." And your character in this, you're like the young apprentice of Mrs.
Lovett, the character who bakes dead bodies into pies.
Mr. HARRIS: That's right.
GROSS: And the dead bodies are the people that she and Sweeney Todd murder.
And the pies become both a way of covering up the bodies and a way of selling
cheap pies. And Tobias doesn't realize that Mrs. Lovett is in on these
murders, so he sings her this beautiful song in the hopes that he can kind of
warn her and protect her from Sweeney. Would you talk a little bit about this
song and about any advice or insights that Sondheim gave you about it?
Mr. HARRIS: Sure. Tobias is a bit of a simpleton. You know, he was going
around selling elixirs with another barber named Pirelli and was--I've sort of
back-storied that he was beaten and abused and a little slow in the brain.
Sweeney is a very vengeful, single-minded character who only wants revenge for
being put in jail and this judge who did that--he's trying to fix that wrong.
And Mrs. Lovett is nothing but sort of wistful and a little kooky and sort of
infatuated with Sweeney's passion. So Tobias witnesses Sweeney Todd being
villainous, but he's sort of too simple to really put all the pieces together.
He's not an incredibly articulate person. And his love and appreciation for
Mrs. Lovett just comes on a more maternal way. He just never had anyone who
was taking care of him be loving. It was always sort of awful and abusive.
So Steve's notes to me were just to make sure that as you're singing the
Tobias parts that it's realizations that you're having at the moment. He's
not someone who has a lot of foresight or is able to look back and put pieces
together. So when he's singing things, he's really coming up with the thought
and the idea while he's saying them. He knows that there's something wrong in
the room, he knows that Mr. Todd's probably involved and just not a good vibe,
you know, because he's just a sort of young guy. And his desire to protect
Mrs. Lovett doesn't come from anything that he knows, just something that he
GROSS: And also this is a character who's actually kind of weak. He's not
only, you know, not very bright, but he's not particularly strong, he's not
particularly big, he's not particularly threatening...
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, it was originally done on...
Mr. HARRIS: It was originally done on Broadway by Ken Jennings, who is a
very--he's a smaller, diminutive kind of guy, and I'm six feet tall. So he
was sort of the archetype that I had to go from. So I sort of added a bit of
a limp; I twisted one of my feet in sort of Kevin Spacey Keyser Soze style.
And I sort of pitched my voice up a little Mandy Patinkin-ish and sort of gave
him a bit of a hobble. So--'cause I didn't want to be physically imposing at
all. In fact, I wanted to be a bit sympathetic physically, someone who's not
capable of just standing himself up and making the right choice. He has to
have others sort of make choices for him. And so I needed to sort of
physicalize that and vocalize that. Actually, if you hear the song, you'll
hear my voice is very--I'm kind of pingy the whole time. It's not how I
GROSS: May I say you're also doing a little hip-hop thing with your hands.
Did you notice that?
Mr. HARRIS: Am I hip-hop?
Mr. HARRIS: I like to--I keep it real, throw a little gangsta in there as
GROSS: Yeah, yeah, exactly. You're doing slightly, like, hip-hop hands.
Mr. HARRIS: Word up, word up.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: Is that intentional, doing that?
Mr. HARRIS: Yes. Yes. I threw a little Puff Daddy in there as well, just
for the youngsters. You gotta play to every demographic, right?
GROSS: OK. So let's hear you in this production of "Sweeney Todd," which was
shown a couple of years ago on public television. And we're also going to
hear Patti LuPone in the background.
(Soundbite of "Sweeney Todd")
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) Nothing's going to harm you, not while
Ms. PATTI LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) Of course not, dear. And why should it?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) Nothing's going to harm you, no, sir,
not while I'm around.
Ms. LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) What do you mean, man?
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) Demons are prowling everywhere
Ms. LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) I'm sure they are, dear.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) I'll send them howling, I don't care.
I've got ways.
Ms. LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) Of course you do. What a sweet, affectionate
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) No one's going to hurt you, no one's
going to dare.
Ms. LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) ...(Unintelligible) deserves.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) Others can desert you. Not to worry.
Whistle, I'll be there.
Ms. LuPONE: (As Nellie Lovett) Here, have a nice bonbon.
Mr. HARRIS: (As Tobias Ragg; singing) Demons will charm you with a smile for
a while, but in time nothing can harm you, not while I'm around.
GROSS: That's Neil Patrick Harris from a production of "Sweeney Todd," the
Stephen Sondheim musical.
