When EW asked me to write up my version of a Hollywood survival guide, my first thought was, ”You’re asking me?!? I wouldn’t last five minutes on the streets of Hollywood with my tousled blond hair and dainty features!” Then I realized they meant ”Hollywood” in the sense of show business. Still, the quick answer to both is: Walk fast, say yes to anything, and always carry a switchblade.
Actually, the secret to surviving Hollywood is fairly obvious. Costar in a major motion picture with Whoopi Goldberg, accept the leading role on a television show at age 16, disappear for a while, surfacing only for the occasional TV movie or animated children’s series, send up your image in a cultish stoner movie, play a womanizing scoundrel on a hit TV show, come out of the closet to millions of people, become a father of twins, and then take over the world. Sounds pretty simple to me…
In all seriousness, it’s required perseverance, perspective, and a dedication to the craft to go all the way from ”the kid who played Doogie” to ”the guy who played Doogie and now wears suits all the time.” Here’s how to do it.
Learn the oboe, go to drama camp, and pray like hell for a lucky break
When you grow up in Ruidoso, N.M., the only outlet you have for acting and theater is the one you make for yourself. I would play my dad’s Smothers Brothers and Bill Cosby and Kingston Trio albums and memorize all the jokes and lyrics. There’s nothing sadder than a lone 8-year-old boy doing a comedy routine designed for a two-person team. That led to my deep love of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. I learned every single part of that soundtrack, and I’d do shows for my parents with a cowboy hat on. It was the nicest little whorehouse you ever saw…
I was very musical at a young age. So much so that Churchill Cooke, our elementary school band and choir director, let me teach parts in the choir when I was in the fourth grade. First I played the xylophone, then marimba, cymbals, French horn, bassoon — I became a sort of jack-of-all-trades. It’s a mindset that I think never really left me. Mr. Cooke would say, ”We need an oboe part for this piece, Neil. Learn oboe.” And I would say, ”Sure, Mr. Cooke. Who needs friends?”
Actually, I had friends in spite of all the speed oboe learning. I was a weird little extrovert. And I was so small — my nuts didn’t drop until I was 16 years old — that I was asked by Danny Flores, who was the high school band director and another great creative influence, to be in the Ruidoso High School production of The Wizard of Oz. As Toto. Apparently you can be too small to play a Munchkin.
My obsession with theater really took hold when I was 14 and went off to drama camp for a week at New Mexico State University. Cue lucky break. I was randomly chosen to be in a class taught by Mark Medoff — the award-winning playwright responsible for Children of a Lesser God. He had just written Clara’s Heart, a feature film starring Whoopi Goldberg, who was transitioning from the short dreadlocks into more serious hair. They were looking for an unknown child to play her costar, and Mark thought that I’d be a good match. I had reasonable talent and superior anonymity. I went to audition and…they gave the job to another kid. The end. But in a magical twist of Hollywood fate, the director fell out. They released the kid, and the next thing I know I’m in Los Angeles sitting across from Whoopi Goldberg, rehearsing lines, and lighting cigarettes with hundred-dollar bills.
And it got trippier after that. The next year I found myself at the Golden Globe Awards, nominated against famous people like Martin Landau and Raul Julia and Alec Guinness (Obi-Wan Kenobi!), but I was so young and no one had any idea who I was (Obi-Wan Kenobody!), so it didn’t feel like success. I’ve never, ever felt — even now — like I’ve hit it big. Maybe that’s because they inexplicably gave that Golden Globe to Landau. I may have been a nobody — but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t robbed.