George Clooney was never young. I mean, yes, George Clooney the person was once young, trotting alongside his newscaster father to beauty pageants in Indiana and fixing pipes as the mullet-topped 24-year-old handyman on The Facts of Life. The George Clooney we know, though, didn’t materialize in our collective consciousness until the first episode of ER, when he was 33. In most roles, he’s played someone older than his age, wearing sharp suits or scrubs, uniforms or space suits. He’s talked about the atrocities in Darfur, had dinners with Barack Obama and Walter Cronkite.
But George Clooney was also never old. He was a bachelor. Rode a motorcycle. Had a weekly basketball game. Created his own tequila. Owned a pet pig. Played practical jokes. He was always the same age, the bubble exactly in the middle of a spirit level measuring from man to guy.
George Clooney had neck surgery last fall, after a scooter accident in 2018, and when the doctors were examining him, they found some arthritis. It was a bad accident — you can go online to watch video from a hotel security cam and see Clooney launched at about 70 miles per hour, his helmet shattering a car’s windshield, his body cannonballed out of his own shoes, his mouth full of what he thought were shattered teeth but was actually glass. Even though he’s still at his high school weight and recovered quickly, and he’s been in motorcycle accidents before, he has kids and a wife now, so he won’t be riding ever again. And basketball — that’s too tough now, too.
For 10 years Clooney has declined offers to be on the cover of this magazine, though he did consider doing it as a joke when he turned 50. “I wanted to do a funny bit, which would be Sexiest Man Still Alive. I would have done some funny picture, like with a walker,” he says over Zoom from the screening room of his Los Angeles house.
“Now that I’m about to turn 60, it’s not as funny,” he adds, running a hand through his cropped more-salt-than-pepper hair. And when AARP The Magazine’s Movies for Grownups awarded him the Career Achievement Award, he surrendered: “I always say to my dad, ‘I’m middle-aged.’ And he goes, ‘You know a lot of 120-year-olds?’ ”
Movies for Grownups Honors Clooney With Career Achievement Award
MICHAEL KOVAC/GETTY IMAGES FOR AARP
And the Winners Are …
Don’t miss our annual Movies for Grownups Awards, an exceptional show honoring the best films and performances of 2020. Oscar-winning producer and actor George Clooney will receive the Movies for Grownups Career Achievement Award. Find out more at aarp.org/moviesforgrownups.
Where to Watch
On Sunday, March 28, at 8 p.m. ET, view the star-studded awards ceremony on Great Performances on PBS (check local listings) or stream it at pbs.org/moviesforgrownups or on the PBS Video app. The show’s presenting sponsor is Consumer Cellular.
I’m 49 years and 6 months old — just a short time away from receiving that fateful red-and-white letter to join AARP and start getting this magazine — and I wanted advice from the embodiment of graceful aging. I’ve interviewed Clooney three times before — once over the phone when he left his home number on my voicemail instead of setting up a meeting through a publicist, once at his bachelor pad as he sat under a photo of the Rat Pack, and once over a very long dinner I cooked for him at my house. Each time, I’ve received his teachings. When he rejected my store-bought salad dressing with disdain, I permanently switched to oil, vinegar, salt and pepper. I upgraded to a more expensive house because Clooney, who owns no stocks or bonds, believes in living in his money. I learned simple home repairs after Clooney made me get a ladder from the storage space under my house with him so he could climb into the attic I’d never been in, screwdriver in his mouth, crawling across the beams, to fix a noise that turned out to be a carbon monoxide alarm in the kitchen that needed new batteries.
Now I wanted advice on just how I should negotiate the future, the same question he asks in his new movie, The Midnight Sky (Netflix), which he not only stars in but also directed and coproduced. In the film, Clooney plays his oldest character yet — a terminally ill scientist rummaging through the postapocalyptic Antarctic, contemplating whether he has spent his life well.
