Doogie Howser MD: The Smartest Kid on TV

We are in the midst of our Teen Scene blog series this month. Today we learn about a true teen genius, Doogie Howser, MD.

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Photo: sitcomanddramas.weebly.com

This half-hour sitcom was created for the fall of 1989 by Steven Bochco who created Hill Street Blues and LA Law and would go on to develop NYPD Blue. He asked David E. Kelley for help writing the pilot. Kelley, who also wrote for Hill Street Blues, would go on to write for Picket Fences, Ally McBeal, The Practice, Boston Public, and Boston Legal. Bochco and Co felt Neil Patrick Harris was the perfect kid to play a teenage doctor. ABC did not like the casting and was not fond of the show in general or the pilot. However, Bochco’s contract required that if the network canceled his project, they had to pay a penalty. They ended up putting the show on the air because test screenings ranked so well. The show ended up being on the air for four seasons, creating 97 episodes. It was one of the first sitcoms not to have a live audience or a laugh track.

While Doogie had to deal with professional medical problems at work, in his personal career, he was still a teenager dealing with the same issues all teenagers do. His best friend Vinnie (Max Casella) had been in his life since kindergarten. Vinnie wanted to pursue film school, but his dad wanted him to join the family business. Doogie’s family business was medicine; his dad, Dr. David Howser (James B. Sikking) had a family practice, and his mother Katherine (Belinda Montgomery) became a patient advocate at the hospital.

Sikking, Harris, and Montgomery Photo: showbizjunkies.com

Doogie and Vinnie dated best friends. Wanda (Lisa Dean Ryan) was Doogie’s girlfriend but before the end of the show, she left to attend the Art Institute of Chicago and they broke up. Vinnie’s girlfriend Janine (Lucy Boyer) drops out of college to become a department store buyer.

Doogie’s professional colleagues include Dr. Benjamin Canfield (Lawrence Pressman), head of the hospital and friend of Doogie’s father; Dr. Jack McGuire (Mitchell Anderson), a resident who eventually moves overseas to help third-world countries; Mary Margaret Spaulding (Kathryn Layng) a nurse who ironically dates McGuire, Canfield, and Doogie; and Raymond (Markus Redmond), an orderly who Doogie got hired after he left gang life. In seasons 2-4, Barry Livingston (Ernie from My Three Sons), plays Dr. Bob Rickett, a fellow doctor at the hospital.

Doogie Howser, M.D. (ABC-TV, 1989-93) Shown (l. to r.): James B. Sikking (as Dr. David Howser), Belinda Montgomery (as Katherine Howser), Markus Redmond (as Raymond), Neil Patrick Harris (as Doogie Howser), Lawrence Pressman (as Dr. Canfield), Kathryn Layng (as Nurse Curly Spaulding), Max Casella (as Vinnie)

Doogie’s (Douglas) story is that he was a two-time survivor of early-stage pediatric leukemia which gave him a desire to become a doctor. He was labeled a genius in school and had an eidetic memory and earned a perfect SAT score at the age of six, graduating from high school in only nine weeks at which time he entered Princeton at age 10. By 14, he had finished medical school and was beginning his career. A couple of sources I read said Bochco based the character of Doogie somewhat on his own father who was a violin prodigy.

Harris, Cassella Photo: flickr.com

We meet him at 16 when he is a second-year resident surgeon at Eastman Medical Center in LA. He lives at home with his parents, and he keeps a digital diary which he typically ends the show with, writing as he makes observations about what he has learned during the episode.

The show dealt with some heavier topics including AIDS awareness, racism, homophobia, and gang violence, but most of the shows also involve Doogie’s personal life and his social issues being a teen in an adult world. By the time the show ends, Doogie has moved into his own apartment. Howser then resigns from the hospital to take a trip to Europe. If the show had come back for a fifth season, the creators planned to have Doogie explore a writing career.

While audiences responded enthusiastically to the show, critics were not on board. Marvin Kitman of Newsday rated the first season 40/100 and said sarcastically, “What a wasted childhood my kids have had, I got to thinking while watching this otherwise normal Doogie Howser. It makes you look at your kids differently. What lazy bums they must be still in high school at 16.” Christopher Smith of the Bangor Daily News gave it a C and said, “No classic, this series.”

