LOS ANGELES — Neil Patrick Harris is magical, and not just because he can sing, dance, act and host the Tony and Emmy awards. He’s actually magical, like in the abracadabra way, and has been since he was a kid.
Long before he was “Doogie Howser, M.D.,” Harris loved magic. Every trip to his grandparents’ house in Albuquerque meant a visit to the local magic shop, where he used his allowance to add a card or coin trick to his collection, mastering the new illusion on the ride home.
These days, the 40-year-old entertainer injects magic into most everything he does. He levitates an Emmy trophy in advertisements for Sunday’s big show, which he’s hosting for the second time. His “How I Met Your Mother” character, Barney, dabbles in magic. And Harris often does magic tricks on talk shows.
He also makes countless hours of his free time disappear as leader of the Academy of Magical Arts, which is headquartered at the famed Magic Castle on a hill overlooking Hollywood.
“If magicians and magic work well, it really amazes people at a core level, and that level stays with them for a long, long time,” Harris said in a recent interview, sitting in one of the Magic Castle’s many theaters. “You can talk to almost anyone and ask them to recount when they saw a magic trick and they get that giddy expression… I like knowing that the end result is that reaction.”
Harris knows the historic, Victorian-style Magic Castle like a favorite trick — the winding corridors and staircases as familiar to him as the “How I Met Your Mother” set. He greets staff members by name, fiddles with temperamental switches himself and feels proud of the place’s progress under his leadership.
Now in his second term as magic academy president, Harris doesn’t just promote the art and appreciation of magic, he basically runs the business of the Magic Castle, attending regular board meetings and handling occasional “angry emails from magic people.” It takes some sleight of hand to juggle those responsibilities among the half-dozen other jobs he has, including voicing a Pixar film, directing a play, starring in David Fincher’s adaptation of “Gone Girl,” preparing for a starring run on Broadway, wrapping up the final season of “How I Met Your Mother” and oh yes, producing and hosting this year’s Emmy ceremony.
“God bless Apple: We have the iCal,” Harris said, explaining the computerized calendar that keeps his team, fiance David Burtka and their nearly 3-year-old twins on top of their schedules.
With the Emmys just a few days away, Harris is harried. He’s been hands-on in helping put the ceremony together, said executive producer Ken Ehrlich.
“This is one guy whose title of producer isn’t just a vanity title,” Ehrlich said, lauding the entertainer’s instincts “both to what makes a terrific live television show as well as to what makes a great TV show for people to watch at home.”
Harris’s production skills are actually award-worthy: He won an Emmy at Sunday night’s Creative Arts ceremony as executive producer of last year’s Tony Awards.
A host of the main Emmy show, Harris says he won’t sing and dance — at least not as an opening or closing number. Both he and Ehrlich say they hope something unexpected will liven up the ceremony.
“Maybe I hope someone’s really drunk and wins,” Harris deadpanned. “I’m hoping someone brings in a flask unattended, has some sort of problem, actual problem maybe, and we get to watch that downward spiral in front of millions. That, for me, is Emmy magic.
“So, Bryan Cranston, tick tock.”
Harris won’t say whether he’ll perform any tricks during the ceremony, but promises “a lot of exciting things that have never happened before,” including a musical tribute to Liberace by Elton John.
Though Harris hosted the Emmys in 2009 and has taken on the Tonys four times, he acknowledges some nerves leading into this Sunday’s show.
“If you ask me, two days before the Emmys, everything’s locked. We know what the jokes are. I’m like Confident Johnny: Woo-wee it’s gonna be a good show. I’m gonna whip my thing out. It’s going to be funny,” he said, his showman’s smile revealing the slightest hint of anxiety. “But right now, I’m so concerned about what my thing’s going to look like and no jokes are set, so it’s a little bit panic mode right now.”
Maybe it’s time to pull out that magic wand.
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