One afternoon in 2004, I visited New York’s Museum of Television and Radio. These were the pre-YouTube days when a TV episode or commercial would, for the most part, vanish after it aired. But in addition to its regular exhibits, the museum housed a unique resource: a library of old shows and clips that could be ordered up and watched at a headphone-equipped viewing station.
Intrigued by the chance to see a once-televised relic — I’m not sure why, but I wound up watching a stunningly racist early-’60s Jell-O ad — I approached the library’s reference desk. Upon seeing me, the clerk’s face inexplicably lit up — but as I got closer, his features dropped, and the sudden shift was so obvious that he felt compelled to explain himself.
“I’m so sorry,” he said. “I thought you were Neil Patrick Harris.” He then told me, through his embarrassment, that Harris had recently frequented the museum to study footage for a part in a Broadway musical. I responded with a shrug and told him not to worry: it happened all the time.
I wasn’t just saying that. Through some genetic coincidence, I look like the long-lost twin of Neil Patrick Harris. The likeness is so true that I can’t bother to deny it: we have the same short jawline, the same thin-lipped grin, the same skeptical eyes. I’m not sure exactly when the comparisons began, but as a middle-schooler, I occasionally had the feeling that Doogie Howser — the teen-doctor TV character that made Harris famous in 1989 — was a vestigial part of me, as if Vinnie Delpino had climbed through my bedroom window to chat the night before. On a beach trip in eighth or ninth grade, trolling an amusement park for girls, my friends and I got into an altercation with some local kids, causing one to sneer, “What’re you gonna write about in your journal tonight, Doogie?” “That I met a bunch of assholes at Fantasy Island,” I replied, not missing a beat, as if I were already composing the entry. Somehow I made it back to my friend’s rental house with all my teeth intact.
In the years after Doogie Howser, M.D. was cancelled in 1993, I enjoyed a relative respite from comparisons to Harris, but I rarely went a couple of months without being asked, “Has anyone ever told you you look like…” In my freshman dorm at college, one friend — a bald-shaven, good-natured Staten Island hulk — would only call me “Doog,” as though I gave him no other choice. For my first-ever email address, I chose the username DHowser, and with the help of a lab coat, stethoscope, and a pair of white high-tops, I was Doogie for Halloween. Surrender, not escape, had become my only option.
Then, much to my horror, Harris returned to the public eye: a self-lampooning cameo in Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle, a role as Lee Harvey Oswald — helped by his studies at the Museum of Television and Radio –the in the Broadway hit Assassins, the cult Internet oddity Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. Just as I was finally staggering from the blast zone of his early fame, he was becoming more ubiquitous than ever. His awards-show hosting gigs and role on CBS’s How I Met Your Mother seemed like faits accomplis. When I watched him as Barney Stinson, How I Met Your Mother’s cheerful lout, my surrender became total. The motherfucker looked more like me than he had when we were young. I was growing into him, as if we were a pair of trees rooted too close together.
It’s strange to sometimes feel that you aren’t quite you — that, because of the way your face has come together, you’re partially someone else. When I meet someone who thinks I look like Harris, he or she will gaze at me with uncommon interest: for a second or two, their faces go blank, a smile at the edge of their lips; I’ve tricked them into thinking they’re meeting a celebrity. When they go on to tell me, as if uncovering a marvelous secret, that I look like Neil Patrick Harris, they don’t seem to realize that they’re rendering me less me.
I never thought that I might actually meet my doppelganger; the simple fact of our looks was coincidence enough. But in December came word that Neil Patrick Harris — Doogie, Barney, Dr. Horrible — was planning to visit the offices of the magazine I work at. In the days leading up to his visit, I wasn’t nervous, exactly, but I continually pictured our meeting. We’d size each other up, shake hands…and then what? Would I tell him the museum story? The one about the shithead at the beach? What do you say to your celebrity alter ego?
I was busy when he arrived, and before I could get to him, someone had told him that I was “the resident Neil Patrick Harris lookalike.” When I entered my boss’s office, Harris was sitting on the couch, looking very much like himself, very much like me. As we shook hands, he laughed and remarked on my incredible handsomeness. “No kidding,” I said. “You’re pretty damn good-looking yourself.”
He sat and chatted with the staff for a while, and he was everything I’d hoped he might be: gracious, genial, totally bullshit-free. I kept sneaking glances at him — not because he was a TV star, a former Oscar host with a bestselling autobiography — but because, like everyone who’d ever told me I looked like him, I was a little bit confused. I was here, leaning against a file drawer, but I was also over there, on the couch.
After an amiable hour or so, Harris stood and posed for photos, gave another round of handshakes, and left. In the days afterward, my coworkers and friends asked me what it had been like to finally meet him — what the completion of “my 25-year journey,” as I jokingly described it to him, had been like. And beyond pronouncing it “cool,” I didn’t have much to say. Meeting him hadn’t made me realize some profound inner truth or confer long-awaited wisdom about my identity. He was just a guy who happens to look like me. More than anything, our meeting simply reinforced the fact that the world can be a baffling and random place. Often, this randomness results in tragedy or farce. And at other times, it brings together two total strangers with similar faces — one of whom can’t outrun the other’s long, enduring, Doogie Howser-shaped shadow.