Harris, Dean Ryan Photo: sitcomsonline.com

However, fans continued to tune in, and a review by c l lance on imdb.com, in 2005, said “Doogie Houser [Howser], MD. Just the name brings a smile of remembrance to me. In the tradition of such television classics as L.A. LAW, NYPD Blue and Hill Street Blues, Doogie Houser, MD was wonderfully funny with a touch of life. As a 30-something adult when I first watched Doogie in late-night reruns, I was hooked by its humor and wit while watching this “kid” with an adult mind, yet the hormones and maturity of a teenager, grow into independence. Memorable episodes include his first day, the late-night skinny dip (as mentioned by another viewer), the practical joke he played on other hospital staff only to have it ruthlessly reciprocated, and the apartment with his best friend Vinny. There is some risqué humor but it is nothing when compared to today’s standards. I always enjoyed seeing the relationship he had with his dad and mom. I had the entire series recorded but sacrificed them for NFL games. BIG mistake!! Doogie Houser, MD will long be cherished by this now 40 something dad and his now 20 something daughters. I look forward to seeing Doogie’s journal again.”

A lot of us knew Harris better from his role of Barney Stinson on How I Met Your Mother. During one episode, “The Bracket,” Barney writes in his computerized diary while the theme song for Doogie Howser plays in the background.

UNITED STATES – SEPTEMBER 19: DOOGIE HOWSER, M.D. – Season One – Pilot – 9/19/89, Neil Patrick Harris played 16-year-old child prodigy Douglas “Doogie” Howser, a second-year resident at Eastman Medical Center who zipped through high school in two months, graduated from Princeton at 10, and medical school at 14. At the end of each episode, Doogie entered his experiences in his electronic diary, on his computer. , (Photo by Walt Disney Television via Getty Images Photo Archives/Walt Disney Television via Getty Images)

On September 19, 2019, USA Today did an interview with Harris on the 30th anniversary of the show and mentioned that upon the death of Steven Bochco, Harris reflected about his time on the show: “I look back on that with fondness. That was a very remarkably wonderful chapter for somebody who had never really been in the entertainment business before.” Doogie might have missed his chance to become an author, but Harris has written a series of kids’ books, The Magic Misfits, as well as an autobiography.

I do remember watching the show during prime time. If I was home, I watched it but it was not a must-see show for me. It was an interesting concept though and seemed realistic enough given the few people who would experience this type of life. I think the bigger issue for me was that the first three years it was on against Night Court, so I probably watched more of the fourth season when it was sandwiched between The Wonder Years and Home Improvement.

Photo: pinterest.com

The White Stuff

It’s hard to imagine anyone with a more versatile or longer-lasting occupation than Betty White.  During her career, she’s starred in 12 sitcoms, had recurring roles on 17 shows, and appeared in another 45 series. In addition, she was in 14 movies; 18 movies made for television; and 305 different shows as herself, including 326 episodes of Match Game, 85 guest spots on the $10,000 Pyramid, 52 appearances on Entertainment Tonight, and 40 times on To Tell the Truth.

Born January 17, 1922 in Oak Park, Illinois, Betty was an only child.  Her family moved to California when she was quite young. Her original goal was to become a Park Ranger, but that career was closed to women at that time.  She started her entertainment career in radio, because she was told she was not photogenic. When World War II broke out, she joined the American Women’s Voluntary Services. She was briefly married to Dick Barker, a pilot; they married and divorced in 1945.  In 1947 she married Lane Allan, an agent, but they divorced in 1949.

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Her career took a major leap in 1952 when Life with Elizabeth was picked up by the network. Betty was the star and producer of the show from 1952-1955. Her show gave her total control both behind and in front of the camera.  She was the first woman to produce a sitcom. She was only 28 years old and living with her parents when this opportunity presented itself.

During the 1950s Betty would also star in the sitcom Date with the Angels, as Vickie Angel.  Vickie and her husband, an insurance salesmen, involved their friends and neighbors in a variety of comic situations. She also appeared on variety shows such as Jack Paar Tonight, as well as The Betty White Show, a talk show.  In 1956, she began an alliance with the Tournament of Roses parade which she co-hosted for 19 years.

