"An exhaustive guide for fans of the TV show House and its cast." The Record
"Tells you everything you ever wanted to know about House and its star." The Tampa Tribune
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At the centre of the critically acclaimed Fox drama House, British actor Hugh Laurie has become the focus of fans across North America, Britain, and Australia. Winner of the Golden Globe for Best Actor in a Dramatic Series, honoured by the Queen with an Order of the British Empire, and one of People’s Sexiest Men Alive, Laurie has become an icon. But who is the man behind the cane and acerbic wit? A musician? A motorcyclist? A comedian? Laurie is all these things and more. This biography aims to shed light on his childhood struggles to live up to his mother’s high demands and emulate his father’s accomplishments as a doctor and an Olympic gold medalist; his education at the prestigious academies of Eton and Cambridge; his comedic career with Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, and Rowan Atkinson; his own personal struggle with depression; and how he came to be the best-loved curmudgeon on television. Interviews with creator and executive producer David Shore will reveal the Canadian connection to this truly global show and how a Canuck from London, Ontario, made the move to Hollywood stardom. The House That Hugh Laurie Built will also serve as a magnifying glass, providing episode analysis, cast biographies, selections of Dr. House’s caustic wit, and production bloopers and medical mistakes that only a sleuth like Dr. House could expose.
"An exhaustive guide for fans of the TV show House and its cast." The Record
"Tells you everything you ever wanted to know about House and its star." The Tampa Tribune
WHAT WE TALK ABOUT WHEN WE TALK ABOUT HUGH LAURIE
So, how is it, exactly, that an American TV series about an abrasive, limping, pill-popping doctor with the bedside manner of Attila the Hun — played by a depressive, Cambridge-educated, English actor, doing a fake New Jersey accent — has emerged as one of the most popular primetime dramas in recent years, among fans and critics alike?
And why do so many people love Fox's House, MD — the casual fans watching at home and the more rabid ones who build websites devoted to the show, the newspaper and magazine writers, and the folks who vote on the Golden Globe and Emmy awards? And, despite having been on the air only three seasons, why are many people already talking about House as a classic, a series that, despite its relative youth, is mentioned in the same breath as other great dramas like ER and Law & Order?
Certainly, the quirky juxtaposition of a lead character who works in a profession devoted to helping people but who delights in insulting patients, residents, and humanity in general is part of the reason. Television — or, more broadly, drama — has always loved the idea of characters whose jobs or positions in society are just the opposite of their true personalities (such as the bumbling cop who always manages to catch the crook, the hooker with a heart of gold, etc.).
But let's face it: That kind of contrast in a lead role isn't enough. Ted Danson tried the grouchy doctor shtick in Becker, the CBS offering that ran from 1998 to 2004 ("His bedside manner is no manners at all," ran the show's tagline) and although the show did have a pretty good run, with 128 primetime episodes in total, with all due respect to Danson, Becker was ... well, Becker — a show with lots of easy laughs and convenient plots, but not much depth.
And there have surely been a sufficient number of grouchy MDS on shows like Ben Casey, ER, St. Elsewhere and even General Hospital to take enough shine off this type of role, such that the mere presence of a "sure I help people but I'm a jerk" character alone cannot explain the huge success of House.
Taking the dramatic analysis one step further, could it be that the strength of the show comes from its brilliant writing and directing? Certainly, the lines delivered by the lead and supporting characters in House are among the snappiest — and at times, funniest — heard on the small screen in decades. And it's true that the show's Canadian creator and lead writer, David Shore, has invented characters who talk in ways that are unique on primetime, delivering pronouncements on complicated medical cases in specialized scientific lingo one minute, then engaging in witty banter about their personal lives or their complicated relationships with one another the next.
And the several directors who have been brought in to work their magic on the show — including veterans like Paris Barclay, Deran Sarafian, Bryan Singer, and Daniel Sackheim — have all managed to give this medical drama just exactly the right pacing and its clever, behind-the-scenes look and feel, including the show's popular close-up plunges inside the human anatomy as House's doctors discuss and cure the myriad of medical problems that come their way.
