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This Time, It's Personal
September 7, 1997
By: Bruce Newman
The beautiful little red-haired boy has been splashing around in the swimming pool for
nearly an hour, his lips purpling madly, when he breaks the water's surface and sees,
silhouetted in the perfect stillness of a Sunday afternoon, a great figure lowering itself
down to him. The boy has on a mask, foggy with sweat, that he has pulled down over his ears
so they are doubled over, glowing grotesquely. It is impossible for this not to be
"If you don't let me fix that strap, your ears will fall off," the man says, easing himself
into the water. "You'd better listen to me," he tells the little boy, "I'm a doctor."
"You're not," the boy says, rubbing his ear nervously, no longer as sure of himself as he
would like to be.
"Yes, I am," George Clooney says, adjusting the strap and making the world safe for boys
again. "And I'm Batman, too."
Clooney is doing the head tilt as he says this. The neck muscles are sprung just enough to
allow his head to dip to the left, the eyes looking up, a little boy himself now. The head
tilt is Clooney's go-to move, his instinctive way of finding a perfect conversational
eye-level with anyone. It is the little boy in him, ears adorably pinned back. Watching
Clooney do this, you can't help but wonder when he first realized this could get him
"He has a very strong face, very expressive eyes and he is very much like a little boy,"
says Mimi Leder, who directed Clooney in "The Peacemaker," the eagerly awaited first
release from DreamWorks SKG. "He's all those people wrapped into one. He is that man. He is
When "Peacemaker" opens Sept. 26, Clooney will not only be carrying a movie for the first
time, he will be trying to find out if he is man and boy enough to save the world from dumb
action movies, while simultaneously launching Hollywood's first start-up studio since Fox
Film Corporation and 20th Century Studios merged to create 20th Century Fox in 1935.
"I've yet to do a movie that had to rely on me," he says. " 'Peacemaker's' really the first
one that you'll go to partly to
see if I'll make it or not, whether I'll survive. But that's OK, I don't mind that. Every
once in a while you have to stick your neck out." Tilt, tilt, tilt.
"If I wanted anyone to save the world," says Leder, who, in fact, wanted exactly that for
her nukes-on-the-loose thriller, "it would be George Clooney. He's the man."
Clooney will only go so far as to acknowledge that he's a man, which is hardly the same
thing, and yet no small matter in itself.
"Becoming a man was the great thing for me, the thing that changed my career the most," he
On Sundays, however, he is neither the man or a man, but rather one of the Boys, a group of
old friends that gathers weekly under the miniature HOLLYWOOD sign he has erected on the
hill above his Studio City home. For four hours, Clooney and "the boys" (as he unfailingly
refers to them) play basketball--some occasionally stopping for cigarette breaks--then they
head up to the pool, where the womenfolk await.
"It's kind of like a pack, a pack of wolves or something," says Tommy Hinkley, an actor who
first went to Clooney's home to baby-sit his pet pig, Max. "The testosterone's just
flowing. And George is like the rock of the group in terms of keeping everybody together."
"They're the most honorable men I know," Clooney says of this non-elite, unpowerful group.
"It's not a he-man woman-haters club at all. It's seven guys--some married, some not--who
have been together for a long time. I'm proud to be a part of it."
After the death of the father of a member of Clooney's group--actor Richard Kind, who has
had supporting roles on such shows as "Mad About You" and "Spin City"--Clooney found out
that the funeral was to be held a day later in Trenton, N.J. "One of the good things about
being famous is you can get a jet," Clooney says. "I got a plane and called up the boys."
They arrived at the synagogue like the Magnificent Seven sitting shiva. "Richard was in the
middle of talking about his father," Clooney recalls, "and he looked up, having no idea,
and saw his seven best friends sitting in the back row in black suits. And he broke down
and he stopped, then he said, 'My best friends are here.' Those are the moments you're so
proud of, so proud to be a part of it."
The desire to be part of it compelled Clooney to study the lives of such bygone hipsters as
Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin, and on the wall above his bar is a framed picture of the
Rat Pack outside the Sands Hotel. Next to the picture is a dartboard, where Celine
Balitran--the young French woman Clooney met during a break from filming "The
Peacemaker"--plays a game of "arrows" with Hinkley.
Balitran, who was a law student in Paris and tried teaching here before work permit
problems forced her to become a Ford model, stops by the house in the mornings and feeds
Max. "I never thought I would be spending so much time weez a peeg," she says somewhat
Things rarely get raucous at Clooney's clubhouse, except when the paparazzi stake it out.
Once a helicopter hovered overhead until its crew got video footage of a "hot babe seen
leaving the house of George Clooney."
The footage appeared on "Hard Copy," with whom Clooney has conducted a very public war for
the past year over some of the show's tactics. The "hot babe" in this case was Ben Weiss, a
44-year-old first assistant director on "Friends," who used to wear his hair very long. Now
he wears it very short. Clooney never tires of telling this story.