The 1960s found her starring in her first movie, Advise and Consent in 1962, portraying Kansas senator Elizabeth Ames Adams. She also began her long partnership with game shows, earning the title, “First Lady of Game Shows.” It was when she appeared on Password that she met her third husband, Allen Ludden, who was the host.  They married in 1963 and were happily living life until his death in 1981. (Note: Wisconsin claims Allen Ludden because he was born in Mineral Point in 1917.)

In the 1970s, Betty re-entered the television series realm.  She guest-starred on the Mary Tyler Moore Show during its fourth season as television host Sue Ann Nivens, the Happy Homemaker. She was such a hit that she became a regular for the rest of the series’ run. In 1977, she and Georgia Engel starred in The Betty White Show (not to be confused with the talk show in the 1950s) which only lasted one season. Because of her affiliation with the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the Tournament of Roses replaced her as host, and she then took on the task of co-hosting the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade for ten years.

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In the 1980s, at age 60, Betty’s career continued to steamroll. She became a regular on Mama’s Family, which aired from 1983-86. In 1985, she accepted the role of Rose Nyland on The Golden Girls.  Originally slated for the part of Blanche, it was suggested that Rue McClanahan and Betty switch roles to keep from becoming typecast.  The role of Rose Nyland kept her busy through 1993.  Golden Girls ended production in 1992; the next season, Estelle Getty, Rue McClanahan, and Betty White reprised their roles for one season on Golden Palace.

During the 1990s, Betty continued her television work. She had a regular role on Maybe This Time where she played Shirley Wallace, a much-married woman, who pushes her daughter, recently divorced, into a relationship, when she just wants to run the family coffee shop and avoid dating altogether. She also was in all 30 episodes of Ladies Man, where she again plays the mother of the main character. He is trying to raise a daughter from his first marriage and a daughter from his current marriage while dealing with a wife, and ex-wife, and a mother.

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As the new century turned over in 2000, at 78, Betty just continued to add to her acting credits.  She had regular roles on Boston Legal and The Bold and the Beautiful.  She also starred in Hot in Cleveland for its entire five-year run. She continued appearing on a variety of television shows during that decade.

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During her career, she was nominated for 21 primetime Emmys and won five. She also won 2 daytime Emmys. She is the only woman to be nominated in every comedy category. She was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1995 and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.

Betty loves animals and is an advocate for many animal associations including the Los Angeles Zoo, the Morris Animal Foundation, and the African Wildlife Foundation. She received the Humane Award in 1987 and had a plaque installed near the gorilla exhibit at the Los Angeles Zoo to commemorate her work there.

BETTY WHITE

It’s hard to know what she will attempt next. She was the oldest person to host Saturday Night Live which she did in 2010. She appeared on the original Tonight Show with Jack Paar and has appeared with Jay Leno and Jimmy Fallon. She has been on the Howard Stern Show, the Simpsons, and one of my favorites, Madame’s Place. She has guest starred in both comedies and dramas. She produced Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, where senior citizens played pranks on younger people.

Considering her real name is Betty, not Elizabeth, it’s ironic that her first television role was in Life with Elizabeth and her first movie was portraying Elizabeth Ames Adams.

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At 95, how has she kept so young?  If you ask her co-stars from Hot in Cleveland, they will tell you that she survives on hot dogs, French fries, Diet Coke, and red licorice.  Who am I to argue?

One of her best awards came in 2010 when she was made an Honorary Forest Ranger.  Considering that in 1940 that field was closed to her, when she received her honorary title, one-third of forest rangers were women.

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When asked about why she loves performing, Betty said, “To be able to talk to that camera—the camera became your best friend. You’re looking into that little camera lens and they’re looking into your soul, because they’re right into your eyes. You can’t be phony. You can’t fake it.”

No one has ever accused Betty White of being a fake or a phony.  Everyone she comes in contact with seems to love her. The camera was her best friend, but we all became her friends through those camera portrayals.

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What a wonderful personality.  What a wonderful career.  What a wonderful legacy.