Women under 50 generally don't lust after leading men with canes--and neither do television network executives. But British actor Hugh Laurie is about to start his second season upending such TV truisms as an infectious-diseases specialist--whose cleverness is matched only by his astonishing rudeness--on Fox's hit medical drama House, the No. 9 prime-time show among women this year. "Perfection is intensely annoying," says Laurie, who, as if to demonstrate, carries his prop cane in the wrong hand, according to the show's physical-therapist viewers. "Audiences were ready for a character who didn't obey the usual pieties of modern life."
A favorite to win Best Dramatic Actor at the Emmys on Sept. 18, Laurie, 46, is best known in Britain for playing lovable if priggish buffoons on the comic series Blackadder and A Bit of Fry and Laurie. In Dr. Gregory House, Laurie and the show's writers have created TV's unlikeliest new hero. The Vicodin-popping specialist's own pain does little to quell his disdain for patients like a 9-year-old cancer victim ("She's such a brave girl; I want to see how brave she is when she hears she's going to die"). "Another actor would have posed as the mumbly, moody, acceptable antiauthority figure," says Robert Sean Leonard, whose character, oncologist Dr. James Wilson, is House's only real friend on the show. "Hugh plays House as a human being you're surprised to find you want to be around."
Born in Oxford, the son of a doctor, the lanky, blue-eyed Laurie has a knack for delivering rapid-fire diagnostic jargon. "I have a reverence for modern medicine," he says. "I'm a fan. I'm not one of those who says, 'Why can't we just chew willow bark?'" But because his biggest American role had been in 1999's Stuart Little, Laurie had to overcome a few hurdles to snag what has become a career-making part.
After watching hours of casting tapes for the pilot last year, House executive producer Bryan Singer refused to see any more British actors due to their imperfect American accents. "Luckily Bryan had no idea who Hugh was," says the show's creator David Shore, who played Laurie's audition tape, sent from a sandy, Namibian film shoot, for Singer. "Bryan said, 'That's what we want, a terrific American actor.'" Laurie could hardly be more British, having attended the University of Cambridge alongside cinema heavyweight Emma Thompson and preferring for the time being to keep his wife and three school-age children in London.
Producers were also worried as to whether Laurie was--to use a network term for youthful gorgeousness--Foxilicious enough. Laurie arrived on the lot in the spring of 2004 for his final auditions wielding an umbrella as a stand-in cane and wearing a button that said SEXY, given to him by his daughter. At the time, he wore the pin with a wink. "I didn't know House was the lead," Laurie says. "At one point Singer said, 'You do realize this show is kind of about House?'" Now that House has been nominated for five Emmys and Laurie has appeared on the cover of TV Guide as TV'S SEXIEST MAN, the button has been put away. "Nobody expected the outpouring of estrogen," says Shore, "least of all Hugh."