After eight seasons and 177 episodes, House ends with an outbreak of poignant goodbyes. In the emotional run-up to the series finale — the episode, titled "Everybody Dies," airs May 21 at 9pm on Fox — each shooting day brought cheers, standing Os and misty-eyed send-offs. "A succession of daily memorial services, it was," as Hugh Laurie puts it. "Someone would yell, 'Hey, everybody, this is Omar Epps' last scene!' 'This is Jesse Spencer's last scene!' 'This is B camera operator's last scene.' The art director's. The sound technician's. It became hard to process all the finality."
It's amusing to imagine Dr. Gregory House himself in a situation like that. TV's greatest medical grump was never a group-hug kinda guy, and it's hard to picture House sweetly switching off the lights at Princeton-Plainsboro Hospital the way, say, Sam Malone did at the end of Cheers. Then again, TV has never known a character quite like House — charming yet sadistic, brilliant yet impossible and somehow a sex symbol even with the limp, the unshaven mug and the pockets full of Vicodin.
Laurie was an equally unlikely prime-time star. When he landed the role in 2004, he was a 45-year-old British actor known mostly for BBC sketch comedies and playing the dad in the Stuart Little children's movies. "I was perfectly content being a gypsy actor, or at least I thought I was," Laurie says. He soon found greater meaning barking out medical advice and insults with pitch-perfect American snark. (Colleague to House: "You're late." House to colleague. "You're fat.")
Ever the English gent behind the scenes, Laurie leaves the series like a rock star and, in fact, is spending his summer playing piano on tour with Copper Bottom, the actor's acclaimed blues and jazz band (he has no definite plans beyond that). TV Guide Magazine reported Laurie's final-season salary as $700,000 per episode, and he's been generously dispensing thank-you gifts, including replica House canes for everyone on the cast and crew. On the last day of filming, Laurie chartered a private jet — "like the one Led Zeppelin used," he laughs — and flew the production to an undisclosed location 26 minutes outside L.A. for the final shoot. "The flight attendant gave me control of the microphone so I could bid everyone farewell," Laurie says. "Then, frankly, there was more man-hugging than you want to know about."
What fans most want to know about is how House will end. The finale welcomes back some familiar faces, including Jennifer Morrison as Cameron, Olivia Wilde as Thirteen, Amber Tamblyn as Masters and Kal Penn as Kutner — as in the Kutner who killed himself in Season 5. "We want a concluding episode that feels like a summation in some sense, something that takes an overview," says David Shore, who created House in the image of his own lovably cranky self. "The ending is very personal to me, but it's tough to make a good series finale. They've failed more than they've succeeded. I hope people are satisfied, but the show has to end either way."
The truth is, it's ending right on time. House's ratings, which peaked in Season 3, have been on a slow, quiet slide (the show finished in 42nd place last season). Plus, only so many more patients can develop mysterious nosebleeds as House's medical team frets over chickpea allergies or possible Lupus (why is it always possible Lupus?). As Epps, who played Dr. Eric Foreman for eight seasons, says, "I've been thrown up on so many times I can't remember. I've seen all kinds of organs explode, all kinds of human ooze coming out of who knows where. Now if I'm out in a restaurant and someone goes, 'Is there a doctor here?' I basically try to hide." That's not always easy. Peter Jacobson, who's played Dr. Chris Taub since Season 4, says, "There was a guy at an airport recently who asked me to look at his wife's arm to diagnose something. People often joke, but I realized he was dead serious."
Who wouldn't want doctors like them, and especially like House, a no-B.S. diagnostician who solves every medical riddle in 43 minutes? Even Laurie worships the guy. "I spend my entire life apologizing, and House never does," he says. "It's been incredibly liberating playing him. He can be horrible, he can be jagged and awkward, but the character has a confidence in his abilities and opinions, and sometimes that's all you need."
Shore still remembers dreaming up House. "I wanted an anti-Marcus Welby," he says. "A guy who calls idiots idiots to their faces, and with a bit of Sherlock Holmes thrown in." Along the way were challenges, like maintaining the show's high standards. "That's what kept us honest," Shore says. "It never got easy. Putting House in an institution. That was difficult. Putting him in a relationship. Whoa! Throwing his entire original team out. That was dumb commercially, but it felt like an opportunity. We kept creating situations that asked, 'How is House going to react?'"
What's funny is how little House changed over the years. "You look at the pilot episode and it's all right there," says Robert Sean Leonard, whose Dr. James Wilson is the only true friend House ever had. "House wasn't delighting people in the beginning, and he's not doing it in the end. It's a weird formula for success, but we ended up liking House because House didn't need to be liked by anyone."
For more about the House series finale, pick up this week's issue of TV Guide Magazine, on newsstands Thursday, May 17!