February 22, 1999 12:00 PM

Everyone on the set of NBC’s ER knew the day—Thurs., Jan. 14—was critical. After five seasons, George Clooney would be shooting his final scene as ‘adorable but trouble-prone pediatrician Douglas Ross. But Clooney was typically, breezily nonchalant, as if his last moments before the camera with Julianna Margulies, who plays Dr. Ross’s girlfriend, nurse Carol Hathaway, were a minor procedure. “George just comes strolling in,” says crew member Steve Robertson, “and he has this box in his hand. He says, ‘Let’s do Dollar Day.’ ” Friday afternoon is usually when cast and crew pitch singles into a box; then a name is drawn, and the winner takes home $100 or so. When a grinning Clooney announced to the set, “You really should get in this,” recalls Robertson, “I sensed he had sweetened the pot.” The perception spread. “People ran to the bank to get dollar bills—I’m not kidding.”

Classic Clooney—the life of the party, even while pulling the plug on the role that made him a star. “We’re losing a helluva guy,” says Noah Wyle, who plays Dr. John Carter. At a celebratory get-together later that day on the lot in Burbank, with 150 friends and coworkers, “George had a great time,” says Ellen Crawford (Nurse Lydia Wright). Given the honor of cutting a cake decorated with his portrait in icing, the 37-year-old actor laughingly threatened to plunge the knife into its sugary jugular. Then he announced the lucky Dollar Day winner: Robertson, in fact, who took home $6,100—$5,000 of it courtesy of a thanks-for-the-memories check dropped in by the star. “Not only did I get to win a check from George,” he jokes, “I got to kiss him, too.”

Presumably, Margulies (who earlier this month announced that she will leave at the end of the 1999-2000 season) has the same privilege in the Feb. 18 episode, the end of a two-parter in which Dr. Ross faces the consequences of his latest act of moral courage and ethical recklessness. The crisis, which began with Ross stealing an experimental painkiller from a clinical test and giving it to a child dying of Lou Gehrig’s disease, reportedly will end with the doctor leaving town to take a job with—the ultimate penance—an HMO. Here, with the cameras rolling and Ross trying to persuade Nurse Hathaway to leave County General Hospital with him, Clooney settled down for what a witness calls “one of the most moving scenes I’ve ever seen on the show.” Says Crawford: “I got kind of teary. It was the first time it really hit me that George wasn’t going to be around. It hit a lot of people in that moment.”

And Clooney? He has never been one to stay choked up once the scene ends. “George makes a very clear distinction between himself as an actor and as a person,” says T.R. Babu Subramaniam, an assistant director. At least Clooney and Margulies hugged at the end of the shoot. And he later told Conni Marie Brazelton (Nurse Conni), “I’ll miss everybody,” then added, “I might come back for some episodes.”

After all, Clooney isn’t exiting under a white sheet, as did Jimmy Smits, whose Detective Simone bid farewell to NYPD Blue in December with his vital organs collapsing and a bizarre vision of Death as a pigeon keeper. Clooney, who seems determined to go with a minimum of drama, has hardly uttered a peep about his decision to quit. “Any announcement is way too self-indulgent for him,” says Kellie Martin, who plays intern Lucy Knight. Explains actor Matt Adler, a member of the close group of male buddies who have shot hoops and hung out with Clooney since his pre-ER days: “George just wants to move on and do something else.”

He’s definitely well-prepped for the next phase. He leaves the show with his own production company with Warner Bros, (he’s already developing a series about the Mob) and a screen career that, if it hasn’t yielded any blockbusters so far, brings him $10 million a movie—enough that he never asked ER producers for a raise from his initial $42,000-an-episode fee. (Anthony Edwards, who plays sensible Dr. Mark Greene, now earns $375,000 an episode.) In fact, Clooney—who even now seems pretty much content to kick back with the guys at his sprawling L.A. home and feed his pet pig Max—surprised many in Hollywood by not bolting sooner, instead insisting on fulfilling his five-year contract. “I’m prouder of that than I am of his great performances,” says his father, American Movie Classics host Nick Clooney. “He kept his word.”

But Clooney’s absence may still feel like desertion to viewers who made the show an overnight hit when it premiered in 1994 and who instantly zeroed in on Clooney as Doctor Dreamboat, the guy with the powerful jaw and an unusually potent charm. It all worked like magic, certainly, on Laura Innes when she joined the show as Dr. Kerry Weaver in 1995: “I was just like, ‘Well, I’m a very logical person—but God! He is really beautiful.’ ” (According to Daily Variety, Wyle stands the best chance of being bumped up to head hunk.) Besides his marquee looks, viewers will also miss Clooney’s acting—low-key but passionate, wild yet somehow rock solid, and good enough to earn him two Emmy nominations. “This was a character George had been waiting to play his whole life,” Margulies told PEOPLE last year. In a career of 15 failed pilots and third-tier roles on such series as Facts of Life and Sisters, “he’d never been given his chance to shine.”

