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The sour can be sweet

Special to The Times

On a recent Tuesday night, viewers of Fox’s hit medical mystery drama “House” saw the cranky, Vicodin-popping doctor -- whose diagnostic ingenuity is matched only by his breathtaking rudeness -- as visibly unnerved as he’s been all season long. It wasn’t a convulsing patient or his bad leg rattling him. He was being thanked by a staff member for agreeing to shill for an overpriced new drug in exchange for not having to fire her or any of his staff. Horror of horrors, House had to endure someone’s gratitude.

For Hugh Laurie, the British actor whose richly sour performance as infectious-disease specialist Dr. Gregory House has turned him into television’s favorite mood-killing lifesaver, it’s his character’s wariness of sentiment that he most admires. “Quite a lot of people would like to be free of the anxiety of what the rest of the world thinks,” the 6-foot-2 actor said recently over coffee in West Hollywood, on one of his rare off-times from the world of 16-hour shooting days. “I wish I could. He would be happy for a good deed to go unnoticed, and that kind of self-sufficiency is a rare thing in this age, a heroic quality.”

Television heroes have rarely come more misanthropic, though, than House, and certainly in the lives-on-the-line hospital genre, where the most important surgical procedure is usually the warming of a viewer’s cockles. House, meanwhile, is on the trail of killer diseases that, combined with life’s messiness, become biological puzzles, so he can’t help but eye any patient -- when forced to actually be in the same room with one -- the way a cop sees a perp: “Everybody lies” is House’s deductive mantra regarding the personal information patients give. In his opinion it leaves little room for a nice bedside manner. For a show that has already done enough to jolt medical dramas out of their touchy-feely trappings, the April 12 episode saw House physically withhold a politician’s breathing apparatus until he got the crucial truth about a childhood illness he needed to save the guy’s life.

“Sometimes House is utterly appalling and should be put in jail,” says Laurie, an admitted fan of pop culture rule-breakers like Dirty Harry. “But other times he’s sort of endearing. As long as we travel both sides of the line, that’s as good as treading the line.” “House” also proves that there’s room on television for unsympathetic grouches who don’t beg for adoration. It debuted in November to tepid ratings, but when “American Idol” started up -- with TV’s other unrepentant truth-teller Simon Cowell -- “House” jumped into the top 10 and is now Tuesday’s No. 1 drama, with the kind of viewer retention that indicates it is a genuine hit beyond its hugely popular lead-in. Tuesday’s show had 17.4 million viewers overall, and Fox will now push heavily for Laurie to win an Emmy.

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But bring up to Laurie topics like great ratings, and a deep-set, almost House-ian suspicion rises to the surface. “They’re just numbers on a page to me,” says Laurie. “I never get outside of [the set] to actually find out if anybody is watching the show.” OK, but what about the teenage girl who shouted excitedly, “Dr. House kicks [butt]!” during the interview with a reporter, visual and verbal proof of fan love? “She could be a plant,” he says, a conspiratorial glance coming from his hypnotically large blue eyes. “Like ‘The Truman Show.’ ”

One bit of worry the 45-year-old Laurie was right about is that when he sent an audition tape of himself to the producers, his 20 years as an icon of English comedy did him no favors. Between his goofy, thick-headed Prince George in the historical sitcom satire “Black- adder” and his pitch-perfect rendition of author P.G. Wodehouse’s amiably twitty Bertie Wooster in the “Jeeves and Wooster” series, Laurie was synonymous with comic buffoonery for anyone familiar with his past. The pilot episode’s director, Bryan Singer, wasn’t, but creator David Shore, born in Canada -- where British TV is prevalent -- was. “It’s as if someone had said, ‘What about Barry Bonds for this part?’ ” recalls Shore. “I’d go, ‘Yeah, fantastic baseball player. Why would you think he could do this?’ Then Hugh redefined for me what was good in the role.”

‘Reason is his religion’

What Laurie grasped was the cool-headed romanticism in being a quippy maverick who may not be happy but thrives on knowledge. “We live in an age where we place emotion above reason, perhaps too often,” says Laurie, who likes that the show is pro-science in a contentious time for medicine. “Reason is his religion. The show embraces logic.”

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But he also understood that House’s insult-laden people skills -- nearly unparalleled in an American TV series protagonist -- would have the right savagely witty bite as long as it had focus and wasn’t simply attitude. A few weeks ago at Fox’s Century City studios, Laurie could be found defending his character against random cantankerousness. The scene called for House to witheringly contradict his oncologist colleague and diplomatic sounding board Dr. James Wilson (played by Robert Sean Leonard) over a snap diagnosis. Between takes, Laurie questioned the viability of a retort, his long, stubbly face looking as if a migraine had set in when he couldn’t articulate his concern. After the scene wrapped and during a break in filming, the words came: He thought the line was the equivalent of a smart-alecky “Duh!” tone that he and the writers have worked hard to avoid.

“Every other show does that,” Laurie said. “We should set ourselves apart. House can be mean, but his causticity is not a default setting.”

Laurie’s father was a doctor in Oxford, where Laurie was born, and though he says Dad was the “kindest, gentlest” of general practitioners and would have found House’s acerbic nature “utterly alien,” he believes he would have enjoyed the show. “Even he could come back at the end of a long day wound up by some patient.”

