An Iconic ‘Firefly’ Role Almost Went to Neil Patrick Harris

Once a TV show has worked its way into our minds and hearts, it can be really difficult to imagine the creative decisions panning out in a different way.

Casting decisions are particularly precarious because getting schedules to align can be difficult, and many actors are torn between multiple projects.

Sometimes, these changes are small. It might be difficult to imagine Scott Baio as Jess’ dad in Gilmore Girls, but his casting wouldn’t have made a dramatic change to the show as a whole. 

Other times, major parts just narrowly went to the actors who made them so famous. What would the world be like if Tiffani Thiessen hand landed the role of Rachel on Friends? What if Oliver Hudson had played Jack on This is Us? The mind boggles at the possibilities. 

Firefly has a deep fan following, and those fans would likely reel to hear that an iconic part in the series almost went to Neil Patrick Harris. 

Neil Patrick Harris has a long acting career

Neil Patrick Harris
Neil Patrick Harris | Nathan Congleton/NBC/NBCU Photo Bank

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These days, Neil Patrick Harris is probably best known for his work as Barney Stinson on the incredibly popular comedy series How I Met Your Mother. Harris played the part during the show’s entire nine-season run, so it certainly gave him plenty of time to endear himself to fans. 

It wasn’t the first time that Harris had done the work of capturing the hearts of America, however. When he was just a kid, he took on the starring role in Doogie Howser, M.D. In this series, which ran from 1989 to 1993, Harris played a precocious child prodigy who navigated his work as a medical doctor with the everyday ups and downs of being a kid.

It was a demanding part that took some finesse to pull off, and it helped launch Harris into stardom. 

‘Firefly’ was a short-lived fan favorite series

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Joss Whedon has had some long-running dramatic series that have created astounding fan bases, but Firefly was a very short-lived endeavor. Running only for a single season, the sci-fi series wrapped up after only fourteen episodes, leaving many fans sorely disappointed.

Over the years, the series has garnered something of a cult following, and it has managed to become more popular rather than fading into obscurity as many short-lived shows have done. 

Firefly premiered in 2002 and was set 500 years into the future. An ensemble cast has boarded a transport ship named Serenity, and together they dodge intergalactic government agents on the outskirts of space. The show may have been unceremoniously canceled early in its run, but fans insist that it deserves another shot and continue to hope for one even though nearly two decades have passed. 

Sean Maher played Dr. Simon Tam 

At the heart of Firefly is the cast of characters that make up the unlikely team that finds themselves in close quarters aboard the Serenity. Like much fiction of the genre, the dynamics between the characters who don’t always get along help explore the diversity of human nature and the approaches to handling conflict. 

It can be hard to imagine any of these characters being played by someone other than their eventual actor, but one role was almost very different. Sean Maher played Dr. Simon Tam, a former Alliance medical officer with a teenage sister named River. The pair is on the Serenity because they must stay on the move to evade the government forces attempting to capture them as fugitives. 

As Mental Floss reports, Neil Patrick Harris actually auditioned for the part of Simon Tam, and things would have been very different — for both Firefly and for Harris’ career — if he had landed the role.