And proves he's head of the Hollywood class in the process
George Clooney
Credit: George Clonney Illustration by John Kascht

After a particularly difficult shooting day last spring on the upcoming comedy ”Welcome to Collinwood,” producer George Clooney was encouraging his employees — including stars Sam Rockwell and Isaiah Washington — to get sufficiently sloshed. ”We were out drinking till late, late, late and he was running around the bar, making sure everybody was having a good time,” recalls Washington. ”We were all hurting the next morning…[but Clooney] had a two-minute monologue to film and he nailed it, didn’t flub one word. There’s no one that could say anything bad about my man George.”

With the exception of Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly, the rest of Hollywood seems to be joining in the toast: Clooney, 40, has emerged as Tinseltown’s BMOC, a guy who uses his growing clout to support projects and causes he believes in. Just this year, the star cajoled the megawatt cast of ”Ocean’s Eleven” (including Julia Roberts, Brad Pitt, and Matt Damon) to sign on for less than their usual lofty fees; gathered the likes of Jack Nicholson and Goldie Hawn to fill the celebrity phone bank during the Sept. 21 telethon ”America: A Tribute to Heroes”; and lined up A-listers Roberts, Drew Barrymore, and ”Being John Malkovich” scribe Charlie Kaufman for his directorial debut, ”Confessions of a Dangerous Mind.” All while managing to maintain a rep as sparkling as Danny Ocean’s wedding ring.

Like his latest cinematic alter ego, Clooney seems to be playing a role in Hollywood that hasn’t been filled since the Rat Pack days: that of an old-fashioned power player who cuts through industry red tape and gets things done, all with a wink and a smile. ”More people should follow in his suit… instead of [playing] the political games that are so unnecessary,” says Mimi Leder, who directed him on ”ER” and in ”The Peacemaker.” (Clooney declined to comment for this story.) ”He doesn’t seem to be in charge, but gets in charge [by] functioning as a member of the group,” adds ”Ocean”’s costar Carl Reiner. Of course, Clooney — who dropped his $12 million asking price and convinced other actors to follow — also produced ”Ocean’s Eleven” with cowriter-director Steven Soderbergh under the pair’s Section Eight shingle. (He later gave the cast personalized mountain bikes in gratitude.) ”You always feel that you’re doing it for the group,” Reiner says. ”He’s a benign despot.”

Some might disagree with the word benign. Clooney — son of veteran Cincinnati newsman Nick Clooney and nephew of singer Rosemary Clooney — has been known to tick people off. Angered by the distribution of the September 11th Fund money, O’Reilly has accused him and other celebrity ”weasels” of misleading donors and then failing to police the charity, a claim that Clooney has denied. Clooney’s strongly worded letter in October to the Screen Actors Guild, chastising the union for expelling three members who had crossed the picket lines during last year’s six-month strike against commercial producers, also drew ire. According to a SAG spokeswoman, Clooney can’t possibly have all the facts of the case, since disciplinary proceedings are confidential.

The actor’s willingness to take a stand is nothing new. More than a decade ago, Clooney clashed with veteran producer Ed. Weinberger while working on the short-lived ABC series ”Baby Talk.” (Clooney eventually quit after five episodes.) ”He absolutely was not going to stand by while people were treated badly,” says former costar Julia Duffy, describing the on-set atmosphere as ”very dysfunctional.” ”He certainly wasn’t in any position of power at the time… but he didn’t care. He would stand up against the big guys.”

Including, at one point, the tabloid media industry. In 1996, Clooney began a public boycott of syndicated news show ”Hard Copy” and its sister program ”Entertainment Tonight” (both produced by Paramount Television) after ”Hard Copy” aired footage of him and then-girlfriend Céline Balitran. (Clooney and his ex-wife, actress Talia Balsam, divorced in 1992; he has remained single ever since.) After he was joined by a bevy of stars, including Madonna, Steven Spielberg, and Whoopi Goldberg, both shows changed their news-gathering policies and promised to no longer ”solicit, purchase, or air celebrity footage” obtained by camera operators who harassed their subjects.

”George’s stance influenced an awful lot of people,” says CBS president-CEO Les Moonves, who first put the star under contract when he was head of Warner Bros. Television in 1991. ”[The shows] got away with a lot of stuff over a long period of time.” ”Hard Copy” went off the air in 1999; Clooney quietly lifted his ”ET” boycott in early 2000. (Says ”ET”: ”We’re huge fans of Clooney’s and love having him on the show.”)

And then there was the infamous 1998 throat-grabbing scuffle with director David O. Russell on the Arizona desert set of ”Three Kings.” Clooney said he stepped in when Russell ”went nuts” on an extra. ”I went over and I put my arm around him and I pulled him aside,” Clooney told EW in 1999. ”I said, ‘You can’t do that.”’

But Nick Clooney says his son — who was born in Lexington, Ky., grew up outside Cincy, and didn’t make the trek to L.A. until he was 21 — has always had a keen sense of fairness. He recalls one incident when 18-month-old George was playing with a brood of puppies at his grandmother’s farm and one unexpectedly bit the future Dr. Doug Ross. ”So he picked up the puppy by the tail and head and bit it back,” says the elder Clooney. ”There’s a certain justice there, so I couldn’t get mad at him. ‘You bite me, I’ll bite you.’ And he still does that, too.”