Jerry Weintraub smelled a rat. It was 1 a.m. and the producer had just returned from a long night of stopping traffic and keeping curious fans at bay on the Las Vegas set of his latest project, Ocean’s 11 — the all-star remake of the 1960 Rat Pack casino-heist flick featuring George Clooney, Brad Pitt, Matt Damon and Julia Roberts — to find a gooey coat of Vaseline on every doorknob in his suite at the Bellagio hotel. Arming himself with a baseball bat, Weintraub stormed down the hall, rapped on the door of Roberts’s suite and bellowed his summons: “Where the hell is Clooney?”
As Roberts feigned sleepy innocence, Weintraub searched her room. Then, hearing a door slam, he swung around to see Clooney and Damon hightailing it down the hall. On another night, Clooney rigged a bucket of water over Roberts’s door — only to soak a hapless bellman who entered first. “The pranks here,” sighs Weintraub, “are akin to Animal House.”
As he approaches his 40th birthday on May 6, there’s no question that George Clooney still likes to have his fun. “He’s not immature, but he hasn’t quite grown up yet,” says Walter Bernstein, who wrote the screenplay for Fail Safe, the classic Cold War thriller Clooney reproduced as a live TV drama last year. “There’s still something unformed about him.” Julianna Margulies, his friend and former ER costar, has noticed too. “George,” she says, “is a grown-up with a kid’s heart.”
And a kid’s attention span, some might argue, when it comes to love. Since his three-year marriage to his first (and only) wife, actress Talia Balsam, 42, ended in 1992, Clooney has never been desperate for a date, squiring such beauties as model and former MTV host Karen Duffy, 39, and actresses Dedee Pfeiffer (Michelle’s sister), 37, and Brooke Langton, 30. But his most serious romance, a three-year live-in relationship with French model C line Balitran, 26, ended when she moved out in 1999, citing his lack of commitment. (“I wanted to have a real family with children,” Balitran told the French magazine Oh La! “But . . . it will never be the right time for George.”) His latest girlfriend, 29-year-old English model and MTV Europe host Lisa Snowdon, spends most of her time in Europe. And even if she were more available, back-to-back movies — including 1999’s Three Kings, last year’s The Perfect Storm and O Brother, Where Art Thou?, and now Ocean’s 11 — have kept Clooney stateside for months at a stretch. Right now, says his close friend, actor and writer Mark Adler, 34, “the longest, probably most well-nurtured relationship in George’s life is Max” — the 150-lb. potbellied pig Clooney has parented since the mid-’80s.
Why can’t Clooney commit? “The why is easy,” says another friend, Perfect Storm director Wolfgang Petersen. “If you really dig into it with him, it’s his first marriage. I think it was an experience that kept him feeling like being single is just paradise.” (Balsam, the daughter of actors Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten, has said Clooney “spent more time with his friends than me” during the marriage.) Looking back, Clooney told Playboy last year, he had “felt sort of cornered” by marriage. By the end he’d put on 25 lbs. and developed a stomach ulcer. “He has been extremely public about saying that he is never going to get married again,” says Adler. “I don’t think that he will. I think he really made an effort in his first marriage, and it really hurt him that it didn’t work out. And he’ll tell you, he wasn’t very good at being a husband.”
Which is not to say that Clooney isn’t a catch. Beyond the matinee-idol looks and fabled charm, “he’s what we used to call a ‘ride-back guy,’ ” says Three Kings producer Paul Junger Witt, “the one in Westerns who would ride back and get you if you were shot off your horse.” Or simply couldn’t pay your bills. While on ER, “we lost a lot of crew members to cancer,” recalls Margulies. “George was the first person there by the family’s side with money, if that’s what they needed, or to help the children through school.” Recently he dropped $1,000 into a pot that crew members on Ocean’s use for a dollar-a-player lucky draw. And on the set of O Brother, recalls his costar Tim Blake Nelson, Clooney treated his castmates to shiny new mountain bikes. “He just showed up at my trailer one day and said, ‘Here. It’s a long way to the set every day, and I want you to have this,’ ” Nelson recalls. “It was so natural the way he did it and so low-key.”
Clooney is equally generous with his gang of eight longtime friends — including Adler, Spin City‘s Richard Kind, 44, and actor Tommy Hinkley, 40 — whom he has known since his early days in Hollywood. An average Sunday at Casa de Clooney (as the actor calls his eight-bedroom house in the Hollywood Hills) begins with an early-morning ride on the Indian motorcycles Clooney bought “the boys” for Christmas in 1999. “His idea of a great day is playing basketball with his friends, having a barbecue, taking a steam and watching a basketball game that night,” says Adler, who moved in with Clooney for two years after his own marriage broke up in 1995.
At work too, Clooney is a guy’s guy. “We’re just short of sitting in a room like in Jaws, showing off our scars,” says Ocean’s costar Don Cheadle. “It really is a guy’s movie, and he’s right at home in that atmosphere.” He’s also at home in a 24-hour town like Vegas. Over six weeks of shooting there, Clooney has been cruising the clubs (from the Foundation Room at the top of the Mandalay Bay hotel to the ritzy V Bar at the Venetian), chowing down at the upmarket steakhouse Prime and playing golf nearly every morning before work. While filming a few scenes for Ocean’s in Florida in February, the longtime Cincinnati Reds fan stopped by spring training, hanging out in the dugout to watch the Yankees train at Tampa’s Legends Field, where he impressed team manager Joe Torre as refreshingly “down-to-earth.” Says Torre: “He was like a kid in a candy store.”
