How Hollywood responded to 9/11

Guest column

Steven Brill’s “After: How America Confronted the September 12 Era” (Simon & Schuster) details Hollywood’s response to the terrorist strike. In the passages below, Brill addresses the efforts by George Clooney to help organize a celebrity telethon in the aftermath of the Tuesday attacks.

Another September 11th Fund volunteer by Saturday was actor George Clooney. Clooney was among many in Hollywood who, as he put it, “just wanted to do something … We were out here and we felt frustrated that we couldn’t help.”

So on Friday, when Clooney got a call from DreamWorks co-founder and native New Yorker Jeffrey Katzenberg, telling him that a group of top Hollywood people was organizing a telethon, he agreed not only to appear but offered to help Katzenberg recruit other stars. On Friday, Katzenberg had met a challenge from the networks by personally recruiting 10 of the 10 superstars they’d listed as being such a dream team that they’d have to agree to do the show if he could get them.

Now, Clooney was working the phones, and similarly getting no refusals. He was also starting to focus on the fact that Katzenberg had said they wanted to broadcast less than a week from now — on Friday, Sept. 21. It seemed impossible, Clooney thought. No one had worked out what the show would be, let alone written anything for it, let alone found a studio or built a set. But if that was the plan, and if the networks had all volunteered to contribute their airtime in unison on that night, then they should go for it.

His only constraint in recruiting, he had been told, was that with all four networks supporting and broadcasting the show commercial-free, he should include at least two stars from each network’s prime-time shows. From the responses he had already gotten, he knew that would be no problem.

As for where the money would go, an official with one of the networks who had connections to the Red Cross had called that organization earlier in the week and asked whether, if the telethon passed the donations on the Red Cross, the organization would guarantee that only victims of the Sept. 11 tragedy would receive the proceeds. But the Red Cross person who got the call — a board member not in sync with, or even at that point aware of, the intention to segregate the money raised — refused. The United Way got the next call, and its September 11th Fund was designated to receive and dispense the money.

Clooney had himself taken pains to get assurances that the money would only go for victims and not, as he feared, “be swallowed up in some bureaucracy.” So he figured that everything seemed on track for the big show. Months later, he’d call himself an idiot for thinking it was all going to be that simple.

* * *

By Wednesday (Sept. 19), Clooney had become so caught up in the telethon that with two days to go he, too, was worried about phone calls. The networks’ consortium had commandeered a studio, but they hadn’t yet hooked up the phones. How were the thousands who were supposed to call all the stars he’d recruited to sit at the phone tables (still not built) going to connect?

Worse, there was also a glitch with the Web site, one that infuriated Clooney, who had a flair for indignance. It seemed that someone in Canada had heard what the telethon was going to be called and immediately bought the corresponding dot-com name. Now he wanted $5,000 for it. Clooney told the network executives working on the problem that he wanted to get a few television news crews and go to the guy’s house and present him with a huge check, Ed McMahon/Publishers Clearing House style, in order to humiliate him. Or at least, he wanted to get on the phone himself and threaten the man with it.

But the suits told him to cool it, to work on the scripts and the talent while they dealt with the phones and the Web site (for which they quietly wrote a check to the Canadian.)

* * *

On Friday evening, Clooney, who had been sleeping in the September 11th Fund telethon studio for two nights while he helped to build the set, write cue cards, and otherwise get ready for the 9 p.m. broadcast, was under a desk trying to help hook up the phones. At about five to nine, only the connection to Whoopi Goldberg’s phone was working. The phones for the other stars arrayed at the celebrity table were still dead. (They would be fixed within a half-hour.)

“If they’re not working when we go on, pick them up and fake it for a few minutes,” Clooney told the actors. “The calls will still come into the call center and we’ll get the money, only there won’t be anyone reaching you guys for a while.”

“Fake it?” Kurt Russell asked. “How can I do that?”

“You’re a fucking actor,” Clooney whispered. “Figure it out, for Christ’s sake!”

From “After: How America Confronted the Sept. 12 Era,” by Steven Brill. Copyright 2003 by Simon & Schuster. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster.