From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
GEORGE CLOONEY

Call it the Clooney maneuver. It's that little head tilt he does when his chin dips down and his eyes drop to the floor. Then, wham! Those eyes are back, full of mischief and magic, atop a sly half grin that all but announces, "Yep, I'm trouble, but you love me anyway."

And do we ever. Whether he's playing doctor in the ER, battling supervillains in Batman & Robin or chasing down stolen nukes in The Peacemaker, George Clooney has jump-started more hearts than a whole fleet of crash carts and defibrillators. "It's very hard to look into those eyes and not be completely intoxicated," says Peacemaker director Mimi Leder. Then, "when he turns on that charm, ooooh, watch out!" says ER costar Yvette Freeman, who plays nurse Haleh Adams to Clooney's Dr. Doug Ross. "George can work it when he wants to." But Clooney is no mere boy toy—if for no other reason than, at 36, he's no mere boy. "He doesn't look like a Ken doll," says Ellen Crawford (Nurse Lydia Wright). "He has those nice little crinkles around his eyes; there's an interest to his face." And a depth to his appeal. Beyond the Batsuit bod are smarts, sensitivity, a wicked sense of humor and what his One Fine Day producer Lynda Obst calls "a real visceral masculinity. The force of his attractiveness is not just his chiseled, classic good looks," says Obst, who dubbed the actor Swooney Clooney during shooting. "There's something that women call being a real guy. It's hard to describe, but we know it when we see it and he's it. He has a wonderful ability to make a woman weak at her knees."

At least when he's not making her weak from laughter. In pursuit of a punch line, Clooney has been known to shove all manner of props up his nose, turn a Super Soaker on fellow cast members and replace the hard-boiled eggs on a catering table with raw ones. He also does dead-on impressions of Bing Crosby, Buddy Hackett, Sammy Davis Jr. and his celebrated aunt, Rosemary. And his pranks can be elaborate. Once he set up a six-month con of good friend Richard Kind (Spin City) by telling him he was taking art lessons, then presenting him with a painting of a nude woman he'd actually found in someone's trash. "Richard had to hang the thing up because he wasn't going to tell George it was horrible," recalls actress pal Bonnie Hunt. "And George let it hang in Richard's house quite a while before he finally said, 'I didn't paint that. I found it.'"

That kind of rogue charm is a large portion of Clooney's appeal. "He has such an enthusiasm that you really just get caught up," says model and ex-MTV veejay Karen "Duff" Duffy, who dated Clooney briefly in 1995 and remains good friends with the actor. "George has that rare quality that movie stars all need," believes CBS Television president Leslie Moonves, who, while president of Warner Bros. Television in 1990, signed Clooney to a studio contract. "Women want to sleep with him, and men want to go to the ball game with him." And why not? As Elle Macpherson, who played his love interest in Batman & Robin, puts it: "He's a dream-boat and has an infectious personality. He's always up."

Well, maybe not always. That was genuine anger on the handsome Clooney mug when he decided to boycott Entertainment Tonight last fall over the use of stalkerazzi videos by its sister show, Hard Copy. But to many, his willingness to take a stand no matter the consequences was just a measure of his character. "That's one of his sexy qualities," says From Dusk Till Dawn costar Salma Hayek. "He's incredibly brave." Indeed, says Moonves, "George is the guy who would quit the most important opportunity of his life if he felt it threatened his integrity."

Or his friends, to whom Clooney's loyalty is legendary. "George is somebody you could call from jail at five in the morning, and in the middle of shooting a movie and ER, he'd come get you," says The Drew Carey Show's Christa Miller, who first met Clooney through her uncle, NBC Sports president Dick Ebersol, and now works nearby on the Warner lot. "He always remembered my name even though I was just somebody's niece. He'd stop by to joke around and say, 'Hi, how are you, I love the show, send my love to your family.' My boyfriend always says, 'He can't be that nice.' And I just say, 'He is that nice.' "

Clooney's slow rise to stardom may have something to do with that. Before hitting it big with ER, he spent a decade in mediocre films (Red Surf, Return of the Killer Tomatoes!) and a slew of run-of-the-mill TV series, including The Facts of Life, Baby Talk and Sunset Beat, not to mention some 15 failed pilots. To this day he remains tightest with the friends he met during those times, a group of seven actors and industry types he calls "the boys." In 1995 he flew them all to Acapulco for Christmas, last year they hit Hawaii, and this summer it was a golfing tour of the Southwest in a rented country music tour bus. And when Kind's father died in July, Clooney hired a plane to fly them all from L.A. to the funeral service in New Jersey as a show of support. At times he has had several of them bunking with him between jobs and relationships, giving his sprawling Los Angeles home the look of a college frat house, complete with piles of laundry, Taco Bell takeout, a Foosball table and his pet potbellied pig, Max. "George did me a tremendous favor," says actor Matt Adler, who met the future star on a Hollywood basketball court in 1986 and has spent two years chez Clooney since the breakup of his marriage in 1995. "I didn't know what I was going to do or where I was going to live, and George said, 'I just bought this house, come live with me.' "

