George Clooney: The Private Life of a Superstar

 Joe Pugliese

Never mind those two Oscar noms: Behind George Clooney's confident charm is a very real man who wrestles with doubt, wakes five times a night and is "terrified" of not achieving what he wants.

ER executive producer John Wells recalls how Clooney avidly pursued the gig, recognizing the quality of the script trumped the fact that Ross was a supporting role: "George was -- as he is now -- an extraordinarily talented networker, and he'd befriend the secretaries and get all the material before anybody else did. I hadn't even hired a director and he insisted on coming in." After Wells finally let him read, the producer called then-WB executive Les Moonves and said, "I've found our guy."

How Clooney handled himself once the series aired is indicative of the fundamental decency that remains his hallmark. He stuck to his five-year contract without trying to renegotiate or wriggle out of his deal; he even refused to take a $1 million bonus that was offered to the leads during season two because he didn't want to imply he'd stay.

"We were the number-one show, and it was very clear that George was breaking out, and Quentin Tarantino -- who directed an episode in season one -- wanted him for From Dusk Till Dawn," says Wells. "He was great and very professional, and when everyone else was getting huge raises, George always said no. He said, 'I'm going to honor my commitment to you.' "

ER helped launch Clooney as a movie star in pictures such as 1996's One Fine Day and 1997's The Peacemaker. For three years, until he left ER in 1999, he worked seven days a week to the point of exhaustion, juggling television and pictures.

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But with 1997's Batman and Robin, Clooney, cast in the lead role opposite Chris O'Donnell, was forced to reassess. The movie was simply terrible, and so was Clooney -- and he knew it. This was one of his many "revelations," to use Heslov's word. Now he wanted not just to work, but to do work that mattered.

When he teamed with director Steven Soderbergh on 1998's acclaimed Out of Sight, it was transformative, and he followed that film with a host of memorable pictures, from 1999's Three Kings to 2005's Syriana.

It was while making the latter that he fell during a scene in which he was taped to a chair while his character was tortured. His head split open, days before he was scheduled to wrap.

"I knew immediately [how serious it was]," he says. "I thought I'd had a stroke. It was like a train horn going off in your head and you can't see and you can't stand." Instantly, he chartered a plane from Morocco back to Los Angeles and checked into Cedars-Sinai Medical Center.

For three weeks, nobody was able to diagnose him, even though spinal fluid was leaking out of his nose. It was only when actress Lisa Kudrow led him to her neurologist brother that he discovered fluid also was leaking from his spine and he had torn his dura, the outermost layer enveloping the spinal cord.

"Then we started doing these things called myelograms, where they shoot contrast into your system and you can see what's leaking out," Clooney adds. "I had a two-and-a-half-inch tear in the middle of my back and a half-inch tear in my neck. The doctors did these blood patches, where they tie you down to a bed, and you're awake because they have a long needle and need to know if they're touching your spinal cord. And they take blood out and shoot it directly into your spinal column to try to get the blood to coagulate in those spots. I did about 15 of those over 15 days. It's like getting a spinal tap every day, and you're awake. But what we didn't understand was how big the holes were."

The pain was so great, he has said he contemplated suicide. "I thought I was going to die. Talk to any doctor about a CSF -- a cerebral/spinal fluid leak -- and they'll tell you it's way up there on the pain scale. There was this whole coming to terms with [mortality]."

On Christmas Day 2005, Clooney endured a successful nine-hour surgery. "Then you start on a series of painkillers. They'll hand you a giant tub of Vicodin, which is not a good drug for me; I had a lot of stomach pain and I really didn't like the high it gave me. Then there were a lot of other drugs. I was on morphine for a while, which created this horrible anxiety where I really thought I was in trouble."

The pain never has vanished but at least has diminished over time.

"It's been a long recovery," the actor says. "I had to accept that I'm going to beat this on a very different level, almost psychological. I went to a pain-management guy whose idea was, 'You can't mourn for how you used to feel, because you're never going to feel that way again.' Meaning, you wake up with the worst hangover ever, and that's your day, and you have to come to terms with it."

This is his life now. He recognizes he's getting older, must deal with pain that afflicts him on average three times per week and speaks of it with a characteristic lack of complaint.

"I've gone from where I can't function, where 'I just can't live like this,' to 'I've got a bad headache.' It's called 'positional,' meaning the longer you sit upright or stand upright, the worse it gets. That's how it is. As the day goes on, it gets worse. My ears will literally pop and my head goes ape-shit. But I'm scrappy."

He brushes it off. "My friend [actress] Karen Duffy, who is in unimaginable pain [from sarcoidosis, a disease in which inflammatory cells coalesce around various organs], has taught me so much: That any complaints I have are the most ridiculous thing in the world, because her pain is so much greater."


It was during this time that awareness of others' pain led to his concern for Darfur.

He first learned about the Sudanese government's killings of ethnic groups from a 2005 column by New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof, then contacted Kristof and decided to go to Sudan himself. He plans to return in March, though he doesn't want to go into detail because his entry into the country will put him at risk.

