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.
This story first appeared in the October 25, 2016 issue of Variety. Subscribe today.
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.’”