Clooney still invites the whole gang over for sweaty Sundays on his backyard basketball court. "Basketball is his main sweetheart," says ER's Conni Marie Brazelton (Nurse Conni Oligario), "and he's pretty good for a white boy." To keep the gang's girlfriends and wives happy while the guys play, Clooney sometimes hires a masseuse for the afternoon. "Then we all hang out and make dinner," says Ben Weiss, first assistant director on Friends. "He really, really wants to be Frank Sinatra," says Hunt, who remembers the time Clooney jetted to L.A. from a New York City movie set just to do a brief scene in the pilot for her 1993 series The Building. "He's the guy who takes care of everything, leads the pack, includes all the guys in his success. Success would be horrible for him without his friends around."

That generous spirit extends beyond his inner circle. When an ER carpenter was killed in a motorcycle accident, Clooney helped set up a fund for the man's 3-year-old daughter. "Most actors you gotta drag out of their trailers," says Douglas Aarniokoski, first assistant director on From Dusk Till Dawn. "George? You had to tell him where his trailer was. He's the only actor I ever worked with who could tell you every single crew member's name. He was like the camp leader."

He's not a bad driver's ed instructor either (he taught recurring ER guest Kirsten Dunst on his studio golf cart and gave former Roseanne costar Laurie Metcalf lessons on using a stick shift), not to mention career counselor and cast ombudsman. "One time they towed my car off the set, and I was crying," says Brazelton. "George just came up and embraced me, saying, 'Here's the money to get it back. Do this, do that.' "

"The rap on George is that he's this rake, this guy's guy," says ER's Laura Innes (Dr. Kerri Weaver). "That's true, but he is also a dear, loyal friend who would do anything for you. It's almost like being a family member."

Back in Augusta, Ky., about 40 miles across the river from Cincinnati, Clooney's real family—dad Nick, mom Nina and older sister Ada, 37, an accountant—couldn't be more proud of the way George has handled success. Nor are they surprised by the way women respond to him. "By the time he was 5, he knew there was a difference between a 'nice lady' and a 'pretty girl,' " remembers Nick, a longtime local TV personality, now a host with the American Movie Classics cable channel. "Those were two phrases he had. A 'nice lady' was somebody with maybe a little gray in the hair, maybe glasses, maybe two pounds too heavy. But somebody with the skirt a little shorter and nice hair, then that's a 'pretty girl.' He had that distinction down."

Developing the Clooney cool took longer. When blonde 70s icon Lynda Day George (TV's Mission: Impossible) came to Cincinnati to appear on his father's talk show, 11-year-old George "couldn't speak for the rest of that day," remembers Nick with a laugh. "I swear that's when his voice changed. That woman really got to him." Says the actress: "I didn't know it was him. I do remember a very red-faced little boy."

By high school it was George who was getting to women. "Girls would line up on the street just to watch him walk home," marvels Bill Case, Clooney's former baseball coach, who also taught him typing and drama. But despite being class clown, a baseball and basketball jock and the star of both the junior and senior class plays, Clooney displayed a sensitive side. "He was romantic," recalls high school steady Debra Fraysure (now Fraysure-McCormick, an attorney and mother of 4-year-old twins in Atlanta). "He liked to play Nat 'King' Cole music and sing 'Walkin' My Baby Back Home' to me. It was awesome."

When they headed to different colleges in 1979 (he to study theater and broadcasting at Northern Kentucky University, she to enroll in prelaw at Eastern Kentucky University, nearly 100 miles away), they bridged the distance with phone calls and letters. "He would send the sweetest cards—really funny bizarre ones that no one else would get," says Fraysure-McCormick. "One had these two little snails on the front and said something like, 'I sure do love you, my escargot.' " '

With time, the romance faded and Clooney, inspired by his cousin Miguel Ferrer, the oldest of Rosemary Clooney's five children, left college and Kentucky at age 21 and headed for Hollywood. "He came and camped out in my hotel room for the next three months," Ferrer told Vanity Fair last year. "We played practical jokes, drank too much and had sex with a million women." Agrees Weiss, a close friend of Ferrer's who met Clooney the day he arrived in L.A.: "There were some wild times. I'll just say that when George is in a relationship, he's always really good to the woman, and when he's not in a relationship, he doesn't have any trouble getting women."

