George Clooney

By
Photography Paul Jasmin

Published February 7, 2012

We may now live in an era when the television news media seems fraught with credibility issues, but George Clooney’s latest directorial effort, Good Night, and Good Luck, captures a moment in the early days of broadcast journalism when its true power was just starting to be realized. The film, which hits theaters this month, tracks the exploits of famed CBS newsman and See I Now host Edward R. Murrow (played in the film by David Stratharn), who, along with his producers Fred Friendly and Joe Wershba, fought through the political pressures, corporate concerns, and atmosphere of fear that predominated over early ‘50s America to take on Senator Joseph McCarthy, whose civil liberties-trampling campaign to root out Communist sympathizers in America Murrow—and, as it turned out, most of America—would come to view as little more than a witch hunt. For Clooney, the film is a personal one, having grown up around newsrooms with his father, Nick Clooney, who was himself a television newsman. Here, the actor and director, who also appears next moth in the CIA thriller Syriana, talks to pioneering producer Norman Lear, the man who gave him his first break in television more than two decades ago on a short-lived sitcom ironically titled E/R.

NORMAL LEAR: Hey, George

GEORGE CLOONEY: Hello, Norman. How are you, my friend?

LEAR: If I have a complaint I’d be an ingrate

CLOONEY: [laughs] I enjoy complaining though. Hey, how about Peter Jennings today?

LEAR: Yeah that was sad. Terribly sad.

CLOONEY: I really admired him. He was the last of the guys to really ask tough questions at the tough times.

LEAR: As you know, we’ve been on this tour over the last couple of years, taking an original copy of the Declaration of Independence around the country, and we had it up at the Time Warner building in New York about eight months ago. It was just before Peter announced he was ill, and, my God, I”ll never forget him that night. He  had only recently become an American citizen.

CLOONEY: He was very proud of his new citizenship.

LEAR: He was so proud of it. He spoke for about 10 minutes, and he was so off-the-cuff and eloquent.

CLOONEY: It was such a funny thing, because he kept his Canadian citizenship for so long as a tribute to his parents. Then, when he finally decided to become American, he went out and bragged about getting a perfect score on his citizenship test and was only able to vote in one election before he got sick and died. In a way that seems sort of tragic.

LEAR: He had another connection with your film: He was another guy in the news media who smoked.

CLOONEY: Yeah, he sure did. It was actually one of the reasons that we put a cigarette ad in the film. I’m a big non-smoker, and since we weren’t doing a biopic where you would see that all these news guys who smoked in the movie would eventually end up dying of lung cancer later, we didn’t want to just glamorize it. When you put people smoking in a movie, you make it look really attractive. So I wanted to put in that Kent commercial just to say that we’re not condoning smoking, but we can’t avoid it. So many people now try to rewrite history by taking it out when they make movies.

LEAR: I was a four-pack-a-day smoker.

CLOONEY:Were you really?

LEAR:I was. When I was writing, I smoked incessantly. Then I made a film called Cold Turkey [1971], about a town that’s impelled by a big $25 million offer from a cigareet company to give up smoking. So I said to myself, “I will quite smoking the day I start filming.” So I got off the plane I didn’t smoke for a few days. Then on the first day of shooting, I found out that Barnard Hughes, who played a surgeon who was a four-pack-a-day smoker in the film, had never smoked a cigarette in his life. So I had to show him how to achieve orgasm. [Clooney laughs] Finally, I Just said, “Well, God, you want me to smoke. I’ll smoke till the bitch his over.”

CLOONEY: And how long ago was it that you quit?

LEAR: When we made the film in ’68 or something like that.

CLOONEY: Do you have any itches for it now?

LEAR: I will smoke a few cigars in the course of a year. I love the smoke. If there is a reason to believe in God, it would be the Havana Leaf [both laugh].

CLOONEY: My grandparents back in Kentucky owned a tobacco farm. So to make money in the summer we could cut and chop and top and house and strip the tobacco. It sure made you not want to smoke.

LEAR: You never smoked?

