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Damian Lewis, Eton College And American TV's Upper-Crust British Invasion

Etonian Actors Hugh Laurie Damian Lewis

First Posted: 12/14/11 02:58 AM ET Updated: 12/14/11 04:26 PM ET

Here's a trivia question that's bound to stump all but the most accomplished students of high-brow TV: What do Dr. Gregory House, Det. Jimmy McNulty and Sgt. Nicholas Brody all have in common?

Give up? All three of these red-blooded Americans are portrayed by actors who were educated at Eton College, one of the oldest and most venerable training grounds for blue-blooded Brits.

And they're not alone. Old Etonian (or, for those in the know, "O.E.") actors have been slumming it on the small screen in the U.S. ever since Patrick MacNee first unfurled his lethal umbrella in "The Avengers." Now, a new crop of alumni -- including Tom Hiddleston ("Wallander"), Eddie Redmayne ("The Pillars of the Earth"), Harry Lloyd ("Game of Thrones"), Simon Woods ("Rome") and Max Pirkis ("Rome") -- is making it harder than ever to dismiss the school as an incubator for the elite.

"It seems as if, you want to have somebody starring in an American blockbuster, you come to Eton College," observed Hailz-Emily Osborne, the school's director of drama.

Founded by King Henry VI in 1440, Eton College is an expensive boarding school for boys aged 13 to 18, located 25 miles west of London. The school is defined by ancient traditions and idiosyncracies: Students -- divided into "Oppidans" and "Collegers" -- wear distinctive black tailsuits and white ties, teachers are known as Beaks, and the three semesters making up the academic year are called halves. The school even has its own sport, the Eton wall game, and its own dessert in the form of Eton Mess.

Eton is the alma mater of Princes William and Harry, as well as Princess Diana's brother Viscount Althorp. Prime Minister David Cameron was educated there, as were 18 of his predecessors, including the First Duke of Wellington and Gladstone. In the realm of fiction, James Bond and "Magnum P.I." sidekick Jonathan Higgins both went to Eton.

Old Etonians who have found fame on U.S. television include Jeremy Brett ("The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes"), Christopher Cazenove ("Dynasty") and Charles Shaughnessy ("The Nanny"). But none of those actors achieved the kind of iconic, all-American status now enjoyed by fellow alumni Hugh Laurie, Dominic West and Damian Lewis.

Before he joined "House" as the show's irascible, drug-addicted title character, Laurie was mostly famous for being one-half of a British television comedy duo with Stephen Fry, and for playing a fictional O.E., the quintessentially nice but dim aristocrat Bertie Wooster in the PBS series "Jeeves & Wooster." Laurie's portrayal of Gregory House is so convincing that many viewers remain unaware that, unlike his character, he does not hail from southern New Jersey.

Lewis currently stars in Showtime's C.I.A. terrorist drama "Homeland," in which he plays U.S. Marine Sgt. Nicholas Brody, after bursting onto the scene with his Golden Globe-nominated portrayal of Dick Winters, the central figure in HBO's "Band of Brothers." He also headlined NBC's "Life," in which he played another American in the form of LAPD police officer and ex-con Charlie Crews.

Meanwhile, his contemporary at Eton, Dominic West, tossed out the rulebook with his portrayal of the hard-boiled, hard-drinking Baltimore cop Jimmy McNulty in five seasons of "The Wire." He's since gone on to play a range of dramatic characters, including real-life serial killer Fred West (no relation), smooth 1950s news anchor Hector Madden ("The Hour"), and 17th century ruler Oliver Cromwell ("The Devil's Whore").

In a recent telephone interview with HuffPost TV, West said, "Eton did everything to help me become an actor." He acknowledged the thriving pool of talent, adding, "There do seem to be a hell of a lot of Etonian actors around, but all I can think of is that it's just a school that brings out your talent and nurtures it, and for that I was very grateful."

So what is Eton's secret? Are they producing great actors by accident or by design? Osborne, who's worked at the school for 13 years alongside Director of Theatre Studies Simon Dormandy, says the answer lies partly in the curriculum and partly in the first-class facilities.

The school stages more than 20 theatrical productions each year, from the classics to risky, ultra-modern plays, using the professionally equipped 400-seat Farrer Theatre as well as several smaller venues. The boys also benefit from an annual Director in Residence program.

The students are encouraged not only to act, but to think too. "When a boy has an idea," she said, "everybody around him takes it terribly seriously and we all do our best to to make sure he can do it."

The drama department also arranges master classes, the most recent of which saw Sir Ian McKellen giving "an absolutely stunning" class on the sonnets. Recent graduates like Eddie Redmayne have been conscientious about returning to give talks.

Osborne said that the success enjoyed by Redmayne, Hiddleston, Woods and others has had a "snowball effect" on today's pupils. They now see acting as a real prospect, and "when they see boys they knew in movies and working with Woody Allen, they think, 'I could do that too!'"

Unlike most teenage boys with dreams of stardom, Etonians know how to leverage their organizational skills -- and their connections -- to maximize chances of actually making it. "They plan their careers, and they do a lot of work here to make sure they've got agents," said Osborne. "Now it's a very pro operation."

So, who will be the next big acting talent to emerge from Eton's drama program? One figure to watch is 19-year-old Oxford University undergraduate Henry Faber, who's already carved out an impressive theatrical resume, including 14 productions from his time at Eton.

Attention, producers of quality TV dramas: This opportunity won't last. The time to start shopping for scripts featuring an intense, home-grown 21-year-old American is now. And the breeding ground is in Britain.


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