Has any movie star in the history of movie stars ever been more perfect than George Clooney? Look at him now, sitting in his house high up in the Hollywood Hills, off-white khakis, matching socks, spotless tan desert boots, natty blue polo shirt, dreamy, chocolaty-brown eyes, broad shoulders, a straight line of white (but not too white) teeth, hair graying distinguishedly, legs crossed confidently, the easygoing smile and aura of calm assurance. He is talking about something or other – maybe the failure of politicians these days (“We’re living in a time where we’re so fucking polarized, it’s insane”), maybe the atrocities in Darfur, maybe he’s even saying a few words about his latest two movies, a political drama called The Ides of March (“It’s not designed for everybody to see, but I don’t give a shit. I don’t need to be more famous and we shot it for $12 million, so anything we do is nice”) and a darkly amusing family drama called The Descendants (“If it’s not nominated for Best Picture, I’ll be shocked. It’s that good”). In truth, however, it’s exceedingly difficult to hear anything over the blare of how perfect everything is, both him and his entire orbit. This house, for instance, isn’t just a house; it’s an English Tudor kingdom, with a basketball-and-tennis court, a swimming pool, wet bars, waterfalls, a stainless-steel grill (“I do a mean lamb chop! I’m a master griller!”), a 3D screening room and a Louisville Slugger baseball bat, model C271, hidden under the master-suite bed, for Clooney to use on intruders should anyone ever intrude (which no one ever has). Then there’s his lush 18th-century villa on Lake Como, in Italy, where famous folks like to gather, get down, and jump off a wall into the lake (“I got Charlie Rose to do it a few weeks ago, after chumming the water with Marisa Tomei and Evan Rachel Wood”). And then there are the girlfriends, always beautiful, always leggy (“I’ve always been kind of a leg man”), and when it’s time for them to go, they always go without fuss or harsh public comment. Really, it’s almost unbelievable and nearly too much.
And so here he sits, at his leisure, smoothing down his trousers, saying, “I think one of the major misconceptions about me is that I live my life the way people think I lead my life, with hot and cold drinks running everywhere and a party all the time. They think of my life in terms of certain excesses that don’t really exist. Things are actually fairly simple.” Case in point, how today started: “Let’s see,” he says. “Up at 7:30, with my damn dog at the bedroom door. Einstein. He’s a shelter dog. His name should be Jackpot. Anyway, I put on a robe and came down and fed the dog. I brushed my teeth and took a leak – simultaneously, if you can, would be a very good move, but if I did that, I’d get toothpaste on my balls. Then I took a shower, worked up a good sweat on the stationary bicycle, and I took another shower. After that, a doctor came over for this physical I get every six months. He took blood, cans of blood. He also took my blood pressure, which was very low, by the way, 98 over 68.”
Of course it was. How could it be otherwise? The looks, the money, the fame, the charm, the women, the sheer decency of the guy, the doctor who makes house calls – you name it, he’s got it, and now the low blood pressure, too, by the way. It’s not fair. It’s just not fair that it should all happen to one guy. What about the rest of us? Achoo, gesundheit, bubkis? At the very least, however, he must have paid a price for it. And it must have been a very dear price, indeed.
All the time he gets compared to the greats Steve McQueen, Cary Grant, Gregory Peck – and the theorizing about him is endless. He’s the Last True Movie Star. He’s the Last American Man. He’s Hollywood’s perennial bachelor prankster and its most powerful silver-haired statesman. He’s among the very few who can do comedy (O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Intolerable Cruelty), action (Three Kings, The Perfect Storm), drama (Up in the Air, Michael Clayton), voice-over (Fantastic Mr. Fox), public service (Syriana, Good Night, and Good Luck), feel-good (The Ocean‘s series) and feel-bad (The American), as well as make the leap from lots of TV (five seasons on ER) to movies while surviving any number of bombs (Batman & Robin, One Fine Day). Furthermore, he’s known as the king of schmooze and the definition of class. To the left, he’s kind of an angel; to the right, he’s more like an idiot. He’s certainly a guy you can count on. “One quality that really sets him apart,” says Steven Soderbergh, who has directed him in six movies, “is that he only picks fights with people who are as powerful as he is, and that’s rare in this business.” So, he’s all this disparate stuff. But the one unifying element you consistently hear about Clooney is, he is always himself. The Clooney you see in the movies is the same Clooney you read about, is the same Clooneywho goes to Darfur, is the same Clooney who is sitting here right now saying, “I really am very much what people assume.” There is no separation, and pretty much he hides nothing.
