In its own way, the 87th annual Academy Awards presentation has already earned a place in show-business history. But it’s not because of any of the eight movies battling it out for Best Picture.
When Neil Patrick Harris takes the stage Sunday as host of the annual Hollywood spectacle, he’ll have added a notable notch to his increasingly crowded belt: The 41-year-old actor has already hosted the Emmys twice and the Tonys four times. If he should ever get a shot at the Grammys, Harris would become the first-ever EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony) awards-show host.
So, how did a former child star with seemingly limited career prospects become known as the go-to guy for major awards telecasts? According to people who helped him get there, the reason is his rare mix of likability and cross-discipline skills, coupled with a tireless perfectionism that lends itself to fast-paced, high-pressure awards ceremonies.
“He just showed that enormous range of talent,” said Charlotte St. Martin, executive director of the Broadway League, which co-presents the Tony awards with the American Theatre Wing. “Whether it was comedy, singing, dancing, acting or being a magician -- you just felt his pure love of theater.”
It’s not a stretch to say the Tony producers were the first to discover Harris’ hosting prowess. The actor made his awards-show hosting debut on Broadway’s biggest night in 2009, emceeing the ceremony at Radio City Music Hall in New York. He went on to host the Emmy awards presentation later that year. Both telecasts earned Harris rave reviews and solid ratings. At the time, he was already enjoying a career resurgence thanks to his role as Barney Stinson on the successful CBS situation comedy “How I Met Your Met Your Mother.”
St. Martin, who said Harris was picked from a list of potential hosts with backgrounds in theater, said it didn’t take long to discover the actor’s natural penchant as master of ceremonies. “The first time he was selected as host, we knew,” she said. “You never know until you get it, and when you get it, you know. But there is something magical about it.”
Finding a successful awards-show host is a tricky science, according to Heather A. Hitchens, CEO and president of the American Theatre Wing. She said Harris has a keen ability to move a show along without buckling under pressure or alienating viewers. “The job requires being incredibly talented and being able to connect with the audience, and we consider all those things,” she said. “Each host will come with different strengths.”
And sometimes what seems like a natural fit just doesn’t work. David Letterman’s decades of on-air experience didn’t provide him much of a lifeline during his notorious turn as host of the Oscars presentation in 1995. Letterman, with his dry delivery and self-depreciation, had his share of defenders, but his irreverence didn’t go over well among the red-carpet elite. He wasn’t asked back. Nor was Seth MacFarlane, who encountered even harsher criticism in 2013 with a puerile tribute to actresses who have appeared on screen topless.
By contrast, Harris is a consummate insider with deep roots on stage and screen. If he makes a joke at the expense of one of his fellow actors (and, with Benedict Cumberbatch in attendance, there will be no shortage of opportunity), he or she will know it’s coming from a good-natured peer. What’s more, Harris typically delivers the goods in terms of ratings. His Tonys hosting stint in 2013, which included a bombastic opening musical number, delivered the telecast’s largest audience since 2009.
Still, he’ll have some big shoes to fill Sunday. Last year’s Oscars telecast, which was hosted by the equally likeable awards-show veteran Ellen DeGeneres, scored the event’s best ratings in a decade. To top those numbers, Harris may need to do more than take a group selfie.
Hitchens said she’s pretty sure Harris will have some great tricks up his sleeve. “He’s beyond being a performer,” she said. “He came in with real ideas. He could have just shown up and hosted, but we got so much more.”