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Success, fame and wealth all have come George Clooney’s way. But, he says
‘It’s Finally About Friendship And Loyalty’
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“I like to think of myself as the Pete Rose of actors,” George Clooney said. “Pete Rose wasn’t the most talented athlete, but he made up for most of it with hustle. I sold suits, insurance, drew caricatures at a mall, sold women’s shoes, stumbled through a million things and ended up on a movie set because someone said, ‘You really ought to give acting a shot.’ The only failure I know is never making the attempt. I had to try.”

George Clooney, 37, spent 12 years making numerous television pilots that were not picked up and eight TV series that were, but he didn’t win stardom until 1994, playing Dr. Doug Ross on ER, the hit NBC show that has consistently been the top-rated television drama. In the last two years, he has starred in four films: One Fine Day, From Dusk Till Dawn, The Peacemaker and Batman & Robin. The latter—the first in a $28 million, three-picture deal with Warner Bros. —was the least successful of the Batman films. While unquestionably a major TV star, Clooney has yet to prove his clout at the box office. His new movie, Out of Sight, a romantic crime caper with Jennifer Lopez, opens this month.

Despite his current stardom, Clooney has not had an easy journey. He had a difficult time finding his way as an actor in Hollywood, his marriage to the woman he most wanted ended unhappily, and—at a critical point in his career —a man he had admired and loved since childhood died in his presence, changing Clooney’s life. I visited Clooney at his home in Los Angeles and found this notably private man surprisingly open about his life and the friendships and values that sustain him. I started by asking about his childhood.

“I had a very strict family,” he began. “My father’s a big liberal Democrat, but that doesn’t mean he was liberal in any way with his kids. My mother was easier than my father, but both were tough disciplinarians. My parents had immense confidence in their own and their kids’ abilities. You always felt you’d succeed if you did things for the right reasons.”

George Clooney and his older sister, Ada, grew up Irish Catholic in various small, rural towns in Kentucky, near Cincinnati, Ohio. The family moved often, as his father, Nick, went from job to job as host of a series of radio and TV programs before becoming a successful local news anchor. (Today Nick Clooney is a host on the American Movie Classics cable channel.) His mother, Nina, a former beauty queen, had a cable-TV talk show, and his aunt is the great pop and jazz singer Rosemary Clooney.

“By the time I was 5, I was always on my dad’s variety show,” Clooney recalled. “My mom did audience bits. I worked the cue cards, did skits and commercials. My sister worked too. It was like Andy Hardy: My family put on a show. My dad also did about 200 personal appearances a year at public functions, and we were part of the act. We’d be fighting in the car on the way over, but when we’d get out of the car and people would shout, ‘Nick!’ and ask for autographs, we’d have our arms around each other, smiling. After the show, we’d get back in the car and sulk all the way home.” Clooney laughed. “But I understood there is the real you and the public persona. Two different people. You try to keep them separate, like I do now. When you can’t anymore, that’s when you’re in trouble.”

As a child of a local celebrity, Clooney assumed that the line between private and public life was respected. Today he feels it isn’t. Several years ago he began a campaign against the paparazzi, involving himself in a national controversy over the rights of privacy that intensified after the death of Princess Diana. “The paparazzi are not the press,” he said. “We’re always going to be a society that slows down to see a car wreck on the side of the road. But you can’t put the wreck there just to slow us down. You can’t create news. I don’t care about a man taking my picture in a public place, but I care if he comes into my yard and shoots in my bedroom window.”

In 1979, Clooney graduated from Augusta (Ky.) High School, where he had been an indifferent student but a star athlete. “I was good at a lot of sports,” he recalled. “I even tried out for the Cincinnati Reds baseball team. I’d been in a world where I was the best around, and then I went into a camp where all the best around met, and I was nowhere as good as those guys. They threw rockets. When I realized I was never going to be those guys, I could walk away because I’d at least given it a run. My greatest skill is probably understanding my own limitations.”

“I had no idea what I was going to do,” he continued. “I bounced from job to job, never mastering any of them, because I secretly thought I’d never be great at it. I went to Northern Kentucky University. I went all these routes, trying to figure out what I could be. I couldn’t live with the idea of just being Nick Clooney and Rosemary Clooney’s relative all my life. I needed success or failure on my own. I had to make a name for myself.”

In the summer of 1982, his cousin Miguel Ferrer, son of Rosemary Clooney and José Ferrer, arrived in Lexington, Ky., to make a low-budget movie. He invited George to join him. Clooney dropped out of college and spent three months on a sofa in Miguel’s hotel room. He was in only one small scene (the film was never released), but it was sufficient. “When I found acting,” Clooney said, “I was enthralled. All of a sudden that whole Hollywood shine came down on this town in Kentucky, and I was taken away.”

With the $700 he’d earned cutting tobacco as a field hand in Kentucky, Clooney headed to L.A. At first he stayed at his Aunt Rosemary’s house, then he moved in with a friend, Thom Mathews, an actor, where he stayed for eight months.