CLOONEY: No, never. You know I had 10 great aunts and uncles on my father’s side, and six of them died of lung cancer. Rosemary [Clooney’s aunt] died of lung cancer, too, and she has emphysema. Both of my grandparents died of lung cancer. So I got quite a lesson in the payback later in life of smoking, and if you keep it up how bad it can be. It was very sad about Jennings, though, because I remember right after 9/11 when it was difficult to ask the really tough questions, he was the only guy who did. And during the lead up to the war when no one was really asking those questions, he seemed to be the one to say, “Okay, unfortunately I have to ask you, Mr. President, about these things.” I always found that to be so courageous at a network where it’s a very hard thing to do. You ask one tough question, and you get sent to the back of the press room and never get called on again.

LEAR: Right. There’s no one there in the business who I can really see doing that.

CLOONEY: I think they’re all so afraid. I don’t think there’s any news director out there that says “Don’t ask those questions,” but it’s certainly implied that if the reporter doesn’t get called on in the press briefings, then the network loses coverage.

LEAR: It’s interesting that we’re having this conversation about Peter Jennings in the context of your film, Good Night, and Good Luck. I’m sure the model Peter was following was Edward R. Murrow

CLOONEY: Well, the name of the award you get for excellence in broadcast journalism is the Edward R. Murrow Award. He’s certainly one of the highest models you could point to. The other was Walter Cronkite going to Vietnam and coming back and saying that the war was at best a stalemate. Those seem to be the two moments of broadcast journalism that actually effected immediate change in the country. They were also really sort of amazing moments because both Murrow and Cronkite were editorializing, which in many ways Is not a good thing. But it was done with such great responsibility.

LEAR: But not everybody grows up with that sort of understanding of journalism. Do you attribute your understand of it to your dad, who was a broadcaster?

CLOONEY:  Well, that was my whole life, growing up. I got in an argument with a newsman the other day: We were pitching an idea for Good Night, and Good Luck to be on a specific, well-known news show which will remain nameless, and the guy said “Well, what’s the pitch?” I said, “Well, you know, there’s a bunch of different angles you could take if you wanted to talk about it, but I thought that perhaps this might be of interested to you.” Then things got sort of belligerent, and I said, “Listen, I was feeding news teleprompters in 1973 when you were trying to get through Columbia Broadcasting school, so don’t talk to me about being an actor and not understanding about broadcast journalism because it was what I grew up around.” I sat in meetings with my father, who not only wrote his own news but was a news director as well, when he would go around with each reporter and say, “Go back and make sure that these sources are good sources, and if you don’t have two then we can’t use it.” I also witnessed what many broadcasters feel was the downfall of broadcast journalism, when they sent my father to these consultants who would say stuff like, “Part your hair on the left and not the right, and wear a cool blue suit because that means confidence.

LEAR: “…and find a young blonde to sit next to you.”

CLOONEY: Oh, yeah. And I watched my dad try to play along for a while. But then finally he just said, “Look, I’m a newsman. I write my news. I’m not a newsreader.” Murrow had to fight that fight, too. He basically at one point said that we have a built-in allergy to things that are important to us, and we don’t want to see them. And that was 1958. [laughs]

LEAR: Murrow has a couple of lines in the film that just leap out at you. I’m thinking of the “box of lights and wires” speech.

CLOONEY: When he says, “Just once in a while let us exalt in the importance of ideas and let us dream to the extent of saying that on any given Sunday night, the time normally occupied by Ed Sullivan, is given over to a clinical survey on the state of American education, and a week or two later, the time normally used by Steve Allen is devoted to a thorough going study of American policy in the Middle East. Would the corporate image of their respective sponsors be damaged? Would the stockholders rise up in their wrath and complain? Would anything happen other than a few million people would have received a little illumination on subjects that may well determine the future of this country?”

LEAR: “Because if they are right, and this instrument is good for nothing”—and this is the phrase, these three words together—”but to entertain, amuse, and insulate us…it is merely wires and lights in a box.”

CLOONEY: It was as true then as it is now. The difference seems sort of grand because television has exploded into such part of our lives, and at the time when Murrow was working people still read newspapers. Now most people get their news from television, from 10-second news bites.

LEAR: The movie also takes place at a time when the heads of three big networks—ABC, CBS, and NBC—were not insisting that the news departments be big money makers.

