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

Shelly Fabares: A Life Spent in the Entertainment Industry

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Michele Ann Marie (Shelly) Fabares was born in 1944 in California.  She began acting at 3 and at age 10 she appeared in her first television show. Her aunt was the actress Nanette Fabray who also began acting as a child, and then went on to musical theater.

During the 1950s, Shelly appeared in several television shows including Annie Oakley, The Loretta Young Show, and the Twilight Zone, in addition to 8 others. She was part of the cast of Annette in 1958, playing Moselle Corey.  The star of the show was Annette Funicello.  She is an orphan who grew up in the country and now lives with her wealthy aunt and uncle, not fitting into the snobby community. The show was cancelled after 19 episodes. Annette was a life-long friend of Shelly’s. They met in seventh grade, and Shelly was at her bedside when she passed away from multiple sclerosis in 2013.

Later that year she was offered the part of Mary Stone on The Donna Reed Show. The show was on the air seven years. Shelly left the show in 1963 to pursue a film career but stayed close to the cast, especially Donna Reed who was a second mother to her. Paul Petersen and Fabares both described how amazing Donna Reed and Carl Betz were during their time on the show.  Realizing how tough the industry can be for young kids, they protected them and loved them as second parents. Both Shelly and Petersen pursued their music interests on the Donna Reed Show. In 1962, she recorded “Johnny Angel” which went to number 1 on the Billboard 100.

Shelly appeared in 13 films in the 1950s and 1960s, including three with Elvis Presley—Girl Happy in 1965, Spinout in 1966, and Clambake in 1967. She also appeared on television on The Ghost and Mrs. Muir, Daniel Boone, Lancer, and Bracken’s World. Shelly married Lou Adler in 1964.

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Her acting career continued to skyrocket in the 1970s.  She appeared as Joy Piccolo in Brian’s Song in 1971. She appeared in 26 television shows, three of them regular series. The Brian Keith Show was on the air from 1972-74. Keith was Dr. Sean Jamison and Shelly played his daughter, Dr. Ann Jamison.  The two of them ran a free pediatric clinic in Hawaii financed by a wealthy patron. Sticking with the medical theme, she joined the cast of The Practice in 1976-77 working with Danny Thomas. She played Jenny Bedford, the daughter of Dr. Jules Bedford. At the end of the decade she tried another sitcom, Highcliff Manor, which only lasted 6 episodes. I don’t remember this sitcom, but it seems an odd one: the manor, owned by Fabares’ character, Helen Blacke, was home to the Blacke Foundation, a research institute staffed by an eclectic group of eccentric characters. It sounds a bit like Scorpion, maybe just a couple decades’ too early.

She continued working on television in the 1980s, appearing on Fantasy Island, Mork and Mindy, Matt Houston, The Love Boat, Newhart, and Murder She Wrote.  She joined the cast of One Day at a Time, playing Francine Webster between 1978-1984. She also made the movie Hot Pursuit in 1987. The description of the movie is that young Danny is following his rich girlfriend’s family to the Caribbean. But suddenly he simply must take a chemistry test and cannot go with them. After they have left, he gets a leave from his professor and takes a plane to find them. But he is not quite sure where they are, and meets smugglers, crazy captains, and murderers. Fabares’ marriage to Lou Adler legally ended in 1980, although they had been separated since 1966. In 1984, she married M*A*S*H star Mike Farrell.

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Entering her 5th decade of acting, she made her last film, Love or Money in 1990. She continued her television work appearing in A Whole New Ballgame and the Justice League.  She also had a regular gig providing the voice for Martha Kent in Superman from 1996-99. In addition to the Donna Reed Show, the show that Fabares is best known for was Coach which ran throughout most of the 90s, from 1989-1997. As Christine Armstrong, she is the girlfriend, and later, wife of Coach Hayden Fox, played by Craig T. Nelson.  The show revolves around the football team that Fox coaches.  He lives for sports while Christine is not the least interested.  This causes a bit of friction and miscommunication in their relationship.

Fabares had a long and full career.  While her career kept her busy, she had to deal with several major life situations:

DONNA REED;SHELLEY FABARES

Donna Reed, her second mother, passed away in 1986 from pancreatic cancer.  Shelly adored Donna, and Donna’s final words were to make sure Shelly’s birthday gift was wrapped and delivered.

At the same time Reed was dying, Fabares’ mother was suffering from Alzheimers.

In 2000, Shelly needed a liver transplant because she had autoimmune hepatitis.

She had to deal with the death of her life-long friend Annette Funicello in 2013.

Few actors can begin acting as a child, transition into teen parts, transition into movie roles, and then continue acting as an adult in sitcom series, but she did that beautifully. Hopefully she and hubby Mike Farrell continue to enjoy a long and well-deserved retirement.

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