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.
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."