The dancers at Naked City, an Atlantic City strip club, might have made a similar observation. In town for yet another Ocean’s location shoot, Clooney checked things out at the neon-lit joint before moving on to the Atlantic City Bar & Grill after 2 a.m., flanked by three of the club’s dancers and at least one pal. “They were beautiful girls, dressed really well — not cheesy,” says Gino Garofalo, who owns the Bar & Grill and chatted with Clooney as the star — blending with the crowd in khakis, a sweater and white baseball cap — chomped on chicken fingers with hot sauce and washed it down with Jack Daniel’s. Says Garofalo: “He was eating, partying and having a great time.”
Those priorities don’t seem to bother Snowdon. “She is no prude. She has got an open mind,” says an MTV colleague. Photographer Alan Strutt, who has known her for 10 years, calls her “a bit of a party girl.” The daughter of hairdresser Lydia Behar, 48, and insurance salesman Nigel Snawdon, 49, Snowdon adopted her more mellifluous surname when she began modeling as a teenager. She and Clooney met last October on the Barcelona set of an Italian TV commercial, where Snowdon was playing a party hostess who answers the doorbell and is startled to find superstar Clooney on the steps. She had rehearsed the scene at least 20 times with a stand-in when the real Clooney — who wasn’t due until the next day — arrived unannounced and sneaked into his place, causing Snowdon to abandon the script: “You bugger!” she yelled, before collapsing in giggles.
In the months that followed, the pair were seen out and about together in London and L.A. On Jan. 21, Snowdon accompanied Clooney to the Golden Globes, where he won the award for best actor in a musical or comedy for O Brother, Where Art Thou? And when she was rushed to a hospital to have her appendix removed while visiting him on location in Vegas last month, Clooney took time off from the shoot to be with her. “We’re having the best time,” a presurgery Snowdon recently told the British magazine Hello! “It’s really cool. He is quite romantic and likes lots of candlelight, hot bubble baths and dinners out, quiet dinners in.”
For his part, Clooney is remaining characteristically quiet. Even his father, Nick Clooney, a Cincinnati morning radio host and former TV broadcaster, is in the dark when it comes to his son’s love life. “I’ve said to him a couple of times in the past, ‘Hey, what do you think? Is it gonna work out with this great lady?’ ” says the senior Clooney, 66. George’s standard reply? “Yeah, uh, I don’t know.”
For now, at least, the elder Clooney can forget fishing with grandchildren. Just ask Michelle Pfeiffer and Nicole Kidman, who in 1996 bet Clooney $10,000 apiece that he would be a father by 40. “I don’t have any interest in (having kids),” he told Vogue last June. “I just don’t think that it’s something you can do casually.” It’s not that Clooney doesn’t like kids, explains his friend Adler. “He’s just not going to father someone he can’t be a father to. He won’t have a child and be gone seven months out of the year. He recognizes the value of being a parent.”
That’s something Clooney and his sister Ada, an accountant who turns 41 on May 2, picked up from Nick and his wife, Nina, 61, a onetime beauty queen, back in Augusta, Ky. Loath to leave his family at home, Nick often brought the whole clan to the TV studios in nearby Cincinnati that broadcast his variety shows. George even had his screen debut on one of them — playing a leprechaun in a St. Patrick’s Day special at age 5. “We always thought he would be a stand-up comic,” says Nick. “He was so hilariously funny.”
Instead, in 1982 Clooney dropped out of Northern Kentucky University — where he had studied theater but majored in partying — and set off for California in a ’76 Monte Carlo with $300 he’d saved from a part-time job cutting tobacco. He made it as far as Tulsa before the Monte Carlo had its first breakdown. After that, says Nick, “George huffed and puffed his way to Hollywood on a wing and a prayer.”
His early career also spent some time in the breakdown lane. After doing odd jobs for his famous aunt Rosemary Clooney for a few months, Clooney began landing small TV roles — in The Facts of Life, Roseanne and Sisters. Finally in 1994, when he was cast as ER‘s smooth operator Dr. Doug Ross, the 33-year-old Clooney got his break.
These days Clooney can pick his roles — and does. When the hip Coen Brothers asked him to star in O Brother for a fraction of his usual $12 million fee, he jumped at the chance without even reading the script. For Ocean’s, in which he stars as Danny Ocean (the role originally played by Frank Sinatra) and also coproduces, Clooney not only slashed his own pay but persuaded Roberts, Damon, Pitt and Andy Garcia — whose combined paychecks would have gobbled up most of the movie’s $90 million budget — to do the same. “I think he’s lucky that he hit his success so late,” says Ocean’s director Steven Soderbergh. When it comes to dealing with fame, “he doesn’t have to go through the anxiety a younger actor feels.”
Maybe so. But even superstars are allowed a few anxieties when they’re faced with turning 40. By all accounts Clooney has approached this impending milestone with characteristic cool — but for one small insecurity. Says his father: “He keeps checking my hairline. He wants to know his is going to be all right in 25 years.”
At this rate, everything will be just fine.
— ANNE-MARIE O’NEILL
— MICHELLE CARUSO, MARK DAGOSTINO, MICHAEL FLEEMAN and ELIZABETH LEONARD in Los Angeles, KELLY WILLIAMS in Chicago, SHARON COTLIAR in Atlantic City, ANTOINETTE COULTON in New York City, KRISTIN HARMEL in Tampa, ROBIN MICHELI in Rome, DECLAN WHITE in Dublin and CARIS DAVIS in London