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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

Fans of the TV Show "House" are still talking about Monday night's episode. It surprised viewers with the death of Dr. Lawrence Kutner, who's played by actor Kal Penn. Well, now fans have more to talk about. Penn is leaving "House" to work at the White House. NPR's Karen Grigsby Bates has more.

KAREN GRIGSBY BATES: On Monday night, it was the Fox network's audience that needed a defibrillator.

(Soundbite of TV show, "House")

Unidentified Man: Get a crash cart in here.

GRIGSBY BATES: That's when Kal Penn, the Indian-American actor who played a maverick young doctor, made a shocking exit. His character committed suicide.

(Soundbite of TV show, "House")

Mr. HUGH LAURIE (Actor): (as Gregory House): He didn't slit his wrists and peacefully drift away. He shot himself.

GRIGSBY BATES: At a telephone press conference Tuesday morning, Penn described his decision.

Mr. KAL PENN (Actor): It was tough all around. The word that I still use to describe it is bittersweet.

GRIGSBY BATES: He told reporters he's always been pulled by two distinctly different interests.

Mr. PENN: Growing up, I always had two passions, one being public service and the other being the arts and acting.

GRIGSBY BATES: The arts have gotten their due. Penn achieved cult fame as Kumar Patel, half of a dope-smoking duo in the "Harold and Kumar" movies. There were other, well-received acting roles. And then came the chance to be a cast regular on "House"'s crack medical team.

(Soundbite of TV show, "House")

Mr. PENN: (as Dr. Kutner): Maybe we're not wasting time. We wouldn't have seen a flat lesion.

Mr. LAURIE: (as Dr. House): Skin cancer could have metastasized to the intestines. Cool.

GRIGSBY BATES: Aside from his acting, Penn volunteered for the Obama campaign, which got him thinking about a possible job in the White House after the inauguration. The president finally offered one. Penn will be associate director for the office of public liaison, where he'll trade his hefty actor's salary for a government paycheck - which isn't all that odd. A while back, Penn told NPR that activism and public service run in his family.

Mr. PENN: Three of my four grandparents were really active in the Indian independence movement. You know, I had a grandfather, specifically, who marched with Gandhi and was thrown in jail numerous times.

GRIGSBY BATES: It was Gandhi and nonviolence that inspired Martin Luther King, who in turn, inspired Barack Obama. Penn's new job closes that circle. But he says he's not done with acting just yet.

Mr. PENN: I certainly intend to come back at some point. But right now, I just felt like my calling was in public service, and so we moved forward with that.

GRIGSBY BATES: And for the fans who can't wait, there's always Netflix and YouTube.

Karen Grigsby Bates, NPR News.

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