February 2012

Merry Prankster

Laughter, fun and practical jokes are as close to George Clooney’s heart as his circle of friends  by NANCIE CLARE / photographs by RUVEN AFANADOR / styling by HAYLEY ATKIN / produced by HANNAH HARTE

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When we think of George Clooney, the words handsome, talented, humanitarian, class act, suave and debonair come to mind. So here’s a question: Would such a guy really relieve himself in a roommate’s cat box?

“Humor is humor,” he says to a question about what type of comedy—physical, visual, cerebral—most makes him chuckle. “W.C. Fields sitting next to a kid, George Bernard Shaw writing telegrams to Churchill—they all make me laugh.”

Then there’s Clooney’s famous penchant for practical jokes. Almost everyone who’s ever worked with him has a story—and some have more than one. In fact, his mischief making is in a class by itself. And the truly rare thing? The seeds of his jokes can occur from a spontaneous act or event, or they can be the product of meticulous planning. Clooney may have recently told Vanity Fair that patience is an overrated virtue, but it is one he practices: Once a prank is set in motion, he has been known to wait a very long while for all the moving pieces to align before pulling the trigger.

By her own account, Julianna Margulies never tried to mess with Clooney on the set of ER, though she recalls one person—who shall remain nameless—in the series’ early days who did. One time at lunch in the Warner Bros. commissary, she recalls, “He asked George, ‘Does my pasta smell funny?’ and then pushed the plate into his face.” Clooney took it all in stride, but “he waited until the guy’s last day [on the production] and placed a license plate frame on his car that said, ‘Honk if you like p--y.’ The guy thought every-one was honking and waving goodbye to him.

“He was the master—and he had the patience of a Buddhist monk,” she says of Clooney. “He can create a joke that will take eight years [to pull off].”

Eight years?

Margulies describes a time she was booked on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno during the first season of ER. “I’m not a comedienne,” she recalls thinking. “I don’t have a funny story.” So she turned to Clooney for source material—he supplied a story he said had happened to his mother.

The anecdote involved going to a doctor’s office, nudity—and the punch line was “I’m not a gynecologist, I’m a podiatrist.” And so the tale was told to millions. But it wasn’t the first time Clooney had suggested the yarn: Years before, he had given it to then live-in girlfriend Kelly Preston, and she had used it on her Leno appearance. And then he waited.

Cut to another night some eight years later, when Margulies and Clooney were each set to appear on The Tonight Show for separate projects. “I hadn’t seen George for a long time,” Margulies recalls. “I was so excited to see him again. I ran to his dressing room and gave him a big hug and kiss.”

But Clooney had plans for that broadcast. He had seen to it beforehand that Margulies’ and Preston’s earlier recountings of the same story were edited together, with each woman finishing the other’s sentences. It would have been a scream, but we’ll never know. When he saw Margulies, he realized how crushed she would be and pulled the plug at the 11th hour.

Asked if his wicked sense of humor has ever misfired, Clooney says, “I’m just screwing around...but you realize as you get home that it’s something that would hurt someone’s feelings, and maybe it’s not needed. You have to consider that a little more.”

In hindsight, Margulies says she doesn’t know anyone who’d wait eight years to pull a practical joke and then scuttle it to save a friend’s feelings. Which demonstrates yet another unique aspect of Clooney’s humor: He’s motivated by the art of the joke, not just the potential discomfort of its target.

Asked if his wicked sense of humor has ever misfired, Clooney says, “Humor only gets me in trouble when I forget that any joke I make will be heard by a lot of people and can be hurtful to someone if I’m not careful. I’m just screwing around...but you realize as you get home that it’s something that would hurt someone’s feelings, and maybe it’s not needed. You have to consider that a little more.”

Evan Rachel Wood seconds that sentiment. “George has a big heart,” she says of her director—and costar—in The Ides of March. “He wants people to have fun and be happy. He’ll do anything for his friends.” Wood says she herself has gotten off easy: During their time together, Clooney once convinced her to dance while singing Justin Bieber’s “Baby.” Unbeknownst to her, cameras were rolling. When it was over, he deadpanned, “Enjoy the DVD.”

Her costar Ryan Gosling was not quite so unscathed. As Wood tells it, while giving direction to Gosling, Clooney surreptitiously misted the front of his trousers with water. She recalls that Gosling was pretty used to people staring at him, just not quite like this. “It was pretty funny,” she says—and yes, Gosling laughed, too.

One joke pulled on Ocean’s producer and longtime friend Jerry Weintraub was of the premeditated type. “I had a gold silk shirt—a very expensive gold silk shirt—Clooney hated,” Weintraub says. “Once at the Bellagio when we were doing Ocean’s, I was having drinks with the guys, and Clooney sneaked into my closet and stole the shirt. That September, for my birthday, I received a big box wrapped with ribbon—and in it was my gold shirt. On the back, Clooney had drawn a picture in black marker of a giant penis, and he’d had everyone who participated in a charity golf tournament for prostate cancer in Las Vegas sign it, too. There were 30 signatures—Brad Pitt, Matt Damon, Don Cheadle, Wayne Gretzky...”

Problem was, in Weintraub Clooney had a worthy adversary. “So I opened the box,” he recounts, “jumped in my golf cart and drove over to his office—this was when we both had offices at Warner Bros. Clooney was on the phone to [director Steven] Soderbergh, and there were people in his office. I walked in, took a golf club and broke up the place—smashing lamps, throwing a bicycle through the window, tossing scripts around. Clooney was curled up on the floor, screaming to Soderbergh, ‘He’s gone nuts, he’s gonna kill us all.’ Now, I was just kidding, and Clooney knew it. But then the head of the club came off and flew across the room, just missing him. We looked at each other and figured it had gone far enough.”

As prime as these pranks were, Clooney doesn’t consider any of them his masterpiece. When asked about his most outrageous practical joke, he says, “Google my name and ‘kitty litter,’ and you’ll get your answer.”

I did, and the story, as told by Clooney to both Leno and Dennis Miller, was inspired on so, so many levels. The brilliantly scatological tale is an established chapter in the Clooney canon. When I mention it to Margulies, she laughs and says, “My husband asks me to tell that story at dinner parties at least once a month.”

In a nutshell, after his divorce from Talia Balsam, Clooney moved in with a friend who had a cat. The litter box was in the bathroom. One day, Clooney did the scooping chore, flushing the cat poop down the toilet. He then did it the next day and the next and the next. But he didn’t tell his roommate, who became concerned at the cat’s lack of bowel movements and took him to the vet.

The feline was put on meds, and still Clooney continued to clean up after it. The roommate’s concern escalated, Clooney kept scooping. Finally, after hearing his roommate bemoan the cat’s lack of progress, Clooney relieved himself in the catbox and sat back to await his roommate’s reaction...which we presume he got in spades.

As funny as he is, Clooney doesn’t call himself a comedian. “Professional comedians are a very different breed than people with just a sense of humor,” he says. “I played in a basketball league with all comedians...and it was a very angry place.” Clearly not where Clooney wants to live.

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HAIR: Carola Gonzalez / The Magnet Agency
MANICURE: Lisa Jachno / Aim Artists