Mr. HARRIS: It's so strange to hear those things because I just--I'm not
really a trained vocalist. So it brings me back to standing there at the New
York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall at Lincoln Center with that orchestra
there and frigging Patti LuPone and George Hearn and all these amazing
operatic people. And I sing OK, but I've not--you know, I didn't study for
six years with some amazing person or anything. I have a vocal coach. But
having started on television and then sort of veered into theater, it's
just--it was definitely one of those pinch-me-I-can't-believe-I'm-here
GROSS: My guest is Neil Patrick Harris. He's now starring in the sitcom "How
I Met Your Mother." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Neil Patrick Harris. He first became known for his
starring role in the sitcom "Doogie Howser, MD" playing a brilliant teen-age
How old were you when you auditioned for "Doogie Howser," and how did you find
out about the part and even consider auditioning for it?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, we never wanted to do TV. We--you know, I--the first
thing I did was a movie called "Clara's Heart" with Whoopi Goldberg, and that
sort of came about through a gentleman named Mark Medoff, who's a playwright
and had--he wrote "Children of a Lesser God" and he wrote "Clara's Heart." I
went to a drama camp for a week at New Mexico State University. And Mark
thought I'd be right to be in this movie. I ended up getting the movie and
got an agent. So that's how my career started. And then we just never
wanted to do television because it always would uproot us so much, you know.
It was fun and fine to go away for or six weeks to Big Bear and make a movie
with Patrick Duffy and Loni Anderson and have a fun little summer and then go
back to your regular life, but the conceit of doing a television show as just
Both of my parents were attorneys, and it just seemed crazy to uproot us all.
So there was one caveat. We said, `Well, if it's a really good TV show, if
it's like a Steven Bochco show'--'cause my parents loved "L.A. Law," being
lawyers, loved "Hill Street Blues"--`Well, if it's something really good like
that, then we'll consider it.'
Well, sure enough, you know, a script comes down the pipe for a little
precocious teen-age doctor kid, by Steven Bochco, of all people. So we said,
`We might as well read it. We might as well audition for it, I guess.' And
so I had sort of an in; the casting director of that show knew my manager,
then agent, Bo Schute(ph), very well, and so he thought--you know, he already
had sort of an inner track for it. So I got to go meet Steven Bochco really
before casting had even begun. And, yeah, then sure enough, months later,
they hadn't cast the role yet, and I went back in and re-auditioned and got
the job. And we were, indeed, uprooted to LA, and was sort of how it
It was strange. Not many half-hour shows were one camera by someone who was
so noted for doing long-form television like Steven Bochco, so it was a bit of
a hybrid show at the time. And it was a lot of work. That...
GROSS: And you were--What?--14.
Mr. HARRIS: No, a little bit older. I filmed the pilot when I was 15, and we
started the series properly when I had just turned 16. So I was about 16 to
GROSS: So did the producers, like, interrogate you to make sure that you
could handle--you know, emotionally handle being uprooted and doing
television and becoming famous? Did--and kind of give you some idea of how
this might change your life? 'Cause, you know, it's a big change for anybody,
but for particularly like a 15-year-old, you know--so what did they do to
prepare you or to test you beforehand?
Mr. HARRIS: Steven Bochco did sit me and my parents down at a restaurant
right when it all began and sort of said, `Look, this is going to be
potentially a big chapter in your life and a big, giant wave to ride.' But he
said, `Please know from experience that the business is not unlike sets of
waves in that you can ride one and it's a great ride, but suddenly it crashes
on the sand and you have to stand up and shake yourself off and swim back out,
and there might be a long period of time before another set of waves come.
But trust that the business is lots and lots of waves that keep coming in.
And if you wait--if you can wait it out and hopefully hop on another wave
later on, that'll be good.' But, you know, I think he was more forewarning us
that this wave that we were currently on would inevitably, you know, hit the
shore and that we shouldn't be so, you know, overwhelmed by that. And that
was nice to hear; it actually put things in decent perspective.
GROSS: So on "Doogie" you were a teen-age doctor, a really kind of
precocious, overly smart kid who's already a doctor in a major hospital. So
of all the impossible premises that the show had in its three-year run, what
was one of the ones that struck you as particularly ridiculous?
Mr. HARRIS: Well, I had to do some work on my girlfriend; I had to give her
sort of an exam that would--an intimate exam on a gurney, hospital table, that
mortified her and me as well. That seems kind of shocking. I think I did
surgery on a dog, a stray dog, one time. That was something else. I don't
know that that would happen on "Scrubs." That would probably happen on
GROSS: So who came up with the name Doogie?
Mr. HARRIS: That was--a friend of Steven Bochco's was named Douglas, and his
nickname was Doogie. And I thought--I think Steven thought that that was a
nice way to show an adult's world, but have a sort of child's name, you know,
have adult responsibility, but still throw in sort of the adolescent skew.
And to have a name like that, to have your parents call you Doogie while
you're able to prescribe medicine and doing, you know, vasectomies and whatnot
seemed like a nice juxtaposition.