Want to know if he, a boozer of some renown, maybe has a drinking problem? Thrusting his noble head forward, he would be pleased to answer that question. “I’m not a big drink-by-myself kind of guy, but I drink plenty,” he says. “I enjoy drinking. I’ve gone through phases where I’ve drunk too much and had to say, ‘OK, I’ve had too many hangovers in a row now, and I need to mellow this out.’ Last time I had a real good bender was after I injured my neck while making Syriana. Getting hammered made the pain a lot easier to deal with, and for a good three months I was pretty thumped every night.”
Want to go back a few years and discuss the circumstances of his first orgasm? Not a problem; in fact, he’s enthusiastic. “I believe it was while climbing a rope when I was six or seven years old,” he says, his voice rising. “I mean, nothing came out, but all the other elements were there. I remember getting to the top of the rope, hanging off the rope, and going, ‘Oh, my God, this feels great!'”
Want to know if Max, the Vietnamese black-bristled potbellied pig he owned and loved for 18 years, had bed-sharing rights? Ask away. “Yes, he did, for quite some time, until he got a little too fat.”
Want to know if he has a girlfriend right now? Um, actually, no, he will not answer that question. “I might have a girlfriend, but I’m never going to talk about it. I get one thing to keep to myself.” And let’s say you take a tour of his house that ends up in his sleeping quarters, where in the dressing alcove he keeps dozens of white shirts encased behind glass like they were rare wine, and after looking under his bed and finding that baseball bat, you want to know if there’s anything interesting in his bedside table; what he’ll gently say as he ushers you out is, “Probably not,” which can only mean, probably yes. But other than those few things, he’s more than willing to open himself up, as he always has been.
At the same time, however, that doesn’t mean absolutely everything is out there. He’s not keeping secrets. It’s just that some parts of his life have never really been looked at or examined. His angry-George period, for example. He had one of those, big-time. It was back in the Nineties. His career was doing OK. But he was angry. He’d get angry at other drivers on the road, “the fucking idiots,” and roll down his window to yell, “You fucking assholes!” He’d break his golf clubs and throw them in the lake. He’d smash his tennis racket. He’d fly into jealous rages – “horrible rages where you drive around the girl’s apartment, ‘I know she’s with this other guy!'” Offended by some acquaintance, he’d draft a letter that featured words like “cocksucker” and “flaming asshole.” It was bad. And it wasn’t driven by anything like, say, his longstanding distaste for bullies, which led to the infamous incident where he throttled abusive director David O. Russell during the making of 1999’s Three Kings and had to be physically dragged away. That’s a justifiable anger. This other anger wasn’t.
“I haven’t been like that for years and years,” Clooney says today, “but, yeah, there was that period. I wish I had some understanding of where it all came from. But who the fuck knows, right?” Well, no one if not him. But he’s not a guy naturally given to introspection. One day, for instance, he’s asked to complete a few half-started sentences.
“Sure,” he says. “Go.”
I am “50.”
It’s fun to daydream about “Cabo San Lucas.”
I feel that my father seldom “Disappoints me.”
Masturbation is “Crucial!”
My conscience bothers me “Only at night and during the day.”
My friends don’t know that I’m afraid of “My friends.”
See how he is, all quippy and deflective? Could he please stop that?
