House, a risky, challenging and altogether different kind of medical drama, premiered on November 16, 2004, and turned the genre on its head with a true antihero lead: a doctor who has overt disdain for his patients — and people in general. But thanks to compelling writing and a career-defining performance by British improv-comedy vet Hugh Laurie, the show stayed on the air for eight seasons of abuse (both drug and verbal) and countless diagnoses that were almost never lupus. As House prepares to sign off for good (Monday, May 21 at 8/7c on Fox), TVGuide.com talked to the show's creators and cast about building the Emmy-winning drama from the ground up. This is the first of a two-part series.
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Executive producer Katie Jacobs and her partner Paul Attanasio were coming off the failed medical drama Gideon's Crossing when a new idea struck: make a medical show in the vein of another genre-upending show: CSI.
Katie Jacobs: There was a column in the Sunday New York Times magazine called Diagnosis, written by Lisa Sanders. Basically, it lists a series of incongruous symptoms... and then it took 1,200 words to discover the mystery of what the diagnosis was. It was as simple as that — the notion of a medical mystery with the symptoms as the suspects.
David Shore (creator, executive producer): The networks got all excited about the [medical mystery idea] and there was a little bit of a bidding war. It scared the hell out of me because I'm going, "I'm not sure we have a series yet." Germs don't have motives. People watch mysteries not because of whodunit, but because of "why done it." That's what the show became about: Why do people do the things they do? I spent months and months trying to figure out what that first story would be and who the people would be. I needed this character at the center who's fascinated by the things people do and is looking for logical reasons for everything.
Katie Jacobs: The idea for the character came from [thinking], "What do doctors really say when you leave the room? How do they really talk to each other?" "Everybody lies" comes from the notion of [someone] giving their medical history to the doctor. He says, "How many glasses of wine do you have during the week?" You say two, and he writes four. The other thing that really mattered is that when you go into a hospital, more often than not, they do not know what's wrong with you. They figure out what's wrong by trial and error. It's an uncomfortable place to live, but it's true, and I think people really responded to it.
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David Shore: Sherlock Holmes was a bit of an inspiration. [I wanted] to make the show about somebody who cares more about the puzzle than about the lives, which then led to thinking about what's more important: motives or results? And what matters more: the emotion or the intellect? House is a bit of my alter ego on a certain level. Most of his attitudes toward things are mine. He's a lot smarter than I am and a lot right-er than I am. So he can get away with saying these things. But the things he says tend to be things that I've thought.
Casting the title character, Dr. Gregory House, a pill-popping diagnostician with a pronounced limp, was crucial. Although the producers saw a number of actors, they were instantly drawn to Hugh Laurie, one half of the British comedy duo Fry and Laurie. At the time, his most recent work stateside was as the wholesome, friendly dad in the film Stuart Little. He impressed everyone.
Bryan Singer (director, executive producer): I was very adamant about the show being called House. There was some concern on the part of the network that the show would then become reliant on the actor playing House. And I said to them, "Have you read the script? He's the guy. The show will always be reliant on his character."
Katie Jacobs: We knew that House was handicapped. The idea was that he doesn't want to see patients, but he really doesn't want to be seen by patients. At first, I remember he was in a wheelchair... and for a short while, I imagined that he had a scar like Beauty and the Beast or Phantom of the Opera. It would have been awful. But the cane was the right choice. Once it was a cane, it needed to be someone who could hold the center walking down that hallway. Hugh was the only one.
Bryan Singer: I had seen a lot of foreign actors and I was very concerned that they would have trouble with the dialect, particularly with all the medical terminology. And there wasn't anyone with a strong voice and a magnetic presence. A tape came up, which was this very rough, self-made audition tape that was done in a restroom in Africa by Hugh Laurie, who I had never heard of. He happened to have a lot of razor stubble and the quality of sound was like one of those Bin Laden videos. It was really bad. And yet, something about his voice really appealed to me. There was a smoothness to it and an articulation that I found really could carry this character. I turned to Paul and Katie and I said, "This is what I'm talking about! This is what we need — an American!" And they looked at me and said, "He's British."
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Katie Jacobs: When I put in the tape of Hugh's audition, I saw Bryan Singer get up from behind his desk and walk closer to the TV. And if you're worth your salt as a producer, you don't forget that.
David Shore: Hugh does things I just can't imagine another human being doing. He tells a joke in the darkest scenes and you don't lose any of the depth. He frees me up as a writer to write anything for that character. As long as there is truth behind it, it will work because of him.
Katie Jacobs: What separates Hugh is his ability to tell a joke, yes. That gets you far in terms of forgiveness, but not far enough. What Hugh also has to offer innately, just as an actor, is when the camera is up close, you can see behind his eyes. He can say one thing and still let you know he's deeply wounded.
David Shore: There was hesitation [by the network] about House being addicted to Vicodin, but that hesitation was a good hesitation. It was one of the very few notes they had for us. The note was, "Do it if you want, but if you do it, do it honestly and don't do it as a joke." We never intended to do that. We intended to go with this as a real issue, a real problem, a real dilemma for this character.
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Katie Jacobs: You call him a drug addict, and that's true, but he's popping all that Vicodin because he's in pain. You know he's arrogant and he's the smartest kid in class. He's like a huge adolescent. But the abuse of Vicodin also allows you to know he's vulnerable and breakable.
