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08.31.10

The Nice Guy Who Finishes First

George Clooney has mesmerized Hollywood with his penchant for good deeds and (gasp!) good behavior. As his new film premieres, Gina Piccalo talks to his close companions about his singular charm.

George Clooney is the guy other superstars aspire to be, the world-class flirt with an Italian villa, an enviable media fluency, and a believably genuine sense of altruism. At the Emmys on Sunday, he spoofed his own salt-and-pepper sex appeal one minute—nestled in bed between Modern Family's gay couple—and, waving off a standing ovation, graciously accepted a humanitarian award the next.

Clooney, whose studied portrait of a conflicted hit-man, The American, opens today to critical raves and Oscar buzz, is a privately shrewd businessman who has cultivated a career that isn't exclusively defined by the usual measures. He has been a diligent saver since he started getting regular paychecks and often invests heavily (and very carefully) in small films, taking a modest salary and earning any profit on the back-end. Clooney also has great taste in material, something he developed over his 30 years in the business and refined while still on NBC’s star-making drama ER, charming writer’s secretaries so he could see the best scripts first. Though he's often compared to Cary Grant, he is a celebrity breed all his own.

“You find yourself prey to his magnetism,” said someone who worked closely with him. “He almost hypnotizes you.”

And he spends that celebrity cachet judiciously. On Emmy night, he skipped the red carpet, a puzzling move for any other star with a movie opening just three days later. Indeed, Clooney has virtually stopped promoting his movies altogether. He tired of the personal and political questions and realized after making the chat-show rounds and magazine covers for his 2008 period comedy Leatherheads that all that effort didn't really add up at the box office anyway.

Until recently, he still attended festival press conferences for his films. But after one gay man's strip tease during a Men Who Stare at Goats press conference at last year's Venice Film Festival—to which Clooney quipped good-naturedly: "It's always hard when you take one real swing for the fences and it just falls flat. It's a good try."—he decided to make last year's Up in the Air press conference at the Toronto Film Festival his last.

For a languorous picture like The American that unspools with the grace of a '70s-era foreign film, it's hard to imagine any kind of blatant shilling paying off, anyway. This is a film for film-lovers. In it, Clooney plays a master assassin stuck in a tiny Italian village, fending off enemies and quietly drowning in despair. His only hope is the love of a local prostitute. There is very little dialogue, extraordinary cinematography, and a tightly honed plot. It's the kind of film that inspired one top critic, headed out of a Monday screening, to praise Clooney as "a smart guy."

His fundraising efforts for earthquake-ravaged Haiti, war-torn Darfur, and post 9-11 New York, and his U.N. Messenger of Peace status, have also gotten him labeled a Samaritan. Even his 2006 Oscar acceptance speech, for his physically debilitating role as a C.I.A. agent in Syriana (he still endures headaches caused by a spinal injury suffered on-set) played more like a pep talk for an industry pummeled by Red State rhetoric than one man's victory lap.

"He's a very passionate guy," says Joel Gallen, who directed America: Tribute to Heroes, the post 9-11 telethon, and produced the Hope for Haiti Now fundraiser, working side-by-side with Clooney. "When he believes in something, he doesn't sit on the sidelines. He gets out and makes his voice heard. You have to respect somebody like that."

Clooney is the type of celebrity who walks through Manhattan's Meatpacking District alone, a ball cap pulled low over his eyes, on his way to a magazine shoot, and then, finding a basketball hoop in the corner of the studio, wrangles everyone to play a little pickup. On the set, he tends to linger after his scenes. "He feels like one of the guys hanging around," says his writing and producing partner Grant Heslov. "It's genuine."

In fact, Clooney has made a lot of friends in Hollywood just by being decent, which, in a town infested with megalomaniac screamers, tends to stand out.

“George is whip smart, charming, and great company,” says executive producer John Wells, who gave Clooney his break in ER. “He has great integrity and he is one of the rare people in Hollywood where if he gives his word, you know he’s good for it.”

When his name comes up, magazine editors, publicists, and agents sound flatly awed. "You find yourself prey to his magnetism," said someone who worked closely with him on a movie campaign. "He almost hypnotizes you."

"First day of shooting, he's like, 'Do you get nervous on your first day of filming?'" Clooney's Up in the Air co-star Anna Kendrick told The Daily Beast last year. "I said yes. And he said, 'Me, too.' Whether or not that's true, it was, like, clearly said for my benefit just to remind me to keep breathing. You get the feeling he's like that with everybody."

Heslov, who has known the actor for 30 years, remembers Clooney rounding up his buddies after the so-called Rodney King riots in 1991. "George and me and a bunch of buddies went around collecting food and brooms and shovels and went to South Central and started working," says Heslov. "That's just what we thought was the right thing to do. That's the way I've always known him to be."

And after Princess Diana was killed in a car accident caused by motorcycle-perched paparazzi, Clooney protested the tabloid photographers by refusing to walk the red carpet of the premiere of his 1997 film The Peacemaker. Then there was that infamous fisticuffs with David O. Russell on the set of Three Kings over the director's belligerence with the cast and crew. Years later, Clooney was among the A-listers who stepped in to help build diplomacy among writers during the crippling 2007-2008 Writers Guild of America strike.

But it was his outspokenness after 9-11 that seemed to begin a new era for him as Hollywood's designated conscience. In 2002, he told GQ magazine, "Let's face it: Bush is just dim." And he took on bloviating pundit Bill O'Reilly with a series of cutting and witty letters that lambasted O'Reilly for criticizing his efforts to help raise money for the 9-11 rescue workers and victims' families.

All that said, Clooney has gamely admitted that he likes to be liked. But he can only take so much fan worship. He once told Vanity Fair that hearing strangers ecstatically shout his name is downright embarrassing. And when people approach him on the street, he feels moved to help them in the protocol of such encounters.

"Your job is to find the best way for those people to hold on to their dignity," he told The New Yorker in 2008, referring to the hordes of fans who seek him out in restaurants and on sidewalks for autographs. "For a second, they have thrown it out."

Nicole LaPorte contributed to this report.

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Gina Piccalo spent a decade at the Los Angeles Times covering Hollywood. She's now a contributing writer for Los Angeles Magazine and her work has appeared in Elle, More and Emmy. She can be found at ginapiccalo.com.