In 1994 a little show called “ER” premiered on NBC. Created by prolific science-fiction writer Michael Crichton, the series was a medical drama, somewhat in the tradition of “St. Elsewhere,” and focused on the private lives and burgeoning careers of emergency room doctors in Chicago’s County General Hospital. Among the cast members were Anthony Edwards, of “Top Gun” fame, up-and-comers Julianna Margulies and Noah Wyle, and George Clooney, a relatively unknown actor from Kentucky with a smattering of TV credits to his name, including recurring roles on “Roseanne,” the short-lived CBS comedy “E/R” (different show, Elliott Gould starred) and “The Facts of Life,” on which Clooney played the eponymous “George,” a charismatic handyman with winged hair who eventually quits his job to go on tour with pop star Cinnamon (played by ’90s singer Stacey Q).
“ER” became a giant hit, winning numerous Emmy awards, with Clooney its resident heartthrob. If you were in college at the time, you’d remember the scores of premed and bio students rushing home from class to watch Clooney’s character, reckless pediatric fellow Doug Ross, save children’s lives, constantly put his license to practice in jeopardy and navigate his tumultuous on-and-off again romantic relationship with Margulies’ character, nurse Carol Hathaway. “ER” had it all: drama, heartbreak and enough medical crises to fill the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
Five years into the series, by the time he left “ER” to pursue film full time, Clooney was an international movie star. And on June 7 Clooney will be feted with the 46th AFI Life Achievement Award at Hollywood’s Dolby Theatre.
Clooney has played the iconic caped crusader in Joel Schumacher’s “Batman & Robin,” a seductive bank robber in Steven Soderbergh’s “Out of Sight” and an American soldier in Terrence Malick’s Oscar-nominated World War II drama “The Thin Red Line.” Post-”ER,” his career ascended with fiery speed. Clooney became not just a leading man, but also director, producer and screenwriter.
Clooney’s first Oscar would come for his supporting role in Stephen Gaghan’s 2005 oil industry thriller “Syriana.” That same year, he was nominated for director and original screenplay, with co-screenwriter Grant Heslov, for “Good Night, and Good Luck,” a biographical drama about journalist Edward R. Murrow’s fight to take down Sen. Joseph McCarthy during the anti-communism frenzy of the early 1950s.
Clooney won his second Oscar for producing the 2012 Iran hostage crisis saga “Argo,” an award he shared with producing partner Heslov and producer-star Ben Affleck, who also directed the film. There were other lead actor Oscar nominations along the way, for “Michael Clayton,” “Up in the Air” and “The Descendants,” roles that further earmarked Clooney as an actor with a gift for playing a heightened version of himself, or at least, that self we imagined him to be: sensitive, romantic, ever-so-slightly tragic. He played characters who longed for love, but were unable to commit, characters that used razor sharp humor to supplant their searing emotional pain. In Soderbergh’s 2002 sci-fi fantasy “Solaris,” Clooney’s character, a psychiatrist sent to investigate the crew of a research station circling outer space, spends the entire movie pining away for Natascha McElhone, who plays a startling likeness to his wife who committed suicide on planet Earth. Clooney was beautiful, lonely, hurt. Women wanted to save him; men wanted to be him.
In real life, Clooney was a hardcore bachelor with a string of girlfriends who came and went. For nearly 20 years, his sole heir was Max, a 300-pound Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. Their relationship was a Hollywood love story in its own right, sparking magazine stories and photo spreads.
In Ian Parker’s 2008 profile of Clooney in the New Yorker, subtitled “The effort behind George Clooney’s effortless charm,” Parker wrote, “Clooney’s appeal is less sleek and submerged — he is the fellow at the end of the bar, who, on a scale running from James Stewart to Jack Nicholson, has found an enviable midpoint of courteous roguishness.”
Comic actor Richard Kind, one of Clooney’s oldest and closest friends, recalls attending with Clooney a late 1980s production of Joe Orton’s stage play “Loot,” both of them marvelling at the performance of Joseph Maher, who played Truscott of the Yard. “It brought down the house,” says Kind. “George and I both turned to one another and said, ‘I want to be that kind of actor.’ ”
Clooney, says Kind, became just that sort of actor.
“When he does the straight roles he’s like Henry Fonda or James Stewart, actors who seem like they’re always playing themselves, and yet they are very slyly, understatedly playing someone else,” says Kind. “But he is also able to go crazy. If you take a look at ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?’ or ‘Three Kings,’ he can go to those boundaries and push them quite a lot.”
