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.

Medically Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on December 18, 2006
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One thing is sure: Hugh Laurie, the star of Fox's hit medical dramaHouse, does not suffer from "white coat hypertension," thewell-documented phenomenon in which blood pressure increases in the presence ofa doctor. If anything, this six-foot-plus Golden Globe winner experiences theopposite reaction. "I find white coats rather saintly in some ways," hesays 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 diseasespecialist, who never met a hospital rule he didn't like to break? Make nomistake: Hugh Laurie and the good doctor -- a character the actor has portrayedfor the past three seasons and who has taught him a thing or two about thepractice of medicine -- are not one and the same, even if Laurie is supremelycomfortable assuming his persona.

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

Doctor's Notes

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

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

Talking American

Americans may be surprised to learn that Laurie, best known to his Britishfans as the comic star of such hits as A Bit of Fry and Laurie,Blackadder and Jeeves and Wooster, finds it difficult tospeak with the doctor's accent. "It is immensely hard to speakAmerican," he says. "I have to struggle and check myself every day,every scene, and every sentence. It's almost as if I am speaking anotherlanguage, 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 init."

Like House, Laurie is cynical about alternative medicine. "I am veryskeptical, and that has got a lot to do with my reverence for my father and forhis belief in the rational, logical, and empirical," he says. "I don'tfind 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 anddone all that sort of stuff," he says, adding that "there is no clearbenefit that I can see."

Boorish Behavior?

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

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

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

House's fictitious patients, however, don't always have the kindest words tosay about him. Part of the maverick doctor's cantankerous nature is because hisleg 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 withhis television character. "A couple of people close to me think that I canbe acerbic and impatient at times, but I think of myself as a little ray ofsunshine," 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 televisionalter 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 acensor to the nth degree. But, like House, he really does know very quickly whois not doing their job right and how we can be doing it better."

Also like House, Laurie is relentless. "He drives himself and wants toget 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 puzzletogether."

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

An Apple a Day

Working 15 to 16 hours a day leaves little time for anything else. "I goto 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 wifeof 17 years, Jo Green, and their three children in London, and the result isone exhausted actor. "The trip seems to get longer," he says. "Iused to look forward to a couple of movies; now as soon as I get on the plane Iget impatient. It is a feral distance."

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

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

Low Boredom Threshold

For a while, Laurie was also an avid jogger. "It's incrediblytedious," he says. "I know it has benefits, and feel bad when I don'tdo 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 forrowing in 1948. Laurie did follow in his dad's footsteps for a while. "Inever found it to be that pleasant an occupation unless you're competing at thehighest possible level," he says. "It's all or nothing." He rowedwhile attending Eton, was a member of the England Youth Team in 1977, andcompeted in several prestigious races.

Being the son of an outstanding oarsman, "there was pressure, but it wasself-imposed," he says. "[My father] certainly never pushed me towardit or goaded me to competitiveness. He was good at [rowing], and I wanted toemulate 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 havenot been successful, and I am thrilled when they are," he says. "Theyhave no competitive ethos in them." Laurie is, however, a vocal supporterfrom the sidelines when his son is playing rugby. "But I have never gottento a point where I have threatened a referee."

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

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. "Whodoesn't?"

The problem? Quitting is too easy. "I found stopping to be not thathard, 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 isless incentive to stick with it."

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

Published January 2007.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Hugh Laurie, actor, Los Angeles. Katie Jacobs, House executive producer, Los Angeles. Lewis G. Maharam, MD, sports medicine expert, New York.

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