Profile: Hugh Laurie

AHEAD of a concert last week to promote his debut album, Let Them Talk, Hugh Laurie issued a wryly worded news release. "I was not born in Alabama in the 1890s. I've never eaten grits, cropped a share or ridden boxcar," he wrote. "No gypsy woman said anything to my mother when I was born and there's no hellhound on my trail, as far as I can judge. Let the record show that I am a white, middle-class Englishman, openly trespassing on the music and myth of the American south.

Laurie might be the highest-paid television actor in Hollywood, an accomplished musician and an acclaimed novelist, but the 51-year-old admits that he goes through life expecting the worst. His blues album features 15 of the genre's greatest tracks and a talented band of session musicians, yet Laurie is braced for a mauling by the critics. "I'm in for a kicking, I know I am," he says.

Among some entertainers, such comments could be dismissed as false modesty. But Laurie's self-doubt is legendary. He has gone from being one half of the successful double-act Fry and Laurie, with lifelong friend Stephen Fry, to global superstardom as the misanthropic and brilliant diagnostician Dr Gregory House, in one of the most-watched drama series in the world. House - for which he earns $400,000 an episode - has brought Laurie untold wealth and unwanted fame. It hasn't brought him happiness. "I am always faintly suspicious of happy people," he once said. "I always think there is something going wrong or missing somewhere."

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Since arriving in Los Angeles seven years ago, Laurie has worked hard for his global stardom. For up to ten months a year he puts in 15-hour days on the set of House, where he is the lead actor and an executive producer. The success of the show, in which he plays an irascible character with few if any redeeming qualities, took Laurie by surprise. For the first eight months he lived out of a suitcase in the Chateau Marmont hotel in Hollywood, fully expecting the fledging medical drama to be cancelled. "I was so convinced the whole thing was going to fail, I couldn't contemplate committing to any long-term arrangement. I thought a hotel was a safe bet," he said.

When the show took off, the actor soon learned the perils of celebrity in the social media age. A trip to the supermarket ended with someone photographing his groceries and posting the picture online. Now he drives a car with tinted windows and is guarded about what he says in public in case someone quotes him on Twitter.

It is a lonely existence, exacerbated by the fact that his wife Jo, a theatre administrator, spends much of her time at the family home in north London. As an outlet, Laurie sees a therapist, which he says is practically compulsory in LA.

Having suffered from depression in his 20s, Laurie is an old hand at therapy and says he finds it helps him deal with the ever-present stress. James Hugh Calum Laurie was born in Oxford, the youngest of four children. His father William was a real-life doctor and an Olympic gold medal-winning oarsman with Scottish ancestry. Laurie has commented on the irony that he is paid around ten times as much as his father was for pretending to be a doctor. His mother Patricia suffered from mood swings and she and her youngest son had a fraught relationship. "I got the feeling that she didn't like me very much," he once said. She died when he was 29 and his father ten years later.

Laurie went to Eton, where he became house captain, and then to Cambridge to study social anthropology. Early on he sought to emulate his father's sporting prowess by joining the rowing team and became a Cambridge Blue. But it was the Footlights Club that shaped his university life and career. There he went out with Emma Thompson who introduced him to Stephen Fry. The troupe took their revue show to the Edinburgh Fringe, where they won the first Perrier comedy award.

After graduating, Laurie, Fry and Thompson were among the Footlights members who decamped to London to become stalwarts of the British film and television world. Laurie and Fry collaborated on Blackadder, A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and an adaptation of Jeeves And Wooster. Laurie developed a sterling reputation for playing upper-class buffoons. He also wrote a thriller, The Gun Seller, which was published in 30 languages and became a bestseller in France.

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Although he enjoyed a moderate level of fame in Britain, Laurie was unknown to television executives in the US. He auditioned for the role of House in the bathroom of a Namibian hotel where he was filming, using an American accent. It wasn't until he arrived in Los Angeles that producers realised he was English.

He has spoken about feeling overwhelmed in the early seasons of House and there have been reports of his intensity and perfectionism causing tension on set.

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Even after winning two Golden Globes and being a five-time Emmy nominee, Laurie couldn't relax. But the complex character of House, a rare anti-hero on American prime time, stopped him from jumping on a flight back to London. Laurie's pitch-perfect portrayal of the acerbic doctor has not only won him acting plaudits but turned him into an international sex symbol. On one promotional trip to Spain, he needed bodyguards to keep squealing female fans at bay.

After a rocky start, Laurie has adapted to Los Angeles better than one might expect for a fiercely private and slightly paranoid Brit. He has spoken of the joy of riding his motorbike to work as the sun rises over the city. He joined Band from TV, a group of television actors who play gigs to raise money for charity. Recently he hinted that after House finishes, which could be as soon as next year, he might stay in California."I can certainly imagine it in a way I couldn't have done before," he said. "It held no appeal for me before, but I do have an affection for the place now."

• Let Them Talk is released on 9 May. Hugh Laurie will appear at the Cheltenham Jazz Festival on 2 May

Facts of life

• Laurie submitted his novel, The Gun Seller, under a pseudonym because he didn't want publishers to be influenced by his celebrity when they read the manuscript. If he had got his way, it would have been published under a pseudonym too.

• Despite his friend Stephen Fry's mastery of Twitter, Laurie doesn't get the micro-blogging site. "As I look around my friends' tweets, I see banality on all sides. I don't understand the purpose of it," he said.

• Laurie has appeared in two music videos - Kate Bush's 1986 single, Experiment IV, and Walking On Broken Glass by Annie Lennox in 1992.

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• On the set of House, Laurie uses his American accent between takes, but reverted to his English accent when he directed an episode last season.

• Laurie was cast as Perry White, editor of the Daily Planet, in Superman Returns, but had to stand down because of his commitment to House.