Over the years, Clooney's love interests included more than a few high-profile names, including Dedee Pfeiffer, Denise Crosby and Kimberly Russell. Back in 1987 he met actress Kelly Preston (now Mrs. John Travolta), and within 20 days, the pair had bought a million-dollar home together in the Hollywood Hills. When that relationship ended in 1989, Clooney reunited with actress Talia Balsam, the daughter of Martin Balsam and Joyce Van Patten, whom he'd first dated while costarring in a play in Los Angeles in 1984. Within months the two headed to Las Vegas in a Winnebago and got married. They divorced three years later. "I probably—definitely—wasn't someone who should have been married at that point," Clooney told Vanity Fair. "I just don't feel like I gave Talia a fair shot."

Of late, Clooney seems to have spent some time pondering the rules of romance. "I understand that when I'm dating someone, the girl should supply some of her own income, and she should buy dinner and it should all be even—but I don't want to be that guy," he told GQ last month. "When I go to dinner, I pay for dinner. I don't apologize for it. I can't help it."

His friend Duffy thinks that he has learned from past mistakes. When the two dated, "he made me feel beautiful when I was really going through a rough time," says Duffy, who suffers from the immune system disorder sarcoidosis. Duffy recalls briefly losing some ability to move her arms while sharing Thanksgiving dinner with the Clooneys and how George stepped in to help. "I was kind of embarrassed," says Duffy, who is now married to investment banker John Lambros, "but he was incredibly gentle. He held my hands and cut my meat with me. And he did it with such panache. He is incredibly smooth."

Clooney also seems bored with his reputation as a Doug Ross-style Romeo. "As you get older, that image isn't as cute anymore, not like when you're 18 and going out with a bunch of girls," he told Vanity Fair. "When you're 40 and you do it, it's kind of sad." He's now happily ensconced with former French law student Celine Balitran, whom he met in a Paris nightclub in 1996 on a break from shooting The Peacemaker. Balitran, who speaks English fluently, was working as a waitress in the trendy Barfly when Clooney and a Paris newspaper columnist stopped in for drinks. "The next day he calls and says, 'How can I get to know this beautiful girl?' " recalls the writer. "So I suggested he take her for a moonlight walk by the Chateau de Versailles because it's very romantic. He said, 'Great idea.' Then after months of not one word, a few weeks ago, I got a call from Celine saying, Thank you, I'm in love with George in Los Angeles.' "

Clooney seems smitten as well. "George likes a woman who has a personality, who gets the joke, who is funny and likes to do stuff. Not just an armpiece," says Weiss. "Celine totally gets the joke." Between volunteer work as a kindergarten teacher's assistant, she has been busy turning the Casa de Clooney into a home, complete with rugs on the floor and paintings on the walls. "I wouldn't say Celine redecorated, she decorated," says Adler, the last of "the boys," who is scheduled to move out this month.

What happens next, of course, remains to be seen. In a 1995 interview with Barbara Walters, Clooney swore that he had no intention of remarrying or becoming a father. "I think he means it, I don't think it's bluster," says his father. "If George had kids now, they would never see him." But former costars Nicole Kidman and Michelle Pfeiffer aren't buying it. Kidman told Vanity Fair, "I have a $10,000 bet with him that he'll have a kid in the next five years." Dunst, 15, says, "I think George would be a great father. If he had a kid, the kid would adore him." His aunt Rosemary agrees. "I can see him as a father so quickly," she says. "He has such ease with children. He kind of herds them along."

But Rosemary admits that she's been wrong about George before. "More than anything else I thought he was a funny kid," she says. "He always had a smart answer and a kind of skewed look at the world. I thought he'd probably be a comic. Look at that. I thought he was going to be Don Rickles, and he turned out to be Tyrone Power." Clooney himself seems oblivious to the difference. "George is a sexy guy because he doesn't try," says his friend John Bowab, who directed Clooney in The Facts of Life and Baby Talk. "If you name him 'Sexiest Man Alive,' he'll giggle about it for days—then he'll put on his sweaty basketball shoes and go shoot."

CYNTHIA SANZ
CHAMP CLARK in LA. and KELLY WILLIAMS in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Champ Clark,
  • Kelly Williams,
  • Dany Jucaud.