It’s this winning combination of “courteous roguishness” and “effortless charm,” not to mention an unwavering commitment to humanitarian causes and left-wing politics, that’s made Clooney a natural in the philanthropic realm as well. Along with his “Ocean’s Eleven” co-stars Don Cheadle, Matt Damon and Brad Pitt, and producer Jerry Weintraub, Clooney founded Not on Our Watch, an organization whose mission is to stop genocide in Sudan. In 2008, then Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon appointed Clooney as a U.N. Messenger of Peace. Since then, Clooney’s humanitarian efforts have expanded to include raising funds for victims of the 2010 Haiti earthquake; survivors of the Armenian genocide; and the March for Our Lives campaign, founded after the Stoneman Douglas High School massacre on Feb. 14.
In 2014, Clooney undertook his most unexpected role (for his fans, anyway) as husband, marrying British-Lebanese humans-right attorney Amal Alamuddin.
The proudest achievement of Clooney’s life: “The day George convinced Amal to marry him,” says Nick Clooney, veteran journalist and anchorman and George’s father.
In 2017, the couple welcomed twins, Ella and Alexander. At age 57, George Clooney is a first-time dad.
“He gets a kick out of them much more than I would have thought he would,” says Kind. “They make him laugh and he laughs with them and at them.”
The most surprising fact about George Clooney, says Heslov, who first met Clooney in an acting class in 1982, is “just how normal he is.”
“The thing about him that might seem abnormal is that he’s extremely normal,” says Heslov, who co-founded Smokehouse Pictures with Clooney in 2006. “He’s just a generally good and nice guy — that’s really who he is. He does his own dishes.”
Clooney and Heslov are in Italy shooting the six-part miniseries “Catch-22,” an adaptation of Joseph Heller’s satirical wartime classic. They are both acting, directing and executive producing the project, which also stars Christopher Abbott as lead protagonist, Cpt. John Yossarian.
“We only write when we’re together. We don’t like long distance,” says Heslov of their creative process. “We have a desk, I do the actual writing. Sometimes we act the scenes out. George uses a notepad and I use the computer because he doesn’t love the computer, that’s not his thing. We write fast, we don’t mess around. We start at 9 in the morning and we work until 5 or 6 in the afternoon. We have a little lunch, but we really do work pretty hard.” He adds, laughing, “We’re together too much.”
As much as Clooney has cultivated a reputation for being magnanimous and charitable and sophisticated — Kind remembers another night at the theater when they went to see “The Vagina Monologues,” and Clooney “tipped the parking lot attendant $100” — he’s also renowned amongst friends as a master of practical jokes.
“George is an exceptional, smart and very serious, generous person who does many great things, but he also makes time to plan and execute terrible pranks on his loved ones,” says Jimmy Kimmel, who’s collaborated with Clooney on myriad uproarious late-night skits. A recent gag: Clooney, on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!’ to promote “Suburbicon,” promised to introduce his newborn twins, only for “manny” Matt Damon, with whom Kimmel has had a longstanding public (and very much faux) feud, to crash the interview, wheeling in a double-stroller with rolled-up pink and blue blankets. And no babies.
“Nothing delights [George] more than identifying a vulnerability and striking when an attack is unexpected,” says Kimmel. “I’ve seen George reduce himself to tears retelling his years of torment. The amount of time and energy he spends on this kind of thing is literally incredible. He somehow manages to be both the best and worst friend a person could have, and that is a dichotomy I love.”
That’s the consummate Clooney, says Kimmel: he’s an Oscar-winning movie star-slash-filmmaker whose proclivity for pranks and good humor is outranked only by his desire to do good in the world and make the people around him feel better about themselves.
“George was my first-ever guest on Jan. 26, 2003,” says Kimmel. “It was my first show and we were on live after the Super Bowl, with many millions of people watching. I was as nervous as I’d ever been and terribly unprepared to host a talk show. After a shaky start, George, who I did not know and who was much too big a star to be there, showed up and calmed me down with shot glasses, vodka and movie-star magic. He gave our show and its bumbling host instant credibility just by showing up, and was so charming and funny. It did not matter that I was not. George is always great, but that debut likely would have been a disaster without him.”
Clooney, says dad Nick, has always been a “performer,” and will evolve as such no matter what role he next undertakes.
“George was at home in front of the camera from his earliest days visiting a TV studio,” he says. “I had no idea he would reach the heights he has attained. Most of us reach a plateau in our careers, a comfort level. George never has. He keeps learning, growing.”