His crusade against the excesses of tabloid TV shows and newspapers--including his press
conference last week in which he castigated editors, especially Steve Coz of the National
Enquirer, for fostering the climate that may have contributed to the death of Princess
Diana--becomes easier to understand if you think of his life as the George Clooney Show.
That show premiered in 1961 and has, of course, remained subject to cancelleation ever
since. By the time he was 5, he was hanging around the set of "The Nick Clooney Show," a
live TV variety show that his father did on weekday afternoons in Cincinnati.
George pitched on both sides of the camera--doing walk-ons as a cigar-toting leprechaun on
St. Patrick's Day, sounding off with the temperature during his dad's weather
reports--hoping eventually to be spun off into a life of his own.
Television created a kind of hyper-reality for Clooney, whose father went from talk-show
host and dialing for dollars on "The 3:30 Money Movie" to anchor of the local news when
George was 12. "My father's news was the best," Clooney says. "It truly was the best
It was so much better than everybody else's news that he went to the station manager and
demanded a raise. When he didn't get it, the family--including George's older sister, Ada,
and his mother, Nina--moved from an enormous home in Cincinnati to a trailer out behind the
Beef and Boards dinner theater in Harrison, Ohio, where Nick Clooney was headlining in
"We went through some strange times," George says. "My father spent a year really
struggling, a year scrapping for jobs. You don't make a really good living for a family of
four doing dinner theater. So we lived in a trailer for a while, but we weren't the trailer
Just as he was about to enter high school, the family moved again, to Augusta, Ky., where
George would often sit at the local mall and draw people's caricatures. Then one day he
felt as though he became one.
"At the beginning of my freshman year I got Bell's palsy and half my face was paralyzed,"
Clooney says. He was 14, the new kid in town, and suddenly he was Quasimodo. "There is no
cure for Bell's palsy," he says, "it either goes away or it doesn't. Your eye doesn't open
or close, and that's very disconcerting. Eating was awkward. I used to have to chew by
pinching my mouth closed. That was a bad time, a bad age for me. I was embarrassed by it,
and afraid I might be stuck that way forever. So I had to make jokes about it. I was so
tough on me--it was difficult for anyone else to beat me to it."
Clooney seems to have spent most of his adult life preparing for his debut as a he-man
action movie star by beating up on himself. (Perhaps this will become the next big
Hollywood genre: One man, one $20-million salary, no survivors.) Self-effacement is a
hallmark of the George Clooney Show, with plenty of jokes about his perceived failures
provided by your genial host.
How sincere any of this is--or, indeed, credible--is another matter, but Clooney is without
apparent hubris; in spiritual terms, the anti-Caruso.
"You've got to make the joke first," he says, "get it out there first before anybody else
does. If you don't, I think you're stupid. The Kathie Lee Gifford thing was funny to us not
because her husband had an affair, but because she said, 'We're the perfect family. This is
how you do it.' And then he cheated on her. If you set yourself up that way, you're not
giving yourself an opportunity to fail. And everyone will always fail at some point."
It is striking how often he uses the same stories about life at the extreme margins--the
hard-luck cases that are staples of the "Hard Copy" diet--for his own inner theater. This
could have the oddly unintended effect of making co-religionists of Clooney and Barry
Nolan, except that his stories hew fairly close to the truth.
"I think life is very mean," Clooney says. "I think it's about as mean as they come." He
mentions the recent suicide of veteran actor Brian Keith, who had lost most of his money
after being stricken with cancer. Clooney had modeled his character in "One Fine Day" on
the gruff uncle that Keith had played in the '60s sitcom "Family Affair." He did not know
Keith personally, but now, in the classic tabloid manner, the actor's grim ending had
become a kind of cautionary tale. The bigger you get, the harder you can fall.
"I do expect it to be taken away," says Clooney, relaxing in his "ER" trailer on the Warner
Bros. lot. "How many people do you know who stay functioning-famous for any long period of
time? People will say, 'You're very pessimistic,' but I think I'm just the opposite of
that, because I attack my life. I love coming on this set every day, and I can tell you
things that took place here on almost every one of them. I want to be able to name those
days, because they fly by."
He has only two seasons left before he vanishes from "ER," but unlike the boom-and-bust
fates that befell his father and his even more famous aunt, Rosemary Clooney--whose decline
took her from a string of 15 gold records in the '50s to semi-obscurity and a
much-publicized stay in the psychiatric ward at Cedars-Sinai when George was 7--the choice
to leave was his.
"I think there is family history of not trusting fame and celebrity as a smart thing to
do," says "ER" executive producer John Wells. "Being hot is always transitory. George has
had the good fortune because of his family situation to have seen that and to protect
himself from just being this week's hot thing."
The question naturally arises whether Clooney has learned this lesson too well. In the
midst of one of his cheerfully doomy pronouncements about his future on "Hollywood Squares
2000," it is easy to forget that Clooney is sitting on a three-picture deal with Warner
Bros. worth more than $28 million.
And forgetting that, of course, is just what he wants. Like any good action hero, his goal
is to disarm you, but it is also more than that: George Clooney wants to be one of the
guys--in your living room, at your local movie theater, but most of all in your face--and
he resists anything that sets him apart from his essential guyness.