“We took a bunk-bed mattress and laid it on the floor of the walk-in closet in Thom’s small apartment,” Clooney recalled. “I lived in that closet, and it was the greatest time of my life. Because of it, Thom will always be my best friend.”

It was during his first years in L.A. that Clooney found the people who today remain his closest friends—people who looked after him in a hundred small ways, he said. They proved their loyalty to him then. “The only virtue is loyalty,” he stated. “If you’re going to err, it has to be on the side of your friends.”

“It’s easy to be loyal when you’re on top of the wave and things are going well,” he added. “The test is when they’re not.”

Clooney took acting classes, paying his tuition by cleaning up and working in construction. He snagged small roles in showcases and small theaters for no pay. Gradually, he began to get paid work. Over the next eight years or so, he starred in unsuccessful TV pilots and forgettable films. In 1988-89, during its first season, he played the boss on Roseanne.

In 1989, Clooney married Talia Balsam. He had fallen in love with her six years earlier when both were acting in an L.A. theater production. He pursued her despite the fact she was seeing someone else. They dated for a year and a half, broke up and then found each other again. But after three years, the marriage ended.

“Talia and I were together for a long time,” Clooney said quietly, reluctantly. “She was the girl I chased and was in love with, the girl I always wanted to marry. I was 28, and in Kentucky when you get to be that age, you’re supposed to get married, and you know exactly what the marriage should be like. I had this image of marriage. When ours didn’t exactly fit that image, I thought it didn’t work. I wasn’t very bright about it. We had to reconstruct our marriage a little bit, and I wasn’t willing to do that. I walked away. I could have been scared. Maybe I wasn’t ready to be married. It was my fault all the way down the line.”

Although Clooney has declared he will never marry again or have children, he dates regularly and is currently involved with Céline Balitran, 24, a beautiful French law student who now lives in L.A.

Clooney lives in a sprawling, eight-bedroom, mock-Tudor house on many expensive acres below a nature preserve. Outside there are tennis courts, a pool, gardens and a pen for Max, Clooney’s 150-pound pig. Inside the house is a half-completed screening room, a partially finished kitchen and general masculine disarray. It is here that Clooney’s best friends, the seven men he has known for 16 years and calls “The Boys,” hang out and play basketball on weekends, drink beer, watch sports and generally act as what they are: his chosen family. In their bluntness, honesty and affection, they give him what he needs—a sense of who he really is and what matters in life. “We all keep in touch,” Clooney said. “We’ve all crashed on each other’s couches over breakups, whatever. The great thing is we’re all supportive of each other.”

George Clooney has a strong, handsome face, his large brown eyes intelligent and gentle, and in them one occasionally catches an unguarded look of vulnerability undisguised by his easy smile. One senses an unspoken sadness. When asked about it, he replied by speaking of George Guilfoyle, the great-uncle after whom he was named.

“My Uncle George was a bomber pilot at 22 who flew 15 missions over Germany in the war,” Clooney said. “He was the manager of Rosemary and her sister, Betty, when they started out singing. He was an all-star basketball player, a good-looking, witty guy who dated Miss America. He was on fire with life.”

He paused a moment, then added: “But I didn’t know him then. I knew him when he was a man who trained horses, became a drunk and slept in a barn. He was a guy who never lived up to his potential, but he could still walk into a room and light it up. He was the guy you wanted to teach you how to throw a baseball when you were little, the guy who could captivate you and with a story teach you some sort of moral. He was everything you’d want from a man except success. We had a very close and special relationship. I loved him very much, and when he died of cancer in 1990, I was holding his hand. It changed my life dramatically. I don’t know if I believe in heaven or even God, but I thought my Uncle George might be somewhere watching me, seeing how I did.”

What Clooney did first, when he returned to L.A. after his uncle’s death, was quit his acting job at the time, because he would not tolerate what he felt was the cruel behavior on the set toward other actors. “It wasn’t about me,” he said. “But by knowing about it, seeing it and doing nothing, I was culpable. I was part of it. I walked away, thinking my career was over. Five days later I got another pilot.” Clooney went on to another series, NBC’s Sisters, and then ER.

“I'm now aware of how brief life is,” he said, “and how you have to mark every day and make it matter—not just the best moments, the award nominations, the opening nights. If all my life is about is these satellite moments, what then? They come, and they’re gone. I have to live it whole. It’s finally about friendship and loyalty and treating people right.”

Can Clooney Make it big as a movie star?

One Fine Day, 1996
Clooney and Michelle Pfeiffer played divorced New Yorkers who fall in love. The film was a moderate success.

From Dusk Till Dawn, 1996
This dark film, co-starring Quentin Tarantino (r), generally was panned and did poorly at the box office.

The Peacemaker, 1997
Clooney’s first film for the new studio DreamWorks, a thriller with Nicole Kidman, was a critical and financial disappointment.

Batman & Robin, 1997
Though it grossed $107 million, this was the least successful of four Batman movies.

Out of Sight, 1998
Clooney plays a bank robber on the run, and Jennifer Lopez is a U.S. marshal out to find him.
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