CLOONEY: When the FCC first started handing out public airwaves, they basically had an agreement with the networks that they were gong to lease them the airwaves, which belonged to the public, but in exchange the networks were going to owe us information. The FCC said, “If you want these airwaves, then you’re going to have to keep us informed, and in doing so, you’re going to lose money because it’s not very entertaining to have a guy sit up there and tell you all the news. So you can still sell some commercial sin on this news programming, but prepare yourself, it’s not going to make money like Howdy Doody or Bonanza.” And, so, for quite some time—a good 25 or 30 years—the news departments of all the networks were looked at as loss leaders. Then finally somewhere along the way someone said, “Well, what would happen if we dressed it up?” When I was growing up, the news departments were always in the red, and the trick was how little in the red you could keep them. I remember so many times my dad coming home and saying, “Well, they’re cutting our reporters.” He was always fighting to get a live news van and things like that.

LEAR: And NBC had Leopold Stokowski and the NBC Symphony Orchestra. All loss leaders.

CLOONEY: Sure. All loss leaders. That’s why I find it so interesting when people at the networks say, “We’re not going to cover the political conventions anymore,” and you think that’s sort of a new development, and then you remember that Fred Friendly had finally quit CBS because they opted to show a rerun of I Love Lucy episode instead of the Senate Vietnam hearings. So, it’s not something new.

LEAR: For me, the systemic disease of our time—and it has increased over the last 40 years or so—is the need for public media companies to have financial statements for this quarter that are larger than the last at the expense of, it would seem, virtually every other value.

CLOONEY: And ultimately that backfires because you’re trying to go back to these shareholders and show them what you’ve done for them, and in the meantime, you’re slowly destroying those little companies that ultimately run the country.

LEAR: Around 25 years ago, I read something in the Harvard Business Review by two guys, Abernathy and Hays, who wrote a paper called “Managing Our Way to Economic Decline.” I’ll never forget it for this reason: I was in the east and I called Robert Abernathy, and I flew to Cambridge, Massachusetts and sat with him over a long lunch. He and Hays were recanting pretty much what they had been teaching in the business school. I asked Abernathy what motivated that recanting, and he looked straight ahead at me and said, “Norman, very shortly, younger men and women—largely men, most of them young—all over the globe will be looking into screens. They won’t be looking to the side. The won’t be looking above. They won’t be looking below. They’ll have no forward vision and no peripheral vision, and they’ll be moving billions of dollars from Frankfurt to Tokyo to New York, and so forth.” He said, “This myopic vision will rule.”

CLOONEY: And he was dead right.

LEAR: I’ll never forget that image.

CLOONEY: At the time it seemed impossible.

LEAR: And impossible to think that three networks would succumb to that myopia as well.

CLOONEY: Well, it is all about the 24-hour news cycle now. I was watching [CBS anchor] Bob Schieffer talk about it once, and he helped it make sense to us. When I was growing up—and certainly when you were growing up—there were three networks and basically the three network news shows. But whether it was David Brinkley on NBC or Cronkite on CBS or Howard K. Smith and Harry Reasoner on ABC, they essentially were giving you the same basic news. The information you were starting with was pretty much the same, and then you’d take that information in, and you’d have your own social and political views to filter it through and to come up with your own opinions. But over the years that whole arrangement has fractured into these tiny little segments, when you’re able to turn on a news show that will appeal to your specific demographic. The result is that the information you’re starting with is completely different. For example, if you’re a conservative you follow only Fox News, the headlining information is that Saddam Hussein was tied to 9/11 and Al Quaeda and that he had weapons of mass destruction that he’s going to  use on us. Those are presented as facts. “The Iraqis will welcome us with open arms”—they weren’t possibilities; they were facts. Now, if you listen to ABC at the same time, they had a lot of questions, like, “Well, we don’t’ quite know if this is true.” So what happens is you start going to the place that appeals best to your sensibilities—so no one’s really growing or learning anything.

LEAR: But I think that happens even in the opposite way. I’m addicted to listening to Rush Limbaugh as I come to work. I will want to know what Bill O’Reilly is talking about. Maybe it’s because they’re so over the top. But they also reinforce your beliefs in that way.

CLOONEY: In doing the screenplay for Good Night, and Good Luck, the most important thing for me was to constantly go back to wherever the opposition would argue. So I had to keep reading all the books and articles about why McCarthy is such a good guy. Page Six was running story saying that I’m going to do a big piece vilifying McCarthy when we now know that McCarthy was right about the people he labeled Communist. Well, of course he wasn’t right about that—he was only right about a very small fraction of the thousands and thousands of people who were labeled. But that, of course, wasn’t the point ever. The point was never whether or not anyone was right about the people they were calling Communists. The problem was that we were attacking civil liberties to do it. We were literally saying that we have a sealed envelope that finds you guilty, and you’re not allowed to look at it. You’re guilty. Period. And that goes against the idea of the writ of habeas corpus and why we left King George in the first place. It’s the whole reason this country exists, and if we’re not going to uphold that principle, then what are we protecting?