But great writing and directing alone can't be the answer — or at least not all of the answer — to the success of House. There have been — and indeed, are currently — lots of shows that thrive on zippy, smart dialogue (The West Wing, Seinfeld, and The Sopranos all come to mind as fairly recent examples). And for those cool techno-effects that feature the "camera" zipping through a human heart or stomach, well, nobody does that little trick as well as CSI. Certainly, good writing and directing play a big part in the overall impact of House — but they don't explain it all.
Instead, you have to look to the man behind the show's main character — that Englishman doing the phony American accent — to truly understand the foundations upon which this House has been built. That's Hugh Laurie, former member of the Footlights comedy troupe at Cambridge, veteran of the British stage, television, and movie scene, motorcycle and boxing enthusiast, depressive, novelist, crack musician, husband, father of three, and former world-class rower, who really provides the show with the legs it has needed to become one of primetime's best.
In fact, it's exactly that varied, multifaceted background that has allowed Laurie to excel as much as he has in House. In an age where specialization is king, and when many actors seem to get their start as kids and then do little else of note their entire lives (adopting weird religions or African orphans, just for the great publicity it brings, doesn't really count), it's heartening that someone with a list of accomplishments and talents as long and diverse as Laurie's can bring the kind of energy, maturity and poise that a smart, serious drama like House — and the title character that drives it — really need. If House — watchers — professional critics, bloggers, and casual fans alike — note one thing about the pull that Laurie exerts in the show's lead role, it's that he brings "depth" to the character; there seems to be a lot more behind the three-days-stubble mask than simply a vacuous, polished actor with a pretty face, mailing in a weekly performance for a steady paycheck.
But at the same time, as Laurie has managed to convey a great deal of his personality to the public since becoming a hit on House, we've learned that his off-screen life is far from a self-satisfied, smug existence. For all of his accomplishments, both off the stage and on it, Laurie remains, if not exactly a tortured soul, at least a person who, as one U.K. reviewer put it, "is a big hit at everything but being happy."
Or, as Laurie himself has said about his career, "I've been lucky and I've always found stuff to do, but there have been times when I've thought, Am I really cut out for this? Is this what I really want to do? Should I go off and become a teacher? ... Or should I try to write Ulysses? ... But that's been done."
Certainly, those closest to the working Laurie — fellow actors, directors, producers — have all pointed out that while Hugh seems to have every element needed for a happy life, he just can't seem to shake off a basic sense of inner gloom. Katie Jacobs, one of the show's executive producers, told an interviewer about a typical day for Laurie on the Los Angeles set of House: "Every day at about four or five o'clock, Hugh's sitting on the curb, completely despondent. He's miserable no matter what he does. Never thinks he's good enough — never thinks he's got it right."
And of course, that sense of isolation and general confusion about the world has been a perfect match for Laurie's character on House. One reviewer, writing in the Times of London, summed up that Laurie's character "at times seems a more suitable subject for treatment than his patients."
In the pages that follow, we'll look at how all of these aspects of Hugh Laurie — as dramatic and comic actor, athlete, writer, musician, moody fellow who has struggled with depression, and family man — came to be, and how he's brought all those aspects of his character into the role of Dr. Gregory House, the role that so many fans and critics have praised and enjoyed.CHAPTER 2
BACK IN THE DAY
To begin at the very beginning: Hugh Laurie — born James Hugh Calum Laurie (although he has never used the first name James) — came into the world in Oxford, England, on June II, 1959, the youngest of four children. His father, William George Ranald Mundell Laurie — he went simply by Ranald — was a medical doctor, a Cambridge-educated general practitioner. His mother, Patricia, was a stay-at-home mom, busy with Hugh and his older brother and two older sisters.
From his many comments in interviews, it's clear that Laurie's early upbringing was governed by a relationship with his mother — who died when Hugh was 29 — that was very different than the one he had with his father.
In June 2005, Laurie did an interview with the U.K.'s Mail on Sunday — just before House premiered on British TV — in which he discussed candidly these widely differing parental relationships.