Thanks to Clooney, renegade Dr. Ross has become, if not a role model, then an inspiration to real-life doctors. “He’s what we’d like to be,” says Alan Halpern, medical director of St. John’s emergency room in Santa Monica. Explains his colleague Dr. David Loya: “He always put patients at the forefront, which we try to do, but we have to be less blunt about bucking the system.” St. John’s medic Simone Tizes remembers a 1998 episode in which Ross rushed a drug addict’s baby into detox without proper authorization. “He kept that child in there anyway,” says Tizes. Asked about his own favorite Ross memory, Dr. Victor Candiotty, another St. John’s associate, cites the story line in which Ross befriends a teenage prostitute (Kirsten Dunst) and tries to get her off drugs and away from her pimp. “He didn’t get jaded by the dregs of ER,” says Candiotty. “He could still be touched by people.”

But the favorite episode among fans, including actress Salma Hayek and Friends star Matthew Perry, would be from Nov. 9, 1995, when Dr. Ross risked drowning to save a boy from a flooded drainpipe. “George was like a hero,” says Hayek, his costar in the horror film From Dusk till Dawn. “That episode was so good.”

If you want a second opinion, ask around ER, where Clooney seems to have been a Galahad among the gurneys. “George is in a very powerful position,” says Innes, “and he could be a jerk, or he could be a hero. Usually he’s the hero.” Several years ago, when the producers wanted to make extras sit apart from the cast and crew at lunch, Clooney mocked his employers with a large caricature of a bossy “producer” and propped it up in the commissary. He embarrassed them into dropping the rule. Says set decorator Michael Claypool: “He just wanted everyone to be equal.”

Clooney also had a soothing, jokey rapport with the show’s young guest performers. For the drainpipe episode, Clooney and Erik Von Detton, then 13, spent almost two weeks being filmed in a special tank. One day, according to Von Detton, Clooney pointed to some water bugs and said to him, “At least that’ll give us something to munch on.” Clooney, says costume designer Lyn Elizabeth Paolo, “acts like a big kid, and kids love that in him.”

So do adults. “We’re under a lot of pressure to maintain the show’s No. 1 status,” says set decorator Claypool. “George always had a way of making everything light.” He would pop wheelies in the wheelchairs, use the rolling IV stands as skateboards. Clooney was the set’s most persistent practical joker—”the master,” in the words of Anthony Edwards. He loved to slather surgical gel and petroleum jelly over props. He liked to sing, says Kellie Martin (“old big-band songs—and loud”) and dressed as if life were a perpetual Casual Friday. “He wore Nike basketball shorts and tennis shoes all day,” she says.

Basketball, in fact, is the one thing guaranteed to get Clooney’s undivided attention, apart from his French girlfriend, sometime model Céline Balitran, 24. At every opportunity, say friends at ER, he could be found playing by the hoop he had put up outside his trailer. “He wouldn’t do any of his pranks then,” says assistant director Subramaniam. “He’s very good.”

Now down a key player, the ER team may seem “like basketball without Michael Jordan,” says actress Brazelton. “But the foundation of the show is there. People will tune in to watch where we’re going.” Jenny Hontz, television editor for Daily Variety, agrees. “Certainly, there’ll be a lot of female fans who’ll be upset, but this is a show that has style and excellent writing,” says Hontz, pointing to NYPD Blue’s continued success despite major cast changes. “As long as they keep up the fast-paced action and find great characters, ER will be fine.”

For Clooney, the question now is whether he’ll make it in movies or sink into the limbo of TV stars (Shelley Long, David Caruso) who failed to make the leap to the big screen. Clooney earned great reviews as a bank robber in 1998’s Out of Sight, but he has yet to do superstar business at the box office—not as a romantic lead (One Fine Day), an action hero (The Peacemaker) or a Caped Crusader (Batman & Robin, about which he wryly commented, “I think I buried that franchise”). But Clooney, say those who know him, is philosophical about the shelf life of celebrities. “He jokes that someday he’ll be center square on Hollywood Squares,” laughs his father.

With a leading role in an upcoming action drama, Three Kings, due in the fall, Clooney is a ways off from Paul Lynde. And with his production office on the Warner Bros, lot, home of ER, he remains only a stone’s throw from the show. “I bet you he’ll be sweating on the basketball court as much as he ever was,” says actress Ellen Crawford. “He’ll be by.”

Tom Gliatto

Champ Clark, Craig Tomashoff, Susan Christian Goulding, Julie Jordan and Irene Zutell in Los Angeles and Kelly Williams in Chicago

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