British actor Hugh Laurie greets his upcoming brass star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame with a mixture of terror and awe. He’s no James Stewart, he explains, that epitome of American stardom. The Oxford, England, native hails from a nearly extinct tribe so polite, so well-bred that he apologized for calling six minutes late. And, at 57, the one-time highest paid actor in a television drama — “House” — as well as producer, director, jazz musician, and novelist, could echo his massive fan base and say, “about bloody time” about the Oct. 25 event.
Laurie began performing at university, after mononucleosis ended his ambitions to row for Cambridge and compete in the Olympics, like his father, William George Ranald Laurie. He joined the Cambridge Footlights, meeting (and falling for) Emma Thompson. She introduced him to his partner in comedy, Stephen Fry. Laurie recalls: “We were all so excited to be doing what we were doing with an appropriate level of terror, which accompanies anything that’s worth doing. Everybody around Emma knew she was destined for great things, right from the start she was eerily glamorous, sophisticated, skillful, confident, and smart, which we were still struggling to effect.”
The Cambridge Footlights played the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, winning a week performing in a tiny London theater in front of “what was then the ‘national press,’ five people with clinically extreme dandruff.” In the coming years, Laurie flourished. He collaborated with Fry in the P. G. Wodehouse adaptation “Jeeves and Wooster,” in which he played the good-natured upper-class twit, Bertie Wooster, whom Laurie once described as “thick as a whale omelet.” He memorably appeared in seasons three and four of Rowan Atkinson’s classic “Blackadder” series.
In the latter season, set in the trenches during World War I, Laurie refined the brew of comedy laced with tragedy that has become his calling card.
He explains: “I don’t see it as a turn from comedy to drama. The only two genres that really mean anything are good and bad. Gut-wrenching tragedy or a radio comedy show: it doesn’t matter. What matters is if it’s good, true, inventive, perceptive, committed, and as honest as it could be in the sense of being a true representation of what you think is worthwhile, not anticipating what an audience would like but what you believe in. Life is simultaneously tears to laughter and back again. Laughter is the way we deal with tragedy. Tragedy underlying all, ‘he said rather pretentiously.’”
The epitome of this mix of humor and heartache is Dr. Gregory House, genius diagnostician and pill popper. Laurie became an American TV star, won two Golden Globes, two SAG awards, and earned a ridiculous six Emmy nominations.
“I loved it and will always love it,” Laurie says. “I’m immensely proud of combining a savage realism with this fantastic sense of humor and not because it was trying to juggle two things at once. The jokes were a form of processing and getting at some sort of truth, a device that happened to be entertaining that expressed the way his mind worked. … Many times he felt like a very, very precocious intelligent and potentially destructive 8-year-old.”
While Laurie has many notable film credits (“Stuart Little,” “Sense and Sensibility”), he has shone brightest on TV. Laurie continued his successful streak, playing a senator in the two most recent seasons of “Veep.”
In the TV miniseries “The Night Manager,” he played the world-weary villainous philanthropist Richard Onslow Roper. It was a performance without vanity — if director Susanne Bier aimed the camera one more time on the back of his head it would have been a hair club for men ad.
“I was very aware of it,” says Laurie. “I grumbled every time, but the only thing sadder than a man with a bald spot is a man trying to hide a bald spot.”
Laurie has had his eyes on the project since John le Carre published the novel in 1993. “Back then I was imagining myself as Jonathan Pine. But then the years go by and hair falls out. I have to move up a weight division.”
Next week, Laurie plays forensic neuro-psychiatrist Eldon Chance in “Chance,” Hulu’s Hitchcockian series. “When I first read Kem Nunn’s novel,” he says, “it had overtones of ‘Vertigo’ with the San Francisco setting, this character’s obsession like that of James Stewart, who became Jimmy. Although to me he would be Mr. Stewart, sir. He is absolutely my favorite actor of all time … his elegance and honesty and the decency he projected — I find mesmerizing. He makes the hardest things seem incredibly simple and natural.”
Less simple is Laurie’s reaction to his Hollywood star. “There’s joy and then there’s a strong dose of imposter. As a child you looked at an adult generation of sure-footed confident people who told stories, or climbed mountains, or hit a cricket ball, and you looked at them as titanic figures. As you age you realize the time has come to become an adult — and that leads to strong feelings of Imposter Syndrome. Maybe James Stewart felt that. I doubt it, though.”