The movie wasn’t supposed to be that existential. He finished filming last February and had just started postproduction when, on March 11, the NBA canceled its games and the people who ran the editing room announced that older people would have to work from home for their own safety. “They said, ‘If you’re under 50, you’re fine,’ ” says Clooney. “And I was, like, ‘Wait a minute? I’m the old guy now?’ ”
Editing in lockdown in his house, Clooney made a movie that had started as a warning about the dangers of rising nationalism — an On the Beach of populism — and kept removing dialogue until this turned the film into a meditation on not being able to connect, the perils of isolation and fading away. “You couldn’t help it when you’re in the middle of editing from your home, where you can’t go out and you can’t see anybody,” he explains.
For the role, he grew a David Letterman beard, gave himself a spotty crew cut — and he might not smile once in the entire film. “If you are this sex symbol and that’s tied to some notion of youth, you can feel when there’s a holding on instead of a letting go,” says David Oyelowo, who portrays an astronaut in space in the movie, unaware of Earth’s apocalypse. “That’s what he does in The Midnight Sky that’s so eye-catching. There’s not an iota of that George Clooney eye twinkle or the Sexiest Man Alive. He has completely shelved it. You’re allowed to really look at him. You’re going, ‘Whoa, the same guy from Out of Sight with J.Lo is here with a beard and not saying any lines and letting us hike the crevices of his face?”
Clooney, unwilling to let that bubble on the level move, rejects Oyelowo’s theory, noting that he’s played charmless men in The American and Syriana. He scoffs at the notion that he cares less about his looks than he once did. When I ask if he’s wearing makeup (because his tan appears to be bouncing off his white short-sleeve button-down shirt), he acts like I’m crazy. “I’ve never worn makeup in my life,” he insists. “If I have to have a black eye, I’ll put a black eye on, but I’ve never had paper around my collar. I did when I first started, ‘cause I did what everybody told me I had to do. By the time I started ER, never.” And his perfect hair — he hasn’t put effort into that either. Not only does he claim to have cut his own hair during the pandemic; he says he’s done it for 25 years. “I use a Flowbee,” he asserts to me (and, shortly afterward, to half a dozen other media outlets), mentioning that he’s already worn out the vacuum attachment sold on infomercials in the 1980s, requiring his assistant to buy a replacement on eBay. “My wife won’t let me Flowbee my son’s hair. So I have to cut it with scissors. I’m scrappy, buddy. I climbed up into your attic.” I sigh, upset in the knowledge that I will soon be buying a Flowbee.
Despite these objections, others besides Oyelowo — such as Clooney’s father, Nick, and mom, Nina (87 and 81, respectively) — have observed that George has been letting go of the oh-so-bearable lightness of George Clooney. Since George has had children, they note, he has been willing to have more earnest conversations with them. “He used to like very much to make sure that everybody had a good line to exit on,” says Nick. “I see less of requiring us to put on a routine.”
Since the pandemic struck, Clooney hasn’t seen his parents or those of his wife, Amal, in person. Which has been the hardest part of lockdown for him. “This is an important time for them, and it’s not fair,” he points out. “My friends will talk about their kids and how they couldn’t go to prom, and I go, ‘It’s awful that they missed that. They’ll be fine. It’ll be a blip on their radar.’ People in their 80s, they’re, like, ‘You know, come on, man.’ ”
For him, he says, it’s just a year. The last of his 50s. Whatever. Clooney explains that he doesn’t care about turning 60 in May, because his body basically feels fine. Yet he knows time is moving. “Seventy will be more of a shot to the throat,” he says about becoming closer to the age of his character in The Midnight Sky. “I’m telling you, 70 will f— me up.”
“For George, the hardest thing about getting old is not wanting to burden others,” offers his friend Rande Gerber, who thinks that The Midnight Sky is a way of exploring that issue. Still, Gerber thought Clooney was posing a long-range thought experiment. “When I got the request to talk to this magazine, I called George and said, ‘Is this another one of your pranks?’ He said, ‘I wish it was, but it’s for real.’ ”
In real life, of course, burdening others remains out of the question for Clooney. The father of 3-year-old twins is still deeply self-sufficient. During the pandemic, he stained the entire interior and exterior of his house, and all the furniture inside. “It was getting dingy, and I had buckets of stain, and I was, like, ‘Well, what else am I going to do?’ It made me feel better. And I put chicken wire all around the dog yard.” (Because the family got a Saint Bernard, an adult upgrade from Clooney’s pig, which passed away decades ago.) He also rewired his assistant’s sewing machine. And did some sewing himself. “I do a lot of sewing the kids’ clothes,” he says. “And my wife’s dress that tore a couple of times. I was a bachelor for a long time and didn’t have any money, and you have to learn how to repair things,” he adds. “If we were on an island and you had to pick somebody to help you survive, I would pick me. Ask all of my friends and they would pick me, too. I can make a waterspout out of this and a pitcher out of that.”
