Hugh Laurie is a man of many talents. He’s part musician, part comedian, and part novelist. He’s entirely British but makes a convincing American. And though he’s not a doctor, he plays one on TV.
So that it is known from the outset, among the great and varied accomplishments of House, M.D., star Hugh Laurie is his rare ability to catch a ball on top of his cane.
If mastering such parlor tricks, the fruit of spending desolate midnight hours on a working set, doesn’t qualify Laurie as a Renaissance man, perhaps his astonishingly wide-ranging résumé will do the trick: class clown at Eton College, University of Cambridge graduate with a degree in archaeology and anthropology, British national rowing champion, English comedy phenomenon, best-selling novelist, distinguished musician, avid motorcycle enthusiast, critically acclaimed actor, and, according to a recent survey by Harris Interactive, one of America’s top-five favorite TV personalities, thanks to his coal-and-sugar turn on Fox’s House. Laurie -- who is neither American (as his character, Dr. Gregory House, is) nor in need of a cane (as Dr. House is, hence Laurie’s proficiency at said trick) -- is, he says, “occasionally perceived to be slightly taller in person than one expects.”
Achingly self-deprecating, Laurie has a full awareness of America’s love affair with celebrity and of his unwitting tour of duty within it (compliments of House’s stratospheric success through four seasons -- and counting -- on Fox). And he is certain he fails its rigors.
Of course, Laurie’s lying (we think, anyway), though he never lets down the self-loathing facade. When his exhaustive, Technicolor résumé is recited to him, Laurie blanches, stunned, and a journalist is grateful the actor doesn’t have Dr. House’s trademark cane on hand, lest his knuckles be jestingly rapped.
“All of that -- that’s really quite eerie. Unless there are seven of us. Which maybe there are,” he quips. “What I feel like, I suppose, is a jack-of-all-trades, master of none. I’ve always felt like I could turn my hand to a lot of things but never excel at any of them. I do play the piano a bit, but I wish I could play it like Dr. John or Henry Butler. I act, but I wish I could act like Al Pacino. I do a bit of all these things. I’m just trying to dazzle you with quantity. I can’t do anything well enough, so I’ll do many things and hope that the quantity distracts you from the deficiencies. Maybe that’s the plan.”
Laurie’s modesty may arise from the curious, chameleon-like quality of what he calls his “disappointingly haphazard” acting career, which has seen him perform in drag (most notably on his hit British TV show, A Bit of Fry & Laurie), opposite computer-generated mice (in the Stuart Little movies), and elbow-deep in surgical goo (on House). Amazingly, in some of Laurie’s arguably best-known performances, he has not a shred of his English accent. He is, whether draped in dresses or brandishing a stethoscope, a man in disguise.
Want to sign up for free
e-mail notification of our
Rob Minkoff, who directed Laurie in both big-screen Stuart Little films, describes the actor as “the epitome of perfectionism” and praises his “way with a goofy line or look.” Minkoff auditioned Laurie over the phone, and he required the actor to speak with an American accent for the role of Fredrick Little. “Hugh provided a first-rate impression, though he was, of course, rather critical of himself. Once he landed the role, he worked with a dialect coach every day to perfect his inflection and intonation,” Minkoff says.
So convincing is Laurie’s Yankee patois that House producer Bryan Singer, who knew only of Laurie’s previous stateside work, reportedly didn’t even know the actor hailed from across the pond. David Shore, who was more familiar with Laurie’s previous efforts, was practically starstruck when he learned Laurie was interested in the show. “When I heard Hugh might be auditioning for our project, I was thrilled,” remembers Shore. “Not because he was perfect -- I didn’t think there was a chance he would do this -- I just thought he was hysterically funny and it’d be a thrill to meet him. Then he auditioned, and everything changed.”
House has become the role of Laurie’s lifetime. The series -- ranked seventh in the 2007–2008 Nielsen ratings, with an average of 16.2 million viewers per episode -- is a diabolically clever, unexpectedly moving collision of Sherlock Holmes and ER. The show manages to be a guts-and-fractures procedural drama and a heart-wrenching soap opera simultaneously. It gushes with all manner of scrubs-and-stethoscope emergencies, medical mysteries, tales of human suffering, and ribald, gallows humor. And it features, front and center, Hugh Laurie as a brilliant, curmudgeonly pill-popping doctor who, despite believing he has no soul, thinks it’s worth trying to save the lives of those who do.
Laurie says that audiences are drawn to House’s maverick sensibility and refusal to kowtow to social conventions and political correctness. “House is not weighed down, as the rest of us are, by the necessary demands of politeness, and that is exhilarating for audiences to see. He will always say the thing that should not be said,” he says. “That’s appealing to young people, because House is a character who frets against authority and resists being controlled by those who have power over him. And it’s appealing to an older generation that has grown impatient with the soft platitudes of modern discourse and political correctness. House demands things be done in the most effective and efficient way possible, and I think audiences really respond to that.”
Minkoff believes Laurie shares that exactitude with the bedeviled doctor. “Hugh is very smart and never accepts things at face value,” he says. “Every word of the script is analyzed for its meaning, and every movement for its expressiveness.”
Shore agrees, applauding Laurie’s relentless work ethic and constant philosophical wrangling with his character. “Hugh makes us see the heart in the character, even without saying anything, even while saying the most outrageous things,” he says. “He’s always in pursuit of what’s right for the character and the story. He can do funny in the middle of a dramatic scene. He can do dramatic in the middle of a funny scene. We’ve never come up with an idea or a scene or a line that Hugh cannot do.”
