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George Clooney: The Private Life of a Superstar

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Joe Pugliese

He adds, "I have been infinitely more alone in a bad relationship; there's nothing more isolating. I have been in places in my life where that has existed."

He also has been cheated on and even ditched "and left for someone; all those things. And it was sometimes a surprise, and sometimes you saw it coming. The most painful was when I kept trying to get [one woman] back. But we all make dumb mistakes."

A prank of Pitt's may have been an even dumber mistake. "A couple of years ago, he really nailed me. He did one of those shows and they asked him when he was going to marry Angie, and he said, 'I'll marry when George can legally marry [a man].' " He laughs. "He really got me badly, something I have had to deal with the past few years. But I could give a shit. I have to live in the world that I care about and that's all that matters."

That world is one in which his celebrity is firmly grounded -- as evident in a picture he keeps on his living room wall, across from a blazing fire with a huge television screen above the mantelpiece. It's the famous red-and-black Shepard Fairey artwork of President Obama, with a similar red-and-black Clooney next to it. (He is a devoted Obama supporter.) The work is based on an Associated Press photograph taken at a Clooney-backed event in support of Darfur. He says he was standing right beside Obama at the time, but Fairey's rendering "cut me out," Clooney grins. Hence, while Obama has "Hope" written beneath him, Clooney has added "Dope" beneath himself.

Through the years, he says he has learned to think carefully before he speaks out on issues, but that makes his commitment to some causes all the more courageous. His criticism of the war in Iraq made him a highly controversial figure in the early 2000s. "They did a half-hour show on Fox saying my career was over, and there was a cover of one of those magazines with the word 'traitor' written on it, and the White House was passing out a deck of weasels and I was on one of the cards," he recalls.

After initial anger, there was a brief moment when he felt afraid. "I called my dad and said, 'Am I in trouble?' And he said, 'Grow up. You've got money. You've got a job. You can't demand freedom of speech and then say, "But don't say bad things about me." ' And he was right."

Today, he's savvy enough to know that whatever he does to support causes like Darfur -- or Haiti, for which he helped raise more than $50 million in a much-viewed telethon -- there's little way he can effect real change. "All you can do as a celebrity is throw a spotlight on things," he says, shrugging.

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Unlike other stars, Clooney learned early just how complicated celebrity can be, growing up the son of a local anchorman and the nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney. Depending on the progress of his father Nick's career, he'd be living in a mansion one moment and in a trailer the next.

"We were famous, always we were under this glass," he reflects. "I got to see how bad it could go with Rosemary -- financially, her career, all the missteps and then the comeback -- and I also got to understand that version of living in the public eye for such a long period of time. There was probably nobody ever better set up for fame than me."

Born in Lexington, Ky., Clooney remembers, "We were constantly moving, always moving, and either you were good at adapting or you weren't. I found myself getting better at it, and my sister, Ada, was less skilled." (She now lives in Kentucky with her two kids, close to their parents.)

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While Clooney senior was known locally, that didn't mean money was always available. His wife, Nina, who owned a consignment store, regularly sewed her children's clothes by hand and dealt with the constant upheavals of her husband's profession. "My father had a million careers," Clooney notes. "When I first remember him, he was a newsman in Lexington, Kentucky; then he was on a variety show, and then a newspaper writer -- and when he was unemployed he did four plays. We went from a beautiful house in Florence, Kentucky, to a tiny house in Columbus, Ohio, because the job wasn't as good. And then we moved to Mason, Ohio, and my father lost his main job and we lived in a trailer."

Clooney was 12 at that time, and though he says the experience was "fine," it's hard to believe it didn't disturb him. But endless adaptation honed his skills, teaching him to draw on his innate humor -- and also to use it as camouflage for his most private self.

"There were a lot of transitions," he recalls. "I would go from one school where I'd be the idiot to another school where I was the genius." Popularity ebbed and flowed with his classmates' reactions to his famous name -- and it was never worse than when the family moved to Augusta, Ky. "That was a little more wild and woolly," he says. "Suddenly there were a couple of guys that you were just going to have to fight. I did, and I lost."

At 14, a pivotal age for anyone, disaster struck in the form of Bell's palsy, a kind of paralysis whose cause is unknown that leads to dysfunction in the facial nerves. Clooney has made light of the matter, but it lasted far longer than most of his friends realize.

"As I started high school, half my face was paralyzed for six months," he says. "That's a long, long time. You wake up one morning and your tongue is numb, and you can't drink. Milk starts pouring out of the side of your face. You don't know when it's going to end; you don't know if it is going to end. And there's no treatment."

Clooney used humor to deflect attacks, even lampooning a school superintendent who had had a stroke, exaggerating his own paralysis to create a dead-on impersonation, which mortifies him to this day: "There are terrible things you do as a kid. You developed a personality, sometimes for good, sometimes for ill."

He did well in school, attending Northern Kentucky University and then the University of Cincinnati, where he majored in journalism. But before graduating, he followed his cousin Miguel Ferrer's advice and moved to Hollywood. Bit parts and occasional series failed to propel him to stardom; as he entered his 30s, the possibility of failure loomed large.

He drank, partied and even sampled cocaine, though he says, "I didn't have an issue with it. I'm not a big druggie, not at all. Blow is absolutely a nonstarter."

"I was unhappy," he reflects. "I was doing a series [on ABC] called Baby Talk, and I had a really big fallout with the producer and quit, and they threatened to sue, and I was doing a lot of television that I wasn't particularly proud of and wasn't particularly good in. I was mostly failing at things." Just as he began to question whether failure would be his future, everything changed in 1994 with ER, the hospital drama in which Clooney played Dr. Doug Ross and almost overnight became a sensation.