Not that long ago, he was in his friend’s 1972 Camaro, not far from his house off of Laurel Canyon, when it started to overheat. They pulled into a gas station and Clooney asked the mechanic if he could borrow a crowbar. “I pulled the generator back, pulled on the fan belt, put it back on. And we were back on the road,” he says. “But I’m intimidated by anything on the internet. Like, if I push a button and something goes wrong, I panic. I’m a Luddite when it comes to that.”
George Clooney with his wife, Amal, at a charity gala supporting the Clooney Foundation for Justice.
He shuns the internet and doesn’t do social media, because one thing Clooney does to have a private and real life is to slow time by connecting in more meaningful ways. He’s busy, of course, but he’s 10 minutes early for our Zoom call (who does that?) and is now already an hour over our scheduled end time (who does that?). He turns down any project that shoots over the summer, when he gathers his family and friends at his estate on Lake Como in Italy and leads children to pick croissants he’s “planted” near an asparagus patch, as if perpetrating the Godfather of Dad Jokes. He writes letters. By hand. Lots of them. Every year he goes away with Amal for a weekend and they both write each kid a letter with the date on it, as a record of where they were at that moment. He and Amal write each other letters every couple of months. “Even in lockdown, I’ll write a letter and slip it on her desk, or she’ll write a letter and leave it under the pillow. I’m a big believer in letters. I have letters from Paul Newman, Walter Cronkite, Gregory Peck. I have them framed. I put them in the house. If it were a text, it would feel different. Maybe that’s a generational thing, and maybe it won’t be that way 20 years from now, but for me, somebody sat down and wrote it.” (Peck, in particular, is a role model for Clooney. He cast Peck’s grandson Ethan as the younger version of his character in The Midnight Sky.)
Modernity poses challenges, especially for George Clooney. He named his kids Alexander and Ella, because “I didn’t want, like, weird-ass names for our kids. They’re already going to have enough trouble. It’s hard being the son of somebody famous and successful. Paul Newman’s son killed himself. Gregory Peck’s son killed himself. Bing Crosby had two sons kill themselves. I have an advantage because I’m so much older that by the time my son would feel competitive, I’ll literally be gumming bread.” And if his kids do take to social media to floss about their luck, he’s got a plan. “We’ll just make fun of it enough that it will be embarrassing.”
Save 25% when you join AARP and enroll in Automatic Renewal for first year. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
But Clooney is equally at full Clooney when he’s other-sufficient. When his longtime assistant Angel McConnell mentioned owning a place in the Virgin Islands, I asked how she got it, and she sheepishly said, “My boss bought it for me.”
In 2013, Clooney called his 14 closest friends and invited them to a dinner six months later. “We thought maybe he’s got Obama coming for dinner or Bono is going to perform,” says Gerber. Clooney sent cars to pick up everyone, and there was security around his house. “After dinner we went to the bar area and there were suitcases where we were all sitting. So, we thought he’d chartered a plane and we were going on vacation somewhere.” Instead, he pulled out a map with pins marking all the places they’d been together and spoke about how much of his life was due to them.
“We all opened our suitcases and there was a million dollars in cash,” notes Gerber, who owns several restaurants and bars and has been married to model Cindy Crawford since 1998. “I said, ‘George, I’m not taking this.’ But George being George, he said, ‘If Rande doesn’t take the money, then none of you are getting it.’ For some of them it was life changing. So I took it and donated it.”