Laurie is quick to dismiss the praise as “lies, all lies” but concedes that he takes his work seriously. “What I do is put all my heart and soul -- if I had a soul, actually, which I don’t; I travel light in that sense -- into doing it right, getting the scene to play the way that it should. I don’t see that there’s a lot of House in me or the other way around. So I’m not losing myself in the character, exactly, but I do get lost in the intricacies of timing and tempo and connection,” he says. “I’m rather obsessive that way.”
Growing up in England as the youngest (by six years) of four children, Laurie quickly learned the value of rib tickling and showmanship. “I was a bit of a class clown, though not frantically so,” he says. “I did know by age nine or 10, after winning a prize at school for acting, that funny was something I could do reasonably well. And, of course, it was just a way to show off for girls, to be noticed at all. That’s how these things start: You try to make a girl laugh. And then 40 years later, you still wonder if you’re any good or not.”
Before pursuing work in provoking guffaws and belly laughs, Laurie enjoyed a brief but notable career in competitive rowing. Like his father, a medical doctor and an Olympic gold medalist in rowing in the 1948 games, Laurie was an oarsman. Representing England, he won the National Junior Championship in coxed pairs in 1977 and placed fourth in the World Rowing Junior Championships later that year. Though a serious illness forced him out of competitive rowing in 1980, the actor spots similarities between the sport and his vocation in the arts.
“In both of them, you’re facing backward, moving away from the direction you’re facing,” he says. “When you look at other people’s careers, it’s very easy to see things as being constructed, planned, devised -- how they clearly got from A to Z through a series of calculated decisions. In actual fact, I think we’re all facing backward, stumbling from place to place, from one thing to the next, and it only takes shape in retrospect: ‘Oh, yes, I got here because I made this decision then, and it led to this place and that decision and this career.’
“Which is how I went from wearing dresses to talking to mice to solving medical mysteries,” he continues. “At no point did I ever have a plan. I was simply facing backward, doing my best along the way.”
Laurie’s best was clearly -- and quickly -- more than enough. Shortly after laying down his oars, he joined the Cambridge University Footlights Dramatic Club, the well-known comedy troupe (think Second City but in London) through which he met fellow thespians Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry. Laurie quickly became a sought-after name in England, appearing with Rowan Atkinson -- known to most as Mr. Bean -- on Richard Curtis’s famed Blackadder series as well as starring with Fry in the critically acclaimed hit series Jeeves & Wooster. From the late ’80s to the mid-’90s, Laurie shared a spectacular British television run with Fry in the topsy-turvy comedy series A Bit of Fry & Laurie.
“I’d love to tell you about it, but unfortunately, I have absolutely no memory at all. None. Of anything, really. I’m absolutely useless,” Laurie says. “I may as well have been born this morning. At about nine o’clock. I had a rapid and loving upbringing. I think.”
The actor -- deadpan, dry-witted, and broadly funny by turns -- forged a big-screen career slowly but surely, appearing in some unlikely places, including his friend Thompson’s Oscar-winning Sense and Sensibility and the live-action 101 Dalmatians. “Like I said, it makes precious little sense at all,” he says. Though Laurie’s appeared in more than a dozen American feature films, only since the 2004 premiere of House, for which he has won two Golden Globes and been nominated for three Emmys, has he claimed any currency at stateside water-coolers. But his small-screen success doesn’t mean that he won’t continue big-screen work. Earlier this year, he appeared alongside Keanu Reeves and Forest Whitaker in Street Kings. Next spring, he provides the voice of Dr. Cockroach, PhD, in the computer-animated romp Monsters vs. Aliens.
And acting isn’t his only creative medium. Along the way, the 49-year-old has played keyboard and saxophone in several bands composed of fellow TV stars, most notable among them Heroes’ Greg Grunberg, Desperate Housewives’ James Denton, and The Bachelor’s Bob Guiney. Laurie says he’s enjoying a temporary moratorium on ivory tickling, at least while coping with House’s rigorous production schedule. “Professional musicians need to rehearse a lot, and amateur musicians need to rehearse an awful lot more,” he says. “I haven’t had enough time of late to be even an amateur, and I began to hate the feeling of getting to the end of a song and only then realizing what the song was and what key it should be played in. That’s no way to carry on.”
Laurie is slightly kinder to himself when discussing The Gun Seller, his 1997 debut novel, a spy thriller that is equal parts spoof and homage, thrillingly intricate, and wickedly funny. The Gun Seller was conceived as part one of a six-book series. “I feel like I might have done well with that one,” he admits. “Though I’ve been working on a sequel for 10 years now and feel terribly guilty for not completing it. I’m eager to make some amends to my publisher and the two or three fans who have been waiting so long and so very, very patiently.”
With so many artistic outlets, Laurie might come across as having something to say. Wrong, he insists. “I’ve never had any compulsion to express myself, actually. There’s nothing conscious or premeditated about it. I just meander, trying my hand at different things. I don’t enjoy a lot of things that others find fun. But I do have fun working, and the enjoyment often comes rather incidentally from that process,” he says.
With the success of House, Laurie is unlikely to be moving on anytime soon. He’s committed to the show for another two seasons, and last summer bought a home in Los Angeles, making it easier for his wife and three children to join him in the United States. “Without them near, I do go quite insane, probably three times a week,” he says. “It can show itself in all kinds of ways. I mean, who else do you know who can catch a ball on the top of a cane?”