Whitney Pastorek
November 14, 2008 AT 05:00 AM EST

Given this actor’s predilection for prestidigitation, is it too convenient to call 2008 a ”magical year” for Neil Patrick Harris? Maybe — he does now sit on the board of L.A.’s famed Magic Castle — but consider the evidence: He made an old-school star turn as the titular mad scientist in Joss Whedon’s wildly successful online musical Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog. He continued to mine the self-parody gold of ”Neil Patrick Harris” in the Harold & Kumar franchise. He brought compelling new depth to his role as Barney on CBS’ How I Met Your Mother (without losing an ounce of womanizing ooze). And if you laughed at all during this year’s black hole of an Emmy broadcast, it was probably due to his bone-dry aside about ”Howie Mandel’s prattling.” By year’s end, the 35-year-old had pulled off quite the trick: making the last remaining novelties of his Doogie childhood vanish as he blossomed into a versatile collaborator and an incredibly funny man.

While Harris is humble about his current critical mass — ”It timed itself out very well, and I had very little to do with that,” he insists — he’ll simply have to accept some of the credit. Take the evolution of HIMYM‘s Barney, the legendary lothario with the outsize libido who since last spring has flipped head over heels in love with gal pal Robin (Cobie Smulders). It’s a story line Harris says he pushed for: ”I didn’t want to play Barney as just the a–hole,” he says, adding, ”That’s Jeremy Piven’s job.” There’s a direct link between Barney’s lovelorn miscreant energy and Harris’ twitchy, hapless, beautifully sung, and easily downloadable labor of love as Dr. Horrible, shot during Hollywood’s strike-related shutdown. ”I hope the writers can manage to strike one more time,” he jokes, ”so we can get another crack at it. We had an absolute ball.”

Whatever his next trick — he hints at variety shows, circus training, Henson-style children’s TV — we’ll gleefully observe. ”I just hope I’m not going to open up the magazine next week and see the little arrow sticking through me three pages after the Bullseye, saying, ‘NPH, enough already.”’ Not a chance.

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