It’s hard not to look at Laurie’s performance, then, as part homage to a man who entered medical school at age 40, after World War II ended and he had served 16 years in the Sudan as a colonial district commissioner for the British government. “It’s unthinkable now, but there were so many instances after the war of people who beat Rommel in North Africa and then went back to sell insurance or completely retrain and have whole new lives.”

Laurie’s father was also an Olympic gold medalist in rowing, and his adoring youngest son fully intended to become an oarsman himself at Cambridge, but illness sidelined him. Instead, the young man who had always made people laugh joined the college’s famed comedy club the Footlights, whose alumni include Peter Cook and John Cleese. Laurie became president and with classmates Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry created a popular touring revue show.

Fry, who has been Laurie’s best friend ever since, says Laurie was a natural performer. “He had a wonderfully grave presence,” Fry said by phone recently. “In terms of comedy, he had this miraculous ability to wander onstage ... as if it were all a terrible mistake and he belonged somewhere else.”

Laurie recalls that after one show on the south coast of England, the booker came to the dressing room afterward as everyone was removing their costumes. “He said, ‘That was great! Shall we say 15 minutes?’ We went, ‘For what?’ He said, ‘The second half.’ ”

Laurie, who rarely exhibits self-satisfaction, is now quite proud of the frantic cobbling together of half-remembered sketches and half-forgotten songs in hardly any time.

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Nevertheless, Laurie doesn’t attribute his storied career in entertainment to ambition. He won’t even admit to choosing show business as a profession. When his Cambridge group won the very first Perrier Comedy Award at the prestigious Edinburgh Festival -- “now it’s absolutely huge, a very desired thing,” he says -- Laurie garnered the attention of an agent who “turned up in a Rolls-Royce and with a big cigar and said, ‘Do you want to do this for a living?’ I said, ‘Yeah, for the next month.’ Here I am 25 years later. It’s bizarre.”

According to Fry, Laurie’s English modesty is extreme. “He’s absolutely brilliant but also painfully self-critical,” says Fry, who then ticks off his friend’s gifts: athletic prowess, command of several musical instruments and “laser-like” attention to logic and detail when the pair wrote their popular U.K. sketch series “A Bit of Fry and Laurie.” “I don’t think I’ve ever heard him say that he’s pleased with anything he’s done, except things to him that really matter, like friendships, parenthood, love. He’s just a remarkable man to have as a friend, the wisest I have ever known.”

Now that an American show eats up a good portion of Laurie’s time, though, being away from his family -- wife Jo and children Charlie, 16; Bill, 14; and Rebecca, 11 -- is an obvious strain. (“My eldest son was one size when I left, and he’s probably a cabinet minister now,” he jokes.) They’ve visited L.A. a few times, and when he gets the occasional break he flies back to England, but contact is mostly morning phone calls from his West Hollywood apartment, a quick burst of native-accented chat before he has to reacclimatize to American-speak. In fact, talk to Laurie on a weekend and he’s British, but on set he’s an all-day Yank just to stay in the zone. His accent, or lack of one, has been widely praised -- he initially nailed it as the dad in the “Stuart Little” movies -- but it’s the hardest part of his job. “The problem is one part of the brain is doing it, and the other part is listening all the time,” he says. “Something like ‘coronary artery’ gives me a nosebleed. I have to lie down in a dark room for about 20 minutes.”

The “dark room” has a metaphorical reality for Laurie, who has had a long bout with depression. “I feel it’s over my shoulder, ever present, but I have more good days than bad,” says Laurie, who indicates that his fouler dispositions stem from a perceived inability to play House exactly the way he hears and envisions him. “It’s very tiresome for everyone else,” he adds, and while he says it doesn’t inform his portrayal of an obviously damaged Sherlock Holmes-ian loner, Laurie’s on-screen Watson believes it does, and rightly so.

“You don’t play a character like that with any kind of success unless you have some deep waters,” says Leonard. “A happy person acting unhappy is unbearable to watch. He’s not misery on the set, he’s actually very quiet and easygoing. But it’s that Peter Cook thing, misery turned into brilliance.”

But Laurie has a big cure-all in his black Triumph Bonneville motorcycle, a replica of the ‘60s British model, which makes the only hours outside of working and sleeping -- a trafficless, wind-swept commute -- feel something like freedom. “I couldn’t live without it. It’s an exhilarating, sensual thing,” he says.

It won’t be going to Australia, though. Laurie was set to play Perry White in Bryan Singer’s “Superman Returns” movie shooting Down Under, but his “House” schedule -- with a second season filming earlier than usual so Fox can kick it off in August -- put the kibosh on that. “That was a disappointment,” he says. “That movie will just be huge ... but it’s great that we have a second season too.”

We will soon meet House’s long-hinted-at ex when Sela Ward joins “House” for the last two shows of this season and probably more next year. Will she help explain House? Laurie hopes not, certainly no more so than the character’s chronic leg pain or love of soap operas and monster truck rallies do.

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Even if he loves the irritable misfit who’s taken over his life, Laurie can’t help but feel tricked. “It begins with two [audition] pages, and ‘Oh, that’s nice, I think I’ll have a little more.’ Then you do a pilot and you think, ‘These two weeks will be great, working with Bryan Singer.’ Then it’s, ‘We think we’re going to do six now.’ ‘Wow, six?’ Then six became 13 episodes pretty quickly, then another five, then another four after, then whack! Twenty-two. Now it’s ‘Oh, my God, I’m a heroin addict and didn’t even realize it!’ ”


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