WebMD the Magazine, January 2007

Hugh Laurie Makes a House Call

The actor plays the ornery Dr. Gregory House on TV but says he respects physicians -- especially his well-mannered doctor dad.
By Denise Mann

WebMD the Magazine -- Feature Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario, MD


One thing is sure: Hugh Laurie, the star of Fox's hit medical drama House, does not suffer from "white coat hypertension," the well-documented phenomenon in which blood pressure increases in the presence of a doctor. If anything, this six-foot-plus Golden Globe winner experiences the opposite reaction. "I find white coats rather saintly in some ways," he says smoothly. In fact, "I have a reverence for the practice of medicine -- I'm a great believer in Western medicine and all its wonders."

Reverent? Dr. Gregory House? The ornery yet masterful infectious disease specialist, who never met a hospital rule he didn't like to break? Make no mistake: Hugh Laurie and the good doctor -- a character the actor has portrayed for the past three seasons and who has taught him a thing or two about the practice of medicine -- are not one and the same, even if Laurie is supremely comfortable assuming his persona.

The son of a general practitioner in the United Kingdom, Laurie once considered becoming a doctor, as opposed to just playing one on TV. "There are regrets," the 47-year-old admits. "I didn't have the gift for science that perhaps I needed to be a doctor, and I certainly did not have the appetite for hard work that I knew was needed."

Doctor's Notes

So what, exactly, has Laurie learned during his tenure as House? "There are no clear and immediate answers to medical problems," he answers. "The average lay patient assumes or hopes that as soon as he walks into a clinic, his condition will immediately become [clear] and the course of treatment will be immediately apparent." Of course this isn't the case in reel -- or real -- life. "A lot of times, doctors are groping with conflicting therapies and things that work -- and don't work -- and they really have to improvise," he muses.

But that's not all he's absorbed. "Eat more green vegetables," the actor quips, brandishing a bit of House's trademark sarcasm.

Talking American

Americans may be surprised to learn that Laurie, best known to his British fans as the comic star of such hits as A Bit of Fry and Laurie, Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, finds it difficult to speak with the doctor's accent. "It is immensely hard to speak American," he says. "I have to struggle and check myself every day, every scene, and every sentence. It's almost as if I am speaking another language, and mentally, it's very draining."

Saying "coronary artery" is especially tricky, he tells WebMD. "My heart sinks every time I see a scene with those two words in it."

Like House, Laurie is cynical about alternative medicine. "I am very skeptical, and that has got a lot to do with my reverence for my father and for his belief in the rational, logical, and empirical," he says. "I don't find herbs, acupuncture, and the mysteries of the East all that enticing ... I've gone to an acupuncturist and put drops of herbal remedies in my bath and done all that sort of stuff," he says, adding that "there is no clear benefit that I can see."

Boorish Behavior?

While his father died before Laurie began working on House, "I think he would enjoy elements of it and would be appalled, in some ways, by House's boorish behavior. My father was a gentle, well-mannered, and considerate man and would have gone to great lengths to make patients feel at ease and content. At the same time, he would admire Dr. House's ruthless pursuit of the correct diagnosis."

Would Laurie be happy under House's care? "It would depend on the severity of the complaint," he says. "For an ingrown toenail, I wouldn't see House. But for a life-threatening condition, I'd want the best."

And he's not alone. A recent TV Guide poll showed that 36% of respondents named House as the television doctor they would most want by their gurney in an emergency.

House's fictitious patients, however, don't always have the kindest words to say about him. Part of the maverick doctor's cantankerous nature is because his leg is in constant pain. As House, Laurie walks with a limp, carries a cane, and has developed an addiction to painkillers.

Depending on whom you ask, the actor does share some personality traits with his television character. "A couple of people close to me think that I can be acerbic and impatient at times, but I think of myself as a little ray of sunshine," he says, deadpan.

Jekyll and House

Katie Jacobs, the Los Angeles-based executive producer of House, sees some similarities and some differences between Laurie and his television alter ego.

"He is incredibly smart and quick and funny the way that House is," she says.

Laurie, however, is very polite. "House has no censor, and Hugh has a censor to the nth degree. But, like House, he really does know very quickly who is not doing their job right and how we can be doing it better."

Also like House, Laurie is relentless. "He drives himself and wants to get everything right, and House is similar in that even if a patient is dead, he still needs to figure out the diagnosis and put the puzzle together."

"I certainly don't have his psychopathic disregard for social niceties," Laurie says with a laugh. "If anything, I'm rather oppressed by social niceties and go to great lengths to fit in and say the right thing."

An Apple a Day

Working 15 to 16 hours a day leaves little time for anything else. "I go to work early, get back late at night, and watch an episode of Law & Order," he says of his typical day.

Factor in a few transcontinental flights from Los Angeles to visit his wife of 17 years, Jo Green, and their three children in London, and the result is one exhausted actor. "The trip seems to get longer," he says. "I used to look forward to a couple of movies; now as soon as I get on the plane I get impatient. It is a feral distance."

He does manage to carve out time to work out. Recently Laurie has taken up boxing and spars with -- or gets pummeled by -- an instructor once or twice a week. "It's good for the soul," Laurie says.

It's also good for the heart, says Lewis G. Maharam, MD, a New York City-based sports medicine expert. "Boxing trains the heart [a muscle] and the body to become more efficient and toned."

Low Boredom Threshold

For a while, Laurie was also an avid jogger. "It's incredibly tedious," he says. "I know it has benefits, and feel bad when I don't do it, but I don't feel that great when I do it!"

In addition to being a physician, Laurie's father won an Olympic medal for rowing in 1948. Laurie did follow in his dad's footsteps for a while. "I never found it to be that pleasant an occupation unless you're competing at the highest possible level," he says. "It's all or nothing." He rowed while attending Eton, was a member of the England Youth Team in 1977, and competed in several prestigious races.

Being the son of an outstanding oarsman, "there was pressure, but it was self-imposed," he says. "[My father] certainly never pushed me toward it or goaded me to competitiveness. He was good at [rowing], and I wanted to emulate him in all sorts of ways. Of course I failed him in all sorts of ways -- athleticism being one of them."

Laurie tries to instill a love of sport in his own sons, Charlie and Bill, and his daughter, Rebecca. "I try and console my children when they have not been successful, and I am thrilled when they are," he says. "They have no competitive ethos in them." Laurie is, however, a vocal supporter from the sidelines when his son is playing rugby. "But I have never gotten to a point where I have threatened a referee."

A motorcycle enthusiast, Laurie says he's "been riding with my kids on the grass since they were young. Motorcycling is a delight, and if they ever do it on the road, I would obviously want them to have as much experience as possible."

Easy to Quit

There are a few of his habits he does not want his offspring to emulate -- like smoking. "I keep meaning to stop," he says. "Who doesn't?"

The problem? Quitting is too easy. "I found stopping to be not that hard, which made it hard," he says. Offering up a House-like rationale, Laurie adds, "Quitting is not so bad, so I can do it anytime and there is less incentive to stick with it."

It's more than likely a colleague would call House on this, saying, "I think your argument is specious." And House, with his trademark charm, would no doubt reply: "Yeah? Well, I think your tie is ugly."

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