Typecast as a featherbrained Englishman, Hugh was best known for his contribution to cult comedy series Blackadder and as the bumbling Wooster to Stephen Fry's Jeeves. Until, that is, he became Hollywood's newest heart-throb and TV's dishiest doctor.
He was born on June 11, 1959, the youngest son of general practitioner William and his wife Patricia, both of Scottish descent. Growing up in Oxford alongside his brother and two sisters, Hugh enjoyed a classic public school education, attending the prestigious Dragon prep school followed by Eton.
"I was an awkward and frustrating child," the actor admits. Six years younger than his closest sibling he often felt like an only child, struggling with his mother's high expectations of him and the "heavyweight unhappiness" which marked his teens and led to him having therapy.
Although a gifted musician - he played percussion in the school orchestra at Eton and is now a member of a celebrity band - it was rowing that captured Hugh's full attention, a sport for which his father won a gold medal at the 1984 Olympics. The athletic 6ft 2in student represented England in the World Junior Championship before continuing to row competitively at Cambridge University, where he studied anthropology and archaeology.
"I went there to row," he later revealed. "It's been ten years and I think the admissions tutor can take it now that's what I went for. And anthropology was the most convenient subject to read while spending eight hours a day on the river."
Rowing wasn't the only passion to consume him at Cambridge which he left with a third class degree. Originally setting his sights on a career in the Army or police force, Hugh changed tack after joining the Cambridge Footlights, a revue club that had launched the showbiz careers of John Cleese and Eric Idle. Among his fellow troupe members was British actress Emma Thompson, with whom he had a brief fling.
The Much Ado About Nothing star remembers their first meeting when both were auditioning for parts in the pantomime Aladdin. "I saw him sitting there, and I jabbed my friend in the ribs and said: Star. Star Star!'," she remembers. "I knew at once He was always so funny, the funniest person I've met."
The pair went on to take one of the club's most successful revues to the Edinburgh Festival. Co-written by and starring Stephen Fry, The Cellar Tapes won a "Pick of the Fringe" award, ended up on the West End stage and earned the trio their first TV break. Hugh and Stephen, who became close friends, went on to form a formidable writing and acting partnership which resulted in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and Jeeves And Wooster.
In 1989 - a year after they welcomed their first son, Charles the actor, who had by then become a household name thanks to his role in the Blackadder series, married theatre administrator Jo Green. The couple went on to have two more children, William and Rebecca.
Hugh, who has also turned his hand to writing - penning the best-selling thriller The Gun Seller - was reunited with Emma and Stephen in the 1992 movie Peter's Friends. He also shared the screen with Emma in her Oscar-winning production of Sense And Sensibility. Movie roles continued to roll in, including a voiceover stint in kiddie flick Stuart Little, where he played the father of a talking mouse.
The key moment in his career came, however, when his friend Ben Elton cast him as the romantic lead in Maybe Baby. The bittersweet film showed there was more to the British star than comedy. "The secret is out," said Ben at the time. "He's a great actor, our new Carey Grant or Tom Hanks." Co-star Joely Richardson agreed: "There's the Hugh who dances around and cracks jokes, tangos all over the place. And there's the other side: tortured, dark. I love them both."
It wasn't until 2004, however, that the actor achieved recognition on both sides of the Atlantic for his role as a maverick medic in the TV series House. In the US accolades poured in for the relatively unknown Englishman with the perfect American accent, and in 2006 he took home a Golden Globe award - a sign he had truly arrived.
Described by pals as phenomenally intelligent, wise and lovable Hugh's "only really annoying habit," according to Stephen Fry, is "his extreme deprecation."
"He is the most infuriating and the most wonderful of people. He, of course, would say yes to being infuriating and no to being wonderful. The infuriating thing about him is that he won't accept he's fantastic."