"People are always saying to me, 'You have money, you have a nice place. Don't you want to
get married? Don't you want to have children? Aren't you afraid of dying alone?' " he says.
"Well, I was with [my uncle] when he died, holding his hand, and it's the most personal and
private thing you can do. There is nothing more alone than that, and no one who takes that
trip with you when you die."
The popular misconception about Clooney is that he grew up worshiping his father the
television star, when in fact, George says, there was "a healthy competition" between them
for attention. But there was none of that with his Uncle George, the colorful character
after whom Clooney was named. Uncle George drank too much, smoked too much, and trained
horses that couldn't run.
"He was adored by all of us," Clooney says. "He was this guy who, at 20 years old, had all
the promise in the world, had it all going on. He was a B-17 bomber pilot during World War
II, he was Rosemary and Betty's manager when they were just coming up as singers. He ended
up an alcoholic, and didn't really do anything with his life."
Five years ago, Clooney went back to Kentucky for a visit, and was with his uncle when he
was told he had lung cancer.
"He looked at me, and his eyes welled up," Clooney recalls. "He said, 'What a waste. What a
waste.' That just blew me away. I was taking things very casually then. I'd take this job,
then that job. And I remember thinking, 'I will not allow that.' I was not going to wake up
at 65 and wonder what happened to my life."
Even at 31, there was plenty of reason to wonder. By then he had been in Los Angeles for a
decade, had done 13 unproduced television pilots and seven series--the three most
successful of which ("The Facts of Life," "Roseanne" and "Sisters") he walked away
from--and his most distinguished film work had come in what sounded like the lineup from a
farm workers film festival: "Return of the Killer Tomatoes" and "The Harvest," in which
Clooney played a transvestite lambada dancer.
"I had to accept that I wasn't a film actor who happened to be doing TV," he says. "I was
on TV. They basically gave me whatever job I wanted, and it had been that way for a long
time. That's when I decided to try to do better television, and maybe somewhere along the
way movies would come. I didn't really think that would work. They don't discover guys who
come in and read for a casting director at 35 and go, 'We're going to give you the lead in
this.' It doesn't happen."
The result of that epiphany was "ER," but it did not come without a price. Clooney had been
feuding with the producer of his latest sitcom--a dreadful bit of baggage called "Baby
Talk"--and after a heated confrontation on the set that Clooney says culminated in his
quitting, he claims producer Ed Weinberger actually uttered the most feared of all
Hollywood's exit lines: "You'll never work in this town again!" ("Nobody cares what
happened, including me," Weinberger says. "It's time for him to get on with his life.")
"To this day, I think that's when I grew up," Clooney says. "I believed I was ending my
career. It was the same time I was going through a divorce. I was living in a house I
couldn't really afford. There were things going wrong. I had a bleeding ulcer, and I was
putting on weight. Everything was kind of colliding at once. And I thought, 'If I am a man,
if I'm a guy, I have to draw a line here.' And from that point on, I was fearless."
Since the end of his three-year marriage to actress Talia Balsam, Clooney has steadfastly
declared his intention never to remarry, making himself sound like a bit of a grump on the
subject--Henry Higgins with a Porsche.
"Did I declare war on all women?" he says softly. "No, no. She didn't do anything to me. We
had a relationship that didn't work out, most of it is my own fault. That's not me trying
to nail me first. I can look at it like it was a TV show. I was the one in the relationship
who wasn't willing to fix things.
"For me it was about children," Clooney says. "Everybody keeps telling me I have to have
children, and they keep betting I will. [Two of his leading ladies, "Peacemaker" co-star
Nicole Kidman and Michelle Pfeiffer of "One Fine Day," have bet Clooney $10,000 apiece that
he'll be a dad before he's 40.] They think it's that I hate kids, but I adore them.
"I don't want to be the guy who comes in and does it half-assed, the way I've done many
things in my life. The minute something is tremendously difficult, I lose some sort of
interest. And I don't ever want to have the responsibility of messing somebody up like
For all of that, Clooney has a big heart, and he has allowed Balitran to curl up on it
kittenishly, occasionally slipping her "arrows" past the body armor and the scar tissue of
his accumulated experience.
"The girl I'm dating is 23 and I'm 36," he says. "She would get married and have children,
I'm sure, because in her is a kind of romantic view of that. I wish it was part of me. I
wish I had those kinds of drives."
For now, Clooney's drives seem to lie elsewhere. He has worked virtually nonstop for the
past four years--seven days a week during "Batman & Robin" and "One Fine Day"--and having
recently completed a small role in Terrence Malick's "The Thin Red Line," he will pick up
the pace again next month when he begins filming an adaptation of the Elmore Leonard novel
"Out of Sight," directed by Steven Soderbergh.
"There's a period of time in your life when you get a crack at something," he says, "when
you make your mark as a man. And as a man, that's it. That's where we set what we're going
to be. I'd like to try to set that up now, to strike while the iron's hot. Because 10 years
from now it may be, 'I'd like George Clooney to block.' "
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