"I did have problems with my mother and she with me," he said. "I was an awkward and frustrating child. She had very high expectations of me, which I constantly disappointed. She had moments of not liking me. When I say moments I use the word broadly to cover months."
Laurie described how, while his mother had moments of kindness and good humor, she was for the most part, "contemptuous of the goal of happiness, of contentment, ease and comfort. She even disliked those words. When she was in a good mood, she was a joy, funny and bright. Then she could just switch off, spending days, weeks, months, nursing some grievance."
On the other hand, Hugh's relationship with his dad seems to be one marked by respect and, if anything, a profound sense of having let his father down a little. Indeed, Hugh did attend the Dragon School, a famous preparatory school in Oxford, and then Eton College, one of England's most prestigious public — or, in North American terms, private — schools, before going on to Cambridge University.
But Laurie has noted that his dad, who in fact became an MD only after entering med school when he was 40, having served in the Second World War, did have medical aspirations for his son, but following in Ranald's footsteps was simply not something Hugh was interested in when he attended Eton.
"My father had high hopes for me following him into medicine," Laurie told the Mail on Sunday. "I wanted to, and was going to choose the right subjects at school but in the end I copped out. Medicine is awfully hard work and you have to be rather clever to pass the exams. Seriously, this is a source of real guilt for me."
Of course, the coincidence of a young man who grows up with a father who wanted him to enter the medical profession, never makes it as a doctor, and then many years later goes on to play one on a popular TV show, has not gone unnoticed — and certainly not by Hugh.
"One of the things that makes me feel guilty about playing this role is that my dad was such a good doctor and believed passionately in the Hippocratic oath. He was a very gentle soul," Laurie says. "If every son in some way is trying to live up to his father it is irksome — but here I am prancing around with three days of stubble because the part calls for it and faking being a doctor, when my father was the real thing and a very good one at that. I'm probably being paid more to be a fake version of my own father."
By his own admission, Hugh's work in his early years of schooling was marked not necessarily by a lack of intelligence — but instead by a seeming nonexistence of anything resembling drive. In a witty article he wrote for the (U.K.) Daily Telegraph in 1999, Laurie summed up his younger years, and his performance in school during them, like this:
I was, in truth, a horrible child. Not much given to things of a bookey nature, I spent a large part of my youth smoking Number Six and cheating in French vocabulary tests. I wore platform boots with a brass skull and crossbones over the ankle, my hair was disgraceful, and I somehow contrived to pull off the gruesome trick of being both fat and thin at the same time. If you had passed me in the street during those pimply years, I am confident that you would, at the very least, have quickened your pace.... You think I exaggerate? I do not. Glancing over my school reports from the year 1972, I observe that the words "ghastly" and "desperate" feature strongly, while "no," "not," "never," and "again" also crop up more often than one would expect in a random sample. My history teacher's report actually took the form of a postcard from Vancouver.
Although the lack of ambition that Laurie cites as the factor that prevented him from ever going to medical school seems to characterize his early years, that same dearth of drive, however, did not plunge him into complete slackerdom. Instead, Hugh was saved from a total couch-potato existence by a pastime that was to define a large part of his early life, and indeed, was to develop in him the kind of discipline and character he would need to draw upon in his later career as a successful actor: the sport of rowing.
Now, many foreign-born celebrities, upon making it big in North America, find that the years they spent before coming to the New World become subject to a kind of quasi-historical scrutiny into both their personal and their professional lives. In much the same way that the North American media — and the adoring public — seemed stunned at times to discover that such stars as Penelope Cruz, Mel Gibson, or Antonio Banderas had actually managed to build certain reputations in their home countries before appearing in Hollywood, many North American magazines and TV reporters spilled gallons of ink and hours of airtime on the fact that Hugh had enjoyed a successful career on stage and on the big and small screen before he struck it rich on House.
But as amazed as North Americans were about that, they seemed equally enthusiastic about another fact of Laurie's life before coming to the U.S. — namely, that at one point, he had been one of the best young rowers in Britain, and, indeed, one of the top junior oarsmen in the world.
If you want to know much about what Hugh Laurie was up to in his youth, the sport of rowing provides most of the answers. It defined his teen years, dictated many of his educational choices, and helped him develop many of the character traits that would lead to his future success as an actor.
