One day, when Clooney was 14, he was eating with his family at a Frisch's Big Boy in his Ohio hometown, when he took a sip of milk and it suddenly began to dribble out the side of his mouth. It was the beginning of Bell's palsy, a form of facial paralysis. His sister Adelia had had it and recovered, now he had it. His face went tingly, his tongue went numb, one eye wouldn't shut. He was a freshman in high school. His classmates called him Cloon-dog, because his face took on that droopy basset-hound look. Not a pretty sight. Complicating matters was his father, Nick, who was a local TV newsman and the host of his own morning TV talk show.
"You have to remember that in the microcosm of Cincinnati, Ohio, through northern Kentucky, my father was a big star, still is. So that made my sister and me really visible. Everybody knew us, talked about us. If I scored 15 points in a basketball game, the paper would say, 'Nick Clooney's son scored 15 points.' So, it was very awkward, being watched like that, everybody looking at us, and then all of a sudden your face goes flat? My dad would always say, 'It's going to go away, you'll be fine, you can handle it.' But it was a tricky thing. So, you develop a better personality and learn how to make jokes about it."
In other words, he started acting.
Around that time, sometimes the family had money, sometimes they didn't. His mom, Nina, a former beauty queen, knew her way around a pair of scissors, and to save money, she made George's clothes and cut his hair, favoring the goofball bowl-cut look. His father was strict. That didn't slow George down much, however. He'd get into trouble and get grounded, and then go do it all over again. And when his father told a risque joke at a dinner party but could not bring himself to utter the dirty punch line, his son would immediately rise to the occasion. "I'd say, 'Because of her tits!' or some stupid thing, and the table would just explode laughing, with my dad kicking me under the table. But see, even at the age of six, I understood what to do to get a laugh."
He lost his virginity at the age of 16 ("young, very young, too young"). Being a Catholic, he knew masturbation was a sin, but realizing even then that it was "crucial!" he did it anyway, after which, for absolution, he would fill his shoes with gravel and jump off the top of his bunk bed, only sometime later figuring out that jerking off wasn't the worst of all possible sins: "If you look at that list of top ten sins, it's not specifically listed. I mean, in general, there's nothing about "Thou shalt not handle thine Johnson.'"
In school, his grades were good and he was a star athlete, basketball and baseball. At the age of 17, he tried out for the Cincinnati Reds, got freaked by an 80-mile-an-hour pitch aimed at his head, and ditched his dreams of going pro. Instead, he went to college, Northern Kentucky University, to study journalism, and went wild, drinking, chasing skirts, skipping classes and eventually dropping out. He returned home, took odd jobs, and even cut tobacco for a living ("a miserable job") until the day that his aunt, the late, great singer Rosemary Clooney, and her husband, actor Jose Ferrer, asked if he wanted a small part in a horse-racing flick (And They're Off!) Ferrer was shooting nearby. He saddled up and suddenly knew what he wanted to do with his life – something, in fact, he had been doing ever since his early dinner-table-comedian and Bell's-palsy days.
It was 1982. In short order, he shoved $300 into his pocket; packed up his crummy Monte Carlo; listened politely as his father told him he didn't have what it takes to be an actor. "I said every cliche I could," recalls Nick Clooney. "I said, 'Just go back to school, George.' Even after he got to California, we'd talk on the phone and I'd say, 'Why don't you just come on back. We'll pay for school. You'll have something to fall back on.' I kept on saying that until the day he paused after my exhortation and said, 'Pop, you know what? If I have something to fall back on, you know what I'll do? I'll fall back.' That sure stopped me. I never said anything like that again."
Clooney car-camped to Hollywood; partied like crazy, mainly booze, some coke and many quaaludes ("I thought quaaludes were the greatest drug ever made!"); went to auditions where, like most actors, he auditioned meekly, hat in hand; got some parts, Sunset Beat, Street Hawk, Combat High, nothings; watched as his alcoholic namesake uncle, Uncle George, died of lung cancer, muttering as he went down, "What a waste"; decided right then that if death was inevitable, he'd lead life on his own terms; got a recurring part on The Facts of Life; sometimes went to auditions with a dog as a prop, leading the casting people to say, "What the fuck?"
By the early Nineties, he was making $400,000 a year appearing regularly on forgettable TV shows. Nice money, but not necessarily career-making work. In 1994, he was offered a part in a medical-drama pilot for tiny bucks. He took the tiny bucks, and soon the ratings for ER hit the 40-million-viewer mark. He was a TV superstar. Then, in 1998, Soderbergh directed him in Out of Sight, co-starring Jennifer Lopez. "At the time, we both knew we were getting our shot, and if we fucked it up, that was it," says Soderbergh. "But while the movie didn't make money, it was a creative success, and you can't look at George in it and not go, 'OK, that guy is a movie star.'" And soon enough he became so much more. He became the Last True Movie Star, the Last American Man, etc. Crazy.
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