LEAR: There’s a remarkable moment in your film when Karl Mundt finally gets that idea.

CLOONEY: Well, the great one is Senator John L. McClellan, because he was from Arkansas. It’s not like he was this big liberal, but it’s McClellan who really just say, “Hold on a minute—that’s the evil of it.” And it’s funny what comes out of his mouth, because he was on the House Un-American Activities Committee, and he was a very tough customer. He was tough on Reed Harris. He was tough on a lot of guys. But the lawyer in him ultimately said, “You cannot do this. You cannot convict by hearsay and innuendo. That is the evil of it.” The fact that here was a guy who was clearly an anti-Communist and out there on the attack for some time and just snapped in that way gave you great hope. It’s sort of like when they did the polls about the Terri Schiavo case. I was starting to think that our country’s gone completely insane, and then they did those polls about Teri Schiavo, and I think about 80% of the country said that we should tell the government to stay the hell out of our hostpial rooms. And then I thought, Well, maybe there is still hope. Maybe there’s still some sense of decency here. We were just talking about this a little while ago, but when did you start taking the Declaration of Independence around?

LEAR: Oh, a little over four years ago—its first big debut was at the Winter Olympics. George W. Bush spoke within about 30 feet of it. I’ve got this wonderful moment of the President saying that we’re just a few feet away from a copy of the Declaration of Independence. I don’t agree with the fellow about probably anything. [laughs] But we certainly agree on the importance of this.

CLOONEY: I’ve been working with Pat Roberston on Africa debt-relief and we disagree on virtually everything except certain very specific, inalienable rights, and the truth is that morality and patriotism come in all shapes and sizes. For me the definition of a patriot is someone who is willing to constantly question the government; that’s what separates us from other countries.

LEAR: Robertson would agree with that.

CLOONEY: Oh, he would agree with that.

LEAR: But he’d agree with that mostly when they’re able to criticize.

CLOONEY: But I don’t actually mind that. I don’t mind the idea of saying we’re going to disagree on all of these things.  I only know him a little bit, but I can’t imagine him to be as evil as I might have thought. [laughs] I like to think that people in general at least believe quite honestly in what it is they’re doing, or they wouldn’t do it.

LEAR: Well, no matter how much they disagree, when many people come face to face with the other person’s humanity, if they are not haters, they are prone to love.

CLOONEY: But don’t you find that it usually is that they’re just ill informed? It’s like with the issue of gay marriage—there are people who are saying that everybody can’t have it and it’s horrible, it destroys the sanctiity of marriage. And I kind of look at it like, I’m not quite sure what the santicity of marriage is. But more importantly, a lot of these people who are saying this stuff aren’t actually around gay people and don’t understand that they just want to be happy and be afforded the same rights as everyone else.

LEAR: They simply wish to be embraced.

CLOONEY: That’s right. My father just lost an election in Kentucky last year, and all the ads said “Hollywood vs. the Heartland.” Of course, my father grew up and lived his whole life in Kentucky and has very little to do with Hollywood. But that doesn’t matter because that’s the way they could label it. The greatest thing you can pull out if you want to win is just scream, “That guy’s a liberal!” And I just keep going back to the idea that, yeah, I’m a liberal. I believe in all the qualities of being a liberal. I keep going back to all the great social events in our country’s history, starting with the Salem witch trials, where the conservative view was that they’re witches and should be burned at the stake, and the liberal view was there’s no such thing as witches. Women wanted to vote, and liberals thought that would be okay. Blacks wanted to sit in the front of the bus—we didn’t seen anything wronger with that. We thought Vietnam was wrong. We thought Nixon trying to steal an election was a mistake. Over the years, over the history of our country, liberals have stood on many of the right sides of the issues. Bush did a very smart thing after 9/11,which is that he didn’t jut say “You’re either with us or against us.” He came out and said, “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.” Which is a remarkable statement.

LEAR: That’s what McCarthy was saying too.