GROSS: My guest is Neil Patrick Harris. He's now starring in the sitcom "How
I Met Your Mother." We'll talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is actor Neil Patrick Harris. He got his start starring in
the sitcom "Doogie Howser, MD." Now he's on the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your
Was it hard after "Doogie Howser" to convince casting agents that you could be
anybody else, that you could be somebody completely different, and that you
could grow up?
Mr. HARRIS: Yeah, definitely. I think it's hard for anyone who's on a
successful show, sort of known as a person--a specific person for a long time.
It wasn't--you know, doors weren't slammed in my face, but I was really only
thought of for a specific kind of role and mostly on television. The
crossover from TV to movies wasn't as widespread as it is now and wasn't so
welcoming. If you were a TV person, you were sort of on doing movies of the
week in your hiatus as opposed to a cool independent film. But that was fine.
They certainly paid the bills, and I have no complaints over how that all
I understand it. I want to direct. That's sort of my main aspiration. And I
get it, you know. If I was directing a movie, a big blockbuster movie, I
probably am not going to cast as the young lead a guy who a really brainiac
teen-age doctor on TV for four years. That adds baggage that they don't--I
would just as soon hire someone who hasn't done much of anything before and
try and make them a star. So I understand that logic, and I just kept
thinking back to what Mr. Bochco said about, you know, waves will come when
they will, and you just have to sort of be patient and ride them out. And...
GROSS: You had a...
Mr. HARRIS: ...the theater helped a lot with that, actually. The
theater--the casting directors from the theater gave me the shot to play
against type. You know, Mark in "Rent" was very against type. And the emcee
in "Cabaret" was this very androgynous, you know, crazy polysexual guy in
Weimar, Germany, in the '20s, and that--I would never have been thought for
had that been a feature film or something. So I was sort of given the chance
to expand the box and sort of spread my wings a little bit theatrically, I
GROSS: You had a very funny cameo as yourself in "Harold and Kumar Go to
White Castle." And they're driving in their car, looking for the White
Castle, and they pick you up hitchhiking and they recognize you, but instead
of being the Doogie Howser type, you're just obsessed with, like, scoring, you
know, with finding girls, and...
Mr. HARRIS: I'm tripping on ecstasy...
Mr. HARRIS: ...and need to get to a strip club. Yeah.
GROSS: Yes, yes. So--and we can't play a clip of it because the language is
totally unacceptable for radio. So when you were offered this part, did you
immediately say yes or--I mean, could you tell when they offered it to you
whether the joke was supposed to be on you or with you, if you know what I
Mr. HARRIS: I know exactly what you mean. That was the big question. I
mean, I would love to separate myself and my image from the "Doogie" days, but
at the same time, I really have incredible respect for the people that created
that show, so at no time do I want to be trashing my past or making fun of the
work that I've done, if not for me, for the people that spent a lot of time
creating that show. So that was my worry was, great, you want to have this
extreme kind of messed-up version of Neil Patrick Harris. I'm down with that,
but is it going to be at the expense of a bunch of bad "Doogie Howser" jokes
and people sort of mocking that? I didn't know, and you never know with
movies; they keep rewriting them as you make them.
GROSS: So did that movie--did "Harold and Kumar" change your image?
Mr. HARRIS: I think so. I don't know. I mean, I mean, I can't determine how
my image is seen. But it certainly kept me--made me not look so square. You
know, I was playing Neil Patrick Harris, but we also made sure that in the
credits that it's Neil Patrick Harris as Neil Patrick Harris, not as himself;
that I was playing the part of Neil Patrick Harris, who was this sort of, you
know, crazy, you know, drug-induced, horny guy. So it was great. I worked
for two days, and that was like a--it turned out to be a good thing. I think
"Harold and Kumar"--that movie ended up getting me Barney in "How I Met Your
Mother," 'cause without that, I don't think people would have expected me to
be so extreme in that way.
GROSS: Well, Neil Patrick Harris, one final question. Three names; how come?
Mr. HARRIS: (Laughs)
GROSS: Why not Neil Harris?
Mr. HARRIS: Far more theatrical.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRIS: I am a stage actor. No. Three names. That's my birth name, and
there was another Neil Harris in the Screen Actors Guild when we were signing
the papers. So we thought about being someone like Neil Danger or, you know,
Neil Patrick Rocket.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. HARRIS: But we just figured the whole name would be nice for everyone
involved, so it stuck.
GROSS: Well, thanks a lot for talking with us.
Mr. HARRIS: Hey, my pleasure. Thank you for having me.
GROSS: Neil Patrick Harris stars in the CBS sitcom "How I Met Your Mother."
GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.
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