With Laurie cast in the lead role, the producers set about finding his best friend, James Wilson, his boss, Lisa Cuddy, and the three fellows who would make up House's diagnostic team.
Bryan Singer: Many years ago, I made a short film with an old neighbor of mine, Ethan Hawke. Ethan introduced me to Robert Sean Leonard, and I showed him a rough cut of my little student film. Bobby gave me a check for $1,000 and wrote a letter saying, "Keep doing what you're doing." I never forgot that. When he came up on my casting list, I said, "Bobby can do anything. He has the role." I wouldn't have cast him if I didn't know he was brilliant, but literally the moment he came across my desk, I said, "He's going to be Wilson and that's just that."
Jennifer Morrison (Dr. Allison Cameron): The day of my meeting, it was raining in L.A. It was a mess outside, and I didn't have an umbrella. I kept thinking I just needed to get in there and clean myself up and go in and do it. I walked in, and Bryan Singer was sitting in the lobby. There was no chance to ever put myself together, so I walked in like a drowned rat.
Bryan Singer: Since I basically gave the network only one choice for the Wilson role, the network said, "Bryan, we'd really like to get a few choices just so we can be part of the process. So for [Cameron] I sent them reference tapes from three girls. One I don't remember and there were two others. One was a blond girl and the other was a brunette. And both were Jennifer Morrison. This just makes me seem like an idiot, but I didn't know that. They said to me, "Bryan, we didn't appreciate your joke." I said, "What do you mean?" They said, "You sent us two of Jennifer Morrison." And I said, "Well, she must be perfect for it."
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Jennifer Morrison: I didn't hear back quickly, so I was like, "Oh shoot, I guess it didn't go well." And I was kind of bummed about it. I had these other test offers, but I felt like this was the one that would have been really special. But I guess it turns out my only competition was myself with blonde hair.
Bryan Singer: I found [Cameron] to be in Jennifer's personality. She's someone who is beautiful but doesn't want that to be their identity. ... I saw her as a character who had some holes. There was loss in her life and no matter how much abuse House could dish out, in some strange, parental way, he was filling the void that the character had at that time in her life.
Jennifer Morrison: She's someone who's drawn to talent and to passion, so House's rough exterior was never really a problem for her. She was seeing that he was saving lives, that he was passionate about saving lives, that he was an incredible talent, and those were the things that were attractive to her. Those were the things that turned her on in life.
Bryan Singer: I thought Jesse Spencer was a nice pairing with Jennifer, both physically and his energy. Jesse had a certain kind of confidence. He carried his looks more comfortably than Jennifer. I always looked at the two young doctors as a team. It was a lot like casting Usual Suspects for me. When I cast Benicio Del Toro and Stephen Baldwin, they were like a team in my mind. It was the same thing here. These were the two young doctors, and they had to kind of jive with each other.
Omar Epps (Dr. Eric Foreman): Foreman really has conviction in what he believes. Foreman and House are alike in some ways, but House is probably a bit more jaded. In Foreman seeing their similarities, he realized what he doesn't want to be like.
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Bryan Singer: Omar's got great eyes, and I knew he'd be rolling those eyes in every episode for the first season. Omar Epps is the kind of cool that House can't be. Foreman, to me, was formidable. Everyone else [House] can abuse. Foreman is your formidable opponent.
David Shore: Right from Day 1, there was that sexual tension between [House and Cuddy]. It was just the way those two actors played it. Even if I had tried to not do it, it was going to be there and I enjoyed it.
Bryan Singer: I cast Lisa Edelstein because I saw her play the hooker in the pilot of The West Wing and I thought she was fantastic. I saw her as the hottest hooker in Washington, D.C., but [then-Fox Entertainment President] Gail Berman knew her from Ally McBeal, where she played a transgendered woman. She was like, "I think she looks like a man," and I said, "No. She's hot." Clearly it was a matter of perception. But when I screened the pilot at my friend's bachelor party before it was aired, all my buddies in Jersey were like, "Yeah, she's hot." I made the right choice. (Edelstein declined to speak with TVGuide.com for this story.)
The pilot episode was shot in Vancouver, and Fox put the show on its schedule in the fall of 2004, opting to premiere it in November after the World Series ended.
Hugh Laurie (Dr. Gregory House): I thought the pilot was good. I thought this was a good and interesting story with good and interesting characters. That didn't mean that anyone was going to watch it. That was a big surprise.
Robert Season Leonard (Dr. James Wilson): I remember watching the pilot and showing it to my wife and thinking, "Wow, this is really good. I would watch this. So it's never going to run, because everything I like gets canceled." I liked My So-Called Life. So I was surprised when it ran. It was a tight race for a long time. We didn't have great numbers, but the show has always been good. And then they put us after American Idol.
David Shore: It brought an audience to the show that stuck around, and I am obviously grateful for that. It gave people a chance to sample the show. They sampled it, and they liked it, and that was wonderful.
Katie Jacobs: If you have an audience, and you're growing, you no longer have to think about fighting for your show. Then it's a privilege to sort of use your imagination as to where it could go.
In Part 2: Breaking the formula and blowing up the team, the era of House and Cuddy, and the strength of the House-Wilson bromance, all the way to the end.