He’s one of the most accomplished television actors of the past decade, appearing in numerous award-winning shows and programs on both sides of the Atlantic, but it’s easy to forget that Hugh Laurie took the long road to become an international star.
After all, he basically got into acting by accident.
The youngest of four children, Laurie was born on June 11, 1959, and grew up in Oxford, England. His parents, Dr. William George “Ran” Laurie and Patricia Laidlaw Laurie, were of Scottish descent. The elder Laurie (1915-1998) was a well-regarded general practitioner and a former rowing champion who represented England at the 1948 Summer Olympics.
Hugh, meanwhile, attended the Dragon School in Oxford during his pre-teen years; he admits today that he was a horrible student who preferred smoking cigarettes and cheating on French vocabulary tests. Laurie then went on to the world-renowned Eton College, where he competed in rowing and also played percussion in the school orchestra. Upon graduation, he moved on to his father’s alma mater, Selwyn College, Cambridge.
Like his dad, Laurie was a gifted rower and therefore felt the pressure to live up to his family name. He studied archaeology and social anthropology while at Selwyn, but was eventually forced to give up rowing after contracting a case of mono.
Shortly thereafter, Laurie fell into the Cambridge Footlights. Founded in 1883, the Footlights are the oldest comedy club at the university and have produced many hilarious talents, including Monty Python members John Cleese, Graham Chapman, and Eric Idle, as well as Jonathan Lynn, creator of Yes, Minister.
While training with the Footlights, Laurie became friends with his future long-time comedy partner, Stephen Fry, and got romantically involved with future Oscar winner Emma Thompson; they remain good friends to this day. Laurie and Thompson were president and vice president of the Footlights, respectively, during their final year at Cambridge (1980-81).
Upon leaving Cambridge, Laurie, along with Fry, found success on a variety of BBC programs, including Blackadder. Co-created by fellow Cambridge alum Ben Elton, Blackadder is a collection of satirical period-piece sitcoms featuring numerous recurring characters, and it gave Fry and Laurie plenty of chances to show off their skills.
Shortly thereafter, the duo got their own sketch comedy show, A Bit of Fry and Laurie, which ran from 1989 to 1995. Widely considered a BBC cult classic, Fry and Laurie’s show helped them reach new heights in the UK, later leading to their hit show Jeeves and Wooster, an adaptation of the famous P.G. Wodehouse stories. Laurie often got chances to show off his musical prowess on TV, as he is a gifted pianist and guitarist who also plays the drums and the saxophone.
However, on the other side of the pond, Laurie was practically an unknown – which made it all the more surprising that he was tabbed for the title role in the medical procedural drama House.
Nearly all of us have seen at least one episode of House, so it’s very difficult to look at the show with fresh eyes, as audiences did back in 2004. Laurie played Dr. Greg House with such precision and perfection from the get-go, enthralling audiences worldwide. In fact, Laurie’s American accent was so convincing during his audition tape that executive producer Bryan Singer had no idea that Laurie wasn’t American until they met in person.
In addition to becoming one of the highest-paid actors on TV, Laurie’s skills finally caught on with an American audience, who only vaguely remembered him from his brief turns in 102 Dalmatians and Stuart Little. The character of Dr. House was so mean-spirited and complex, and critics were consistently impressed with Laurie’s chops. The actor took home two SAG Awards and two Golden Globes for his portrayal of House. And in 2011, Laurie received a Guinness World Record for being the most watched actor on television.
Laurie admitted that the reason he took the role of Dr. House was because of his own father’s profession, once claiming that he felt slightly guilty for earning far more money than his dad ever did by playing a “fake doctor” on TV.
“I had a long-term reverence for medicine because I hero-worshipped my father, a former doctor, and because I admire doctors. I admire study, empiricism, and rational thought,” Laurie remarked.
However, he clarified that his late father would be “appalled” by the character of Dr. House.
“My father was an endlessly polite, generous and soft-spoken man. He was no pushover, but he would never hurt, shock or outrage people just for the hell of it. At the same time, I hope he would be entertained and see that science and logic are like a religion to House. He’d approve of that.”
Since the mammoth success of House, Laurie has pursued his musical career more consistently, recording two full-length blues albums and touring worldwide. He’s also popped up in other acclaimed shows, including a recent, well-received stint on HBO’s Veep, and took home another Golden Globe just a few weeks ago for his appearance on the BBC’s The Night Manager.
Laurie is currently starring on the Hulu original series Chance, playing a pessimistic neuropsychiatrist who is drawn into the dark underbelly of San Francisco while attempting to help an emotionally disturbed patient who suffers from an abusive husband. The intense, suspenseful show is based upon the novel by Kem Nunn – who also co-produces the show – and co-stars Lisa Gay Hamilton and Ethan Suplee.
Laurie remains best friends with Fry, who was best man at his wedding and godfather to his kids. He and Thompson are also close, with Laurie co-starring in Thompson’s universally-praised adaptation of Sense and Sensibility in 1995. Laurie returned the favor in 2001, having his daughter star in the film Wit, in which she played a younger version of Thompson’s character.
In his free time, Laurie loves playing music of all kinds and is a well-known supporter of the Fulham Football Club. He is also a motorcycle enthusiast, having incorporated these elements into the character of House, and has published two crime novels. In addition to his recreational hobbies, Laurie supports several charities and is a notable patron of Save the Children (his sister, Susan, is on the Board of Trustees).
Laurie currently resides in London with his wife of 27 years, Jo; they have three grown children – Charles (age 28), William (age 26), and Rebecca (age 23).