What I like least about women – He opens his mouth, nothing comes out. Then he says, “There’s nothing but quippy answers.”
How about they all want to get married? He frowns. “But that’s not true, and that’s not what I like least about women.”
Then what is?
“I don’t know. I’ve never thought it through. I would also argue that you’ve boxed me in by saying, ‘Don’t do what you do.’ I’d argue that you’ve taken away all my tools.” He looks agitated. He doesn’t like this game anymore. But that’s OK, because Clooney is not a guy you’d ever like to see at a loss for words. It just seems wrong, like some kind of cosmic violation of the way things should be.
My name is –, and the world is – He smiles. This one he can handle. “My name is George and the world is in trouble,” he says. “I can name you 40 hot spots in the world right now, and not just physically violent hot spots, but financially violent hot spots as well.” And off he goes, back on an even keel.
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.
The most important thing to know about Clooney’s past, however, is that from the beginning his parents raised him to behave a certain way, especially at his father’s many starring-role public appearances.
“My sister and I never really loved doing those,” Clooney says one day. “You had to be on. It was show-business time. You were required to entertain. At seven years old, you had to get up onstage and say something. We were an entertainment family. Both my mom and I did commercials on my dad’s show. The whole family was like a vaudeville act. And there were times when I’d rather hang out with my friends and play baseball. And my sister just wanted to read. And my parents could be silently unhappy. And we could have these long drives to an event. But once we got out of the car, it was show business, baby. You’re on. It’s like, ‘Hey, hey!’ and we’re like, ‘Yay!’ and the whole family was smiling, and we’d get back in the car, and nobody would talk.”
Manners were also deemed important. “At the dinner table,” he goes on, “it was like, ‘Don’t chew with your mouth open, don’t start eating until everybody’s ready to eat, don’t put your elbows on the table.’ It’s funny. Some of those rules I still have in my head.” He pauses. “I remember my dad was just dicking around once, we were at a Reds game, I was putting too much mustard on my hot dog, and he said, ‘Not too much, it’ll give you a heart attack.’ Even to this day, putting mustard on a hot dog, I’ll think to myself, ‘Uh-oh, I better watch it. I don’t want to end up with a heart attack.'”
All of which goes a long way toward explaining the kind of man Clooney has become. If nothing else, he is the most refined of movie stars, never a salt-and-pepper strand of hair out of place. And he’s also pretty perfect in lots of other ways. Let’s not forget that.
Among his past girlfriends: Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle’s sister), Kelly Preston (with whom he got his beloved pig, Max), Talia Balsam (wife, m. 1989, d. 1993), Celine Balitran (French law student, 1996-1999), Krista Allen (actress, two Clooney breakups, 2004 and 2006), Lisa Snowdon (model, lasted five years, great bosom), Sarah Larson (Vegas cocktail waitress, 2008), Elisabetta Canalis (Italian model). And now there’s Stacy Keibler, 32, a pro wrestler who has taken to tweeting daffy stuff like, “I’m in heaven” and “I’m smiling all day long.”
Really, you’d think Clooney would put the kibosh on that kind of thing. But, no.
“She can do whatever she wants,” he says. “I rarely tell anybody what they should be doing with their life.”
So, he has no rules for his girls?
He snorts. “No. No rules. No sit-downs. No nothing.”
So, anyway, will he ever get married? More snorting. “I answered that question in 1997, having recently been divorced, and I really haven’t addressed it since. It’s one of those things, like many things in my life, that get picked up and repeated and are made to seem like new news.”
OK. Fine. Be that way.
Einsten curls up next to him on the couch. Clooney strokes his head. He chose this particular cocker spaniel for two reasons: It had been abused and needed a better life, and it was already housebroken. “I’m horrible at training. I had two bulldogs before that would just sit on the floor in front of me and shit. I was never good at smacking dogs or anything.” Then, over the next little while, he adds considerably to his list of perfections. For one, the word “Johnson” always makes him laugh. “Always. ‘He showed her his Johnson and she left.’ You can actually say that in mixed company or on late-night TV.” Farting, too, especially when he’s hanging out with his pals. “We think it’s one the funniest things in the history of mankind. Even the idea of a fart makes me laugh. Saying the word ‘fart’ makes me laugh. I have iFart on my phone. I have remote whoopee cushions. Farts. To me, there’s nothing funnier.”