Certainly, achievement in sport prior to screen success is nothing new for actors, as proven by such diverse stars as Bruce Dern (running), Kris Kristoffersen and Burt Reynolds (football), or Geena Davis, one of Laurie's costars in the Stuart Little films (archery). And many a journalist has commented on the fact that several of the same skills needed for success in acting — willingness to put in long hours of practice, self-confidence, the ability to suffer defeat as well as embrace success — are similar to the ones you need to be good at sports.
But for Laurie, who plays a scruffy, half-lame, drug-dependent curmudgeon in primetime, the idea of international success in a sport as demanding as rowing just didn't seem to fit. (Although on the occasions in House when the good doctor reveals a forearm during a complex operation it's easy to see — if you look closely — some very well developed muscles.)
But it is indeed true — in his younger days, and especially during his time at Cambridge, Laurie was a world-beater on the water. As a student at Eton, he had progressed in the sport to the point that he and his partner J.S. Palmer, had been junior national champion in the coxed pairs event, and came fourth in the world junior championships in Finland, in 1977.
In fact, his whole choice of university — and the course of study he followed while at Cambridge — was based on rowing. "I went there to row. I'll be blunt with it," he has said. "That's really what I went for, and anthropology was the most convenient subject to read while spending eight hours a day on the river."
Laurie started at Cambridge in 1978, and rowed there for his college, Selwyn, as well as for the university, although a bout of glandular fever in early 1979 interrupted things a bit. In 1980 though, he returned to qualify as a Blue, or varsity team member, in that year's Oxford-Cambridge boat race, a race imbued by a rivalry that in England is similar to the one that underlies Red Sox – Yankees baseball games or the Harvard-Yale football contests in the U.S.
In the 1980 Oxford-Cambridge race, he was in the Cambridge boat that waged a spectacular come-from-behind effort that nevertheless ended up in a narrow defeat at the hands of the hated Oxonians. In an entirely House-ian move, to this day, Laurie still points to this loss — and not some win — as his strongest memory as a rower.
"I was [rowing in the] number-four [seat] in this particular encounter," Laurie says, "and the result was a loss by Cambridge by a distance of five feet, which is something which I will carry to my grave. In fact, I really shouldn't say this, because I still to this day wouldn't want to give any pleasure or satisfaction to the opposing crew. But yes, it's true — it was a very bitter defeat."
Still, a few months after the disheartening loss to Oxford, the Laurie and Palmer duo competed in the coxless pairs event at the legendary Henley Royal Regatta, becoming the only British crew to make it to a Henley elite final, and finishing second to an American duo.
The hard-to-believe contrast between Laurie's decidedly un-athletic character on House and his real-life athletic success might be easier to understand in light of a very strange story involving both the sport of rowing and his family life. In fact, Hugh had enjoyed considerable success as a young rower before he discovered something important about his father: namely that Ranald had actually been an Olympic gold medalist in the sport, having been, at the age of 33, one half of the coxless pair that was victorious at the 1948 Games in London. In fact, Laurie really did "discover" his father's hidden sporting life, only coming across the medal, stuffed inside an old sock and a cardboard box while poking around in the attic one day. (Indeed, it was a historic Olympic gold medal to have around the house, since it was another 40 years before a British pair would win another one.)
Excerpted from The House that Hugh Laurie Built by Paul Challen. Copyright © 2007 Paul Challen. Excerpted by permission of ECW PRESS.
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Paul Challen is an entertainment and sports writer and the author of several books, including Get Dutch! A Biography of Elmore Leonard and Inside the West Wing. He lives in Ancaster, Ontario.
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Any book written by or including Hugh Laurie is worth reading! Even though I don't really know this man as anything other than an actor, when I watch interviews of him on TV or read about it in magazine's I always get the feeling that their's more to him than meets the eye. I'm sure he's made he's fair share of mistakes 'hint, hint' but he's human. My favorite quote that he said about himself was 'regarding what he would want on his tomb stone', 'Here lies Hugh Laurie. He always cleaned up after himself.'