Question: Silly question time. Was Doogie Howser based on a real person? Thank you. — Rory O., Seattle, Wash.
Televisionary: No question is silly, Rory, particularly when I can get a column out of it.
No, Doogie Howser, M.D., which ran on ABC from September 1989 to July 1993, wasn't based on a real medical whiz-kid. In fact, it wasn't even based on any kind of reality. You see, even though it was a decent enough show (and I'm an admirer, generally, of creator Steven Bochco), there's no way a 16-year-old could be a practicing physician.
My word not good enough for you? Fine.
"Impossible," Harvard Medical School admissions officer Helen Rakin told TV Guide in 1989. "The youngest person we have on record ever to enter Harvard Medical School was 18. Doogie Howser would have had to graduate from college at nine, start medical school at 10, graduate from medical school at 14, then, after one year of internship and one year of residency, obtain his license to practice at 16. I don't think so."
Furthermore, he wouldn't have even been able to take the state board exams in 14 states or the District of Columbia until he was at least 18 (21 in a few of those), never mind pass them. Out of nearly 27,000 people to apply to med school in 1989, one was 17 and four were 18. All would have been at least 23 or 24 before entering private practice. One of the youngest college seniors to ever weigh medical school at the time was a 14-year-old who was told by the powers-that-be at various programs to wait until he was 16.
"Doctors are already criticized for their inability to deal with human sexuality. How would you like a 16-year-old to be interviewing you about your sexual life?" Johns Hopkins Medical School Associate Dean of Student Affairs Dr. Henry M. Seidel asked. "If I were the sole person on the admissions committee, Doogie Howser would never get into medical school. I would say to Doogie, 'Look, we need people with smarts. You've got that. Now all you need is the rest of it. Go get yourself a Ph.D in your area of intellectual interest — it could be in medical history or English literature or whatever you like. When you get to be 19 or 20, then come back and reapply, and chances are you're gonna get in. But Doogie, not now. Just get your first kiss.'"
Not that Doogie (Neil Patrick Harris) didn't have to deal with sexual issues (and awkwardly so) on the show. Take the time he had to give love interest Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan) an emergency appendectomy and had to face her wrath because he gave her a pelvic exam. Or the time a radiologist told him she wanted to have his child, giving the adolescent doc fits of expectation and worry until she, of course, explained she meant by artificial insemination.
All of which TV Guide reviewer Robert MacKenzie called "repulsive as well as preposterous," though he was generous enough to also call the show "a bad idea nicely executed." Even co-star Belinda Montgomery, who played Doogie's mom, piled on. "Yes, you have to admit, Doogie has a pretty strange premise," she admitted."
And Montgomery had no illusions about the actor's age on set, certainly. "Neil spends most of his time prowling for food," she said. "Every time you look, he's eating. He's both boy and man. Sometimes he'll come to me and in a very deep voice ask, 'How's your marriage doing, Belinda?' A few minutes later he'll be confiding that his allowance is too low."
And Harris's age showed in interviews, too, since he wasn't old enough to known when even a little honesty is too much. Take his thoughts on Burt Reynolds when he was asked about some guest work he'd done on B.L. Stryker: "I know Burt's taken a lot of flack lately. Some critics say he's nobody now, but I think he's neat." (Uh, thanks, Neil... Burt thinks.)
Likewise, he didn't pull any punches when discussing going from working with Whoopi Goldberg in Clara's Heart to working with Faye Dunaway in a TNT TV-movie: "Of course, Faye is much beyond Whoopi in fame."
The poor young actor's biggest problem wasn't being taken seriously as a doctor or as an interviewee back then, however. It was being taken seriously as a guy. When Harris was dining with his father and a reporter, their waitress approached the table and asked: "Can I take your plate, ma'am?" Harris, to his credit, reacted better than many an adult star might have — he rolled with it and laughed after she walked away. "I get that a lot," he explained. "I get used to it."