Right after Gerber tells me the story, our phone line goes dead. He calls back a few minutes later, explaining that winds have knocked out the power in his Malibu house. “George hates praise, so he probably heard me say great things about him and cut the power,” he says.
Gerber and Clooney, who built houses next to each other on a property they bought in Cabo San Lucas, Mexico, and called it Casamigos, made a tequila with the same name to stock their houses and bring to friends. They produced it in a cheap, old-school whiskey bottle and eventually found an importer so they could bring it with them to California. The two of them and a third partner sold it in 2017 to the liquor giant Diageo for some $1 billion.
“Four years after we started the company, our return on investment was literally a billion dollars,” says Clooney. “For three guys. It was crazy. I think we eventually each put about 700 grand in,” though by that time, he had already profited by far more than that. He didn’t invest his windfall or any of the up to $100 million he might wind up making as a spokesperson for Nespresso. “It’s in a bank. I make 1 percent or less on the money. To me, the stock market is like Vegas without the glass of tequila sitting next to you. It’s none of the fun and all of the risks.”
JOHN RUSSO/GETTY IMAGES
Even though he’s still full Clooneying, he’s thought about his mortality a lot more since that scooter accident in Sardinia in 2018 that should have killed him. Grant Heslov, his partner in Smokehouse Pictures since 2006 and friend since they met in a 1983 acting class, was right in front of him on a matching scooter. “I heard that sound. That sound of metal on metal,” Heslov recalls. “I skidded my bike and dropped it, and he was prone on the ground. All I could think of was, Oh my God, is he dead? Then people were taking pictures. It made me angry.”
“I’m not a cynical guy, but I will always, always remember that moment, because nobody was jumping to go call for help or coming to help. For them the worst moment of my life was entertainment,” Clooney says. But he doesn’t feel like it was because he’s a celebrity commodity, bought and sold dead or alive. It’s because people have become full-time publicists of their own lives. “People are getting killed because they’re taking a shot of a car crash coming toward them. We’re living in this world where everybody is trying to make themselves fascinating or important or something. When the reality is: Put that phone down.”
Postaccident, he lives with a little more precision, a little more care. “I’m not a particularly religious guy. So I have to be skeptical about an afterlife. But as you get older, you start thinking, Well, wait a minute. It’s very hard for me to say, Once you’re finished with this chassis that we’re in, you’re just done. My version of it is that you’re taking that one one-hundredth of a pound of energy that disappears when you die and you’re jamming it right into the hearts of all the other people you’ve been close to.”
That energy tells me to put down my phone, buy real estate, shun premade salad dressing, write letters, repair my house, gather loved ones around a big circular table (“I hate long rectangular tables because they cut off the conversation,” he notes) and be curious about others (yes, George Clooney, for the third time, my wife and son are doing well). But mostly, the wisdom I’ve gathered from Clooney on this day before Thanksgiving is to use my one one-hundredth of a pound to recklessly instill joy. When our Zoom session ended, my lovely wife, Cassandra, asked me if I was on a post-Clooney high. I asked if she meant because he’s famous and she said, “No, of course not. It’s because he’s George Clooney and he makes you feel alive, big, important. It’s an overwhelming feeling.” In fact, Cassandra was so exhausted by it when he came for dinner a few years back that she might be the only woman in the world who did dishes to hint that George Clooney should leave her house. He was so unfamiliar with that signal that he didn’t budge.
Two days after we talked, I play two minutes of my recorded Clooney Zoom for my 11-year-old son, Laszlo. I wanted to make sure we properly followed the new wisdom my guru imparted. One at the joyous epicenter of that bubble on the level between man and guy. I’ll let Clooney explain.
“Yesterday, I taught Alexander to take a piece of banana, chew it up and then spit it into a napkin. Then stand next to his mom, pretend to blow his nose into it and look down until Mama looks at it. Then eat it. It’s just outrageously fun,” Clooney says, leaning into the camera, laughing, that familiar twinkle in his eye.
It will be just as fun when Clooney and I get our grandkids to do it.
Los Angeles–based journalist Joel Stein is the author of In Defense of Elitism: Why I’m Better Than You and You Are Better Than Someone Who Didn’t Buy This Book.