What else makes the list? Him saying, “I’m the least metrosexual cat you’ve ever met. I’ve never had my fingernails or toenails done, and I’ve cut my own hair longer than other people have cut my hair.” Him saying, “On an awards-show day, I can play basketball, go in, take a shower and put on a tux – it takes me three minutes to put on a tux – and be out the door in 15 minutes.” Him being just so at ease with himself that in his company he puts you at ease, too. When he grins, you grin, and he does a lot of grinning, because he says a lot of things worth grinning about.
Is he a big spooner with girls?
Nods. “Unless I’m forking.” Grins.
He’s incredibly alpha, too, but in a good way. Let’s say you want to play the kids’ game of slap hands with him. He instantly assumes the first-slap position. He slaps with unnerving speed – but never so hard as to hurt, only to let you know. And when you finally do catch a break, he senses your lack of coordination and discreetly lets you get in a few whacks of your own. Nice. In fact, it’s all so great. But it’s this very greatness that can make you slightly nauseous and lead you to wonder if not hope that he had to pay some horrendous price for it all.
Certainly, he has suffered, most painfully after he injured his spine while making Syriana and starting blowing spinal fluid out his nose. “I was at a point where I thought, I can’t exist like this. I can’t actually live.’ I was lying in a hospital bed with an IV in my arm, unable to move, having these headaches where it feels like you’re having a stroke, and for a short three-week period, I started to think, ‘I may have to do something drastic about this.’ You start to think in terms of, you don’t want to leave a mess, so go in the garage, go in the car, start the engine. It seems like the nicest way to do it, but I never thought I’d get there. See, I was in a place where I was trying to figure out how to survive.” The surgery helped, but he still gets those headaches, just not as bad.
And of course there is the movie star’s loss of privacy, which is the one thing that Clooney says bothers him most about being a celebrity. But, really, there just has to be something more.
One day, Clooney’s at his office, doing what he does best, being perfect. Let’s say you’re returning from using the bathroom where you have contemplated washing your hands but haven’t. He sees you. The first thing he says is, “Hey, I hope you washed your hands.” How is that possible? Are there hidden cameras in the bathroom? How could he know that you didn’t? Probably because, along with everything else, he divines truth.
But then the discussion begins to revolve around irrational fears and whether he’s ever had any. He crosses his legs. “When I was young,” he says, “I had this very irrational fear that I could just fucking do something. My father and I would climb up on a bridge, 200 feet to the ground, and I’d think, ‘I could just jump. I could step out, and it would be all over.’ And when that gets in your head, it’s all you can think of.” He pauses, shifts, continues. “In a more practical sense, when I was 12, I would run the teleprompter for my dad when he was doing the news live and I kept thinking, ‘I could just jump in front of the camera right now and go, “Fuck, fuck, fuck!” and there’s nothing anyone could do.’ And then that’s all I could think about, and I had to force myself not to do it. And then it became this thing I had with everything. I could stand up in church and yell obscenities. I could just get up and do this right now. And walls would come crashing down, and the whole world would shatter.”
And there it is, just like that. Why Clooney is the way he is, and the price he has had to pay. When the fate of the world rests on your shoulders, perfection is its own price. It’s like with the mustard-can-give-you-a-heart-attack thing: It’s not true, of course, but somewhere, deep down, the belief persists. He may have had that angry period, but it did not last because it could not last, because if it did, the world would shatter. And he would be responsible. What a great guy this Clooney is. The world is in trouble. But fear not. He is on the case and looking out for us all.
This story is from the November 24th, 2011 issue of Rolling Stone.