From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
What director wouldn't leap at the chance to snare George Clooney for a lead role? Clooney himself, for one. As he prepared to direct his second movie, Good Night, and Good Luck, a drama about venerable CBS newscaster Edward R. Murrow, he opted against playing Murrow. "He felt that he just didn't have it," says Good Night producer and costar Grant Heslov. "Murrow seemed to have the weight of the world on his shoulders. And George doesn't."

At least not anymore. But last fall, after he put on 30 lbs. in less than a month to play a CIA agent in the upcoming political thriller Syriana, the added weight—and shooting a rough torture scene—caused Clooney, 44, to tear his dura mater (the membrane around the spine), an injury that required several painful surgeries to fix (see box). Still, Clooney pushed forward, filming Good Night this spring as a valentine to his dad, Nick, whom Clooney watched anchor the local news as a kid growing up in Kentucky and Ohio. "It was certainly a tip of the hat to my dad," says Clooney, "and the sacrifices he made over the years." So Clooney returned the favor, gamely helming Good Night while suffering more than most people around him knew. "He wouldn't do any short days or lie down," says Heslov. "He was pretty good at hiding it."

Healing meant taking it easy at his Italian villa this summer—"a good place to sit on a lake and not move," Clooney says—and staying away from his beloved motorcycle and pickup basketball. But Clooney, who has been single since splitting with on-and-off girlfriend Lisa Snowden in June (a rep denies a recent report he's moving in with another ex-flame, actress Krista Allen), is looking forward to letting loose again. He rolled the dice in August by announcing a partnership with Cindy Crawford's husband, Rande Gerber, to build a new hotel and throw-back-style casino in Las Vegas. "We both want the same things out of life," says Gerber. "Be happy, make other people happy and enjoy life."