Is Neil Patrick Harris Really One of Us?

Inside Magic Image of Neil Patrick Harris“Neil Patrick Harris, magician? And, president of the Academy of Magical Arts?” So begins the great profile piece on the actor in today’s Philippine Daily Inquirer .

That is the kind of question that piques our interest.

We follow magic closely and had noticed the former child star and now prominent force on stage, screen and television was appearing more frequently in magic related stories. The pattern we discerned over the last few years: when there was a magic related event in or around Los Angeles or Hollywood, Neil Patrick Harris was there.

It was starting to get eerie.

Our uncle was photographed at many suspicious building fires in and around the greater Mystic Hollow, Michigan area but that was because of his affection for “the glorious lover that is flame.” We were sure Neil Patrick Harris was not afflicted by the same sense of misguided and painful love as Roland “Flame” Hardy.

Perhaps he was working on a project that called for a magician’s touch. We dismissed this theory. Edward Norton (“The Illusionist”), Michael Cain (“The Prestige”), Anthony Hopkins (“Magic”) all starred in magic-oriented films but we never saw any of them attending functions usually reserved for the insiders.

His was one of the three individuals photographed for a 2009 article on The Magic Castle’s It’s Magic performance. (The other two were Lance Burton and Hannah Montana co-star Romi Dames). We don’t think the lovely Romi Dames is a magician so perhaps Neil Patrick Harris was appearing in his capacity as a star.

Neil Patrick Harris was also named in an article on the rededication of Houdini’s star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. But again, he was not the focus of the story.

The mention comes about half-way through the Entertainment Today piece. “The bad boys of magic Penn and Teller were on hand for the ceremony, along with Neil Patrick Harris, Tippi Hedren, JoAnne Worley and Irene Larsen.”

Take a look at the article in the December 6, 2008 edition of Entertainment Today article here.

Behind Penn & Teller and Milt Larsen, one can see the always-dapper Neil Patrick Harris looking down.

We should have picked up on a key sentence in a 2008 New York Times profile of the actor and his recent success in Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantánamo Bay.” About three-quarters of the way through the profile, the author notes:

“Mr. Harris, 34, recently became a board member for the Academy of Magical Arts. The board has governed the academy since it made the castle its headquarters in 1963.”

Finally, there was the story of Neil Patrick Harris directing Guy Hollingworth in the truly magical The Expert at the Card Table.

This should have been enough for us. How could we have missed the obvious. He liked magic! He was around magical events because he enjoyed it – not because of some favor owed to a Hollywood lunch buddy.

We wondered why we failed to make the connection earlier. The clues were there but we missed ’em.

Our instinct is to resist and resent celebrities who try to make the lateral move into magic’s hierarchy. We tire of stars of stage and screen using magic as a “hook” in a public relations campaign for their latest magic-themed project. They are tremendous actors but often very poor magicians. Once the project is over and the studios have tallied the box office take, these actors playing the role of magician, move on to their next project, larger location trailer, newest up-and-coming co-star and develop a new public relations hook. Perhaps for the next film, the former magician will become a martial arts instructor or women’s shoe sales clerk.

Their shallow attraction to our art seems as insincere and mercenary as any other relationship in Hollywood.

So given this cynical bent, it made sense that we missed the obvious hints that Neil Patrick Harris loved magic the way we love magic.

We have thrown our insecurities and doubts to the four winds and are willing to accept what appears to be the truth: a big time movie star can be as excited about magic as any of us.

Call us suckers, but we think he means it. How do we know?

The photograph of the actor attending the rededication of the Houdini star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame convinced us that Neil Patrick Harris is one of us.

We mentioned earlier that one would need to look closely to see the young actor in the photograph accompanying the Entertainment Today article. He was not out front with Penn & Teller and his posture and gaze indicates he was not aware the photo was about to be taken.

We do not know how Penn & Teller rate vis-à-vis an award-winning actor in the real world of Hollywood. Among magicians, Penn & Teller would likely rank far above Neil Patrick Harris. In the lay world, however, it is possible the actor would out-rank the putative Bad Boys of Magic.

Ergo, it follows that a star of Neil Patrick Harris’ stature would insist on top billing and a more flattering photograph in exchange for his appearance at the event – if he were attending out of contractual obligation.

But the image of Neil Patrick Harris supports the thesis that Neil Patrick Harris wanted to be at the event. He wanted to be in the background behind some of the bigger names in the world of magic – if not Hollywood. He looks like an excited fan of magic, honored to be in the company of heroes.

Our emotional guard rises. We recall that above all else, he is an accomplished actor. Perhaps he was just acting and performing as Neil Patrick Harris, “the enthusiastic, star-struck fan.”

We think not. What proof can we offer to support this hunch?

All of the articles documenting his foray into magic uniformly describe his sense of excitement when the conversation turns to magic.

He is clearly one of us.

We have no idea how the politics of The Magic Castle work. We assume there are moments of glad-handing, arm-wringing and the occasional steel shiv to the kidney because humans populate the organization. We do not know whether he became President of the Academy of Magical Arts via a bloodless or bloody coup that left egos smashed, feelings hurt and service staff denied an adequate tip.

Chances are we would have heard some grumbling from our dysthymic cohorts who live on and for the magic bulletin boards. They lounge and prowl in their own gray world where no one is smart, good, or capable and all tricks are obvious, knocked-off and overpriced. Yet, even the professional haters and spoilsports appear to accept the actor’s involvement in our closed society. That is saying a lot.

In the article that kicked off today’s discussion, Neil Patrick Harris’ description of the Magic Castle is ebullient.

“My hobby is magic. I loved going to the magic store when I was a kid. Magic is the best hobby in the world, because you can buy little tricks, learn them, and then present them. You can study the history of magic; learn close-up card or illusion, mentalism, and so on.” (emphasis supplied).

This actor is clearly one of us. Few adults describe anything as “the best in the world!” Kids say such things. They don’t know better. They have yet to learn there is nothing that is the best in this world of mediocrity and sameness.

Yet, magic might be the one pursuit where the joyous child survives.

We have found that same youthful exuberance in magicians of any age. We doubt any actor playing the part of a magician would know to feign this sense of delight when promoting a magic-themed project.

Our verdict is that Neil Patrick Harris is truly one of us. One of the cool guys crossed the lunchroom and proudly asks to sit at our little, non-cool table over by the bathroom doors.

Magic’s joy cannot be faked or repressed.

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