That aside, "It's really hard on your system," he says. "I got malaria two years ago, and it really knocked me out. I've had a couple of recurrences. I didn't understand that it keeps coming back." His last attack was during the Christmas holiday, but he still wants to return, with just a cameraman and two others, because he believes he can draw attention to the hundreds of thousands who have been killed and whose story is often ignored.

"Everything about it is difficult, and you never feel safe, and we are not traveling with guns and security guys," he continues. "I ran into the Machine Gun Preacher [Sam Childers, a former gang member who crusades for Sudanese orphans], and he's like, 'Who do you travel with?' And I say, 'I just go with three people.' "

Once, while in Sudan with his father, Clooney was held up at gunpoint. It was "in the middle of nowhere and we were pulled over by a bunch of 13-year-old kids with Kalashnikovs, and that's where it's dangerous because it's random violence." Luckily, a colleague just walked over to an assailant and pushed his gun away as if speaking to a child and said, "No."

"I couldn't believe it was that simple," Clooney marvels, "because I was embarrassed at how scared I was."

When he needs refuge from all this, he heads to Lake Como, where he owns a huge waterfront home discovered almost by accident in 2001, when his motorbike broke down right outside it. After the owners invited him in for pizza and asked if he wanted to buy it -- and Clooney learned it was $7.5 million, half the price he had expected -- he pounced.

"I truly bought it as an investment," he says. "I didn't think I'd ever spend time there. I thought, 'Screw it, I'll buy it, hold it for a year, roll it over' -- and then I stayed there and went, 'Oh my God!' It is the thing singularly that I've done for myself that's brought me the most joy. It changed everything in my life."

Clooney has invited Hollywood friends such as fellow Oscar nominee Viola Davis to honeymoon there and has welcomed guests from Walter Cronkite to former United Nations secretary general Kofi Annan. Payne and his editor even cut Descendants in Como. Clooney loves the back-and-forth of conversation and speaks glowingly of late dinners in the fading light.

But his world increasingly is centered on his social causes (he was honored by former Nobel laureates in 2007 with the prestigious Peace Summit Award), his work and his friends. He will appear next in the Proposition 8 play 8, running for one night -- and was thrilled the afternoon of our Feb. 7 discussion that a California court of appeals had overturned the anti-gay marriage resolution. "But they've still got a long way to go and a lot of court battles ahead," he says.

After the play, he'll star in Monument Men, a Nazi-era drama he currently is writing with Heslov, in which he wants his father to play his older self. But he admits at this stage that directing, more than acting, is his greatest passion. "I like acting now, because I am able to be much more selective," he says, "but there's nothing more creative than directing."

His drive as actor, writer and director consumes him, along with his need to create a body of work that genuinely stands the test of time. "When you make those kinds of films, often it's just by the skin of your teeth," he says. "The major thing that scares me isn't failure; I've experienced that a lot. What scares me is not making the attempt."

This man who already has an Oscar, and a body of work that almost anyone in Hollywood would envy, becomes even more pointed. "I'm terrified of dying and having not accomplished the things that I want to do," he says. "I am terrified of not finishing, or at least not participating enough. Everybody has a fear of death, but my fear isn't dying; it's of not getting the job done."


CLOONEY ON CLOONEY: The actor looks back on some of his signature projects.

Out of Sight (1998) -- "Steven Soderbergh and I were both coming off of really low points in our careers. Steven had to audition for [producers] Danny DeVito and Stacey Sher, and I sort of had to audition as well. Initially, Sydney Pollack, who became a very dear friend of mine, was to direct, and when they decided that I was going to do it, he said, 'George isn't a movie star!' "

Three Kings (1999) -- "I saw David [O. Russell, the director with whom Clooney had a famous falling-out] a few weeks ago at a party. There was a bunch of filmmakers there. And I felt compelled to go over and go, 'So are we done?' And he goes, 'Please.' And I said, 'OK.' Because we made a really, really great film, and we had a really rough time together, but it's a case of both of us getting older. I really do appreciate the work he continues to do, and I think he appreciates what I'm trying to do."

O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000) -- "It was hysterical to be shooting the burning-of-the-cross scene, with all these guys in Ku Klux Klan outfits. Half of them were black! We were underneath the Van Nuys airport at 2 in the
morning as the planes were flying in and all they'd see is this cross and this giant parade of [African Americans] dressed like the Ku Klux Klan."

Ocean's Eleven (2001) -- "Putting it together was exactly like the opening of the movie. Steven Soderbergh and I would go to people's homes and sit down and say, 'Here's what we think.' We sat down with Matt Damon and
Julia Roberts and Brad Pitt, and they all signed on and it all worked out easily. But we also sat with Johnny Depp, and we didn't get him. I think the part was for a Brit, and he didn't want to do it."

Good Night, and Good Luck (2005) -- "Fox News and other places were calling me a traitor [for his opposition to the war in Iraq], and my dad said, 'This isn't courage -- what other people did is.' And he talked about the people who really took chances -- when Muhammad Ali said, 'I won't fight in Vietnam.' And that's what made me write Good Night, and Good Luck. I made $120,000 and there was no backend. But honest to God, there was nothing more fun."

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