Columbo's rumpled raincoat. Fonzie's leather jacket. Kojak's lollipop. Every great TV character needs a great prop. So when Hugh Laurie landed the part of Dr. Gregory House the misanthropic M.D. with the gimpy leg and cranky bedside manner on Fox's hit medical drama House the first thing he did was go shopping for a cane. ''I looked all over for the perfect one,'' says the 47-year-old Brit. ''I finally found it in a little shop in London. It was made out of some sort of rare Malaysian wood and had these beautiful ivory rings and a gorgeous horn handle. Very politically incorrect, but it called to me like Excalibur. The minute I saw it, I thought, 'This is the one. This is House's cane.'''
Alas, it wasn't around for long the stick had to be replaced after getting smashed in a closing soundstage gate during shooting of the show's pilot but Laurie is limping along just fine without it. In fact, thanks to his turn as prime time's brainiest healer and biggest heel House enters its third season (premiering Sept. 5 at 8 p.m.) as Fox's highest-rated, most talked-about drama since 24. Last season it grabbed 18.9 million viewers each week and regularly won its Tuesday time slot; this summer, when its reruns have often been administered in two-episode doses, it still pulls in a healthy audience of 10 million. And then there are the industry accolades, including a Golden Globe for Laurie earlier this year and a recent Emmy nomination for Outstanding Drama Series.
After decades of loving morally upstanding TV docs like Kildare and Welby, the audience has fallen for one who pops painkillers like breath mints (his leg, crippled by a blood clot, keeps him in constant agony), hurls slurs at the sick and infirm (''Unfortunately, there's no cure for being a bitch,'' he snaps at one patient), and gleefully infuriates his co-workers at Princeton Plainsboro Teaching Hospital (Robert Sean Leonard plays his bemused best friend; Lisa Edelstein is his beleaguered boss; Omar Epps, Jesse Spencer, and Jennifer Morrison are the three young doctors he handpicked for his staff ). His only redeeming quality, aside from scalpel-sharp wit, is that he's pretty amazing at saving lives. Each week the show sets up a different mystery malady radiation poisoning, Black Plague, uncontrollable laughter which only House is able to diagnose, thanks to his superior powers of deduction and utter disregard for medical ethics. In some ways, House is just like all the other ''procedural'' dramas on TV today the CSIs and Law & Orders only the criminals are diseases and the good guys wear lab coats (except House, who usually sports jeans and a hip T-shirt).
But in one way, House is unlike anything you've seen on broadcast television in aeons. You have to go back to the 1970s, to All in the Family, to find a network series centered on so irresistible a bastard. (And no, Becker didn't count.)