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Before Doogie Howser and How I Met Your Mother there was "this little extrovert kid."

His voice has deepened and his face no longer has the boyish softness of that fictional prodigy Douglas "Doogie" Howser, M.D., but at 34, Neil Patrick Harris is fine with that.

He's spent the last decade honing his acting skills, developing new, sometimes darker dimensions of himself as an artist.

And he came to the University of South Florida on Thursday to share what he's learned with about 200 performing arts students.

Wearing a cotton shirt, khakis and flip-flops, Harris sat on the stage of USF's Theater 2 an shared memories of his acting career with students in the Broadway Theatre Project program.

Harris recalled his own early years. "I was just always this little extrovert kid. I was in the church choir and in the band, always doing random artistic things," he said.

He urged them to try a variety of roles, to stretch themselves artistically. It is something he's done in his own career, he said.

Known most commonly for his lead role in Doogie Howser M.D., Harris now portrays Barney Stinson in the CBS sitcom How I Met Your Mother.

But in between, he consciously abandoned television comedy and went back to the traditional stage, where he took such roles as the sinister emcee in Cabaret and Lee Harvey Oswald in Assassins.

The two-hour question-and- answer session is part of a three-week intensive program that aims to sharpen the skills of young performers via classes, lectures and performances. Since its start in 1991, the program has mentored young hopefuls by providing life lessons that go beyond the basics of teaching about the performing arts.

"I think that there are so many advantages in bringing in different types of people," said the program's artistic director, Debra McWaters. "It's wonderful to bring in the legends. And it is just as wonderful to bring in the people that are close to the age of the students."

Harris recalled a similar summer program when he was growing up in New Mexico.

"There was a program in New Mexico, in Las Cruces, that was for high-schoolers. I was on the super young end of the program because I was a freshman. It was like freeze tag, scene study, play writing and all that type of stuff. I loved it and it was one of the greatest things in my life."

At the end of the session, Harris left the students with the advice of staying true to oneself and being proud of it.

"Don't think that you can only do one thing. Your individualism is what is going to get you the job," he said.

Jonathan Milton can be reached at or (813)226-3374.