CLOONEY: Yeah, it is. There are differences, but certain issues of the Patriot Act are starting to creep into real McCarthy-era territory. I remember just in the lead up to the war I was saying that we still have quite a few questions to ask, and some tabloid called myself and Sean Penn traitors, and Bill O’Reailly did a piece on his show on why my career was over because of my political views. But all I was saying was that we should have a lot of questions before we put 150,000 kids in harm’s way, not to mention the Iraqi people. And Saddam Hussein is a bad guy, sure. But so is Mugabe in Zimbabwe, and we’re not doing anything about him. And there are other things we can do besides invade. It was an interesting time because I really thought I was in trouble for a minute. I remember calling my dad and saying, “Am I in trouble here?” and He just said, “Shut up. Grow up. You can take it. Have you lost your house? Are you hungry? Has anyone taken anything away?” He was just like, if you’re going to make those statements, you’re going to take those hits.

LEAR: But there isn’t a lot of moral outrage, especially from people in your position.

CLOONEY: I think there’s more than we want to give being whispered. People come over and say, “I really agree with you,” kind of quietly. But Howard Dean helped a bit by yelling it from the rooftops. It was sort of like what Murrow did in a way when he said, “Everyone who thinks that McCarthy’s policies are ridiculous, stand up.” And the letters came in like, 15 to 1. Everyone—Murrow included—was very surprised by that because they didn’t think it would be that big of a number. There are worries that if this new Patriot Act passes, it will mean that any FBI guy without a subpoena, without going to a judge, can go to your doctor or your librarian and say, ” Let me see the books this person has checked out. Let me see this person’s medical records. Let me see what drugs they take.” And you’re never allowed to tell that person that you’ve done it. That’s getting into a very dangerous area. That’s why I thought this film was important to make—because those issues seem cyclical. We revisit them ever 30 or 40 years.

LEAR: It’s a great time to talk about them.

CLOONEY:That’s Guantanamo Bay: Either the people there are prisoners of war and they get Geneva Convention rights, or they’re criminals and they get their Miranda rights—they get their right to a speedy trial and they get their right to an attorney. But holding them as detainees and “persons of interest” and giving them none of these things is not what our country is based on—even a conservative Supreme Court agreed with that. I find that there’s a great hope still. I’m always sort of optimistic about how good we are, as a country, at fixing ourselves.

LEAR: There’s one moment in the film, George, where Murrow and Friendly and the other CBS news guys are sitting around, talking about whether they’re going to go with the McCarthy story. In the course of the discussion, the naysayers are expressing their fears about running with it, and Murrow turns around and says something to the effect of “We’re going to go with this story because the terror is right here in this room.”

CLOONEY: That’s actually a direct quote, and it’s in everyone’s book, from Friendly’s to Wershba’s to Murrows’ and Bill Paley’s. [Paley was the chairman of CBS at the time.] They all seem to agree that the scene was sort of the defining moment, where Plamer Williams, [played in the film by Tom McCarthy] stands up and says, “Before we were married my wife—and  didn’t find it out until after we were divorced—attended some parties and it’s going to hurt us I if a stick around.” And Murrow said, “We’re going to go with the story because the terror’s here in this room.”  And that room where they met to discuss stories was considered sacred to them. That was where these young men, who all just worshipped Murrow, plotted to take on a lot of big things in the world, and they did, from apartheid to American policies in the Middle East to the misuse of migrant workers. It’s really sort of amazing. The interesting thing is that the fight between McCarthy and Murrow ended up destroying both of their careers. Murrow basically ruined his relationship with Paley. And Paley, to his credit, did everything he could to try and make it work. We were very careful to be fair to Bill Paley through all of this because we felt like he did some admirable things. He did stick with Murrow and didn’t sto him from taking on McCarthy. You knew Paley a little bit, didn’t you?

LEAR: You know, I was on the air with  All in the Family, Maude, Good Times, The Jeffersons, all on CBS, and I never heard from Bill Paley.

CLOONEY: Really?

LEAR: Never. And then when we were going off the air, and we all had had it with All in the Family—I mean, we thought we had done as much as we could and wanted to put it away—Carol O’Conner decided that he wanted to go on doing the character and call the show Archie Bunker’s Place. I didn’t want that to happen, but Paley wanted it on the air. So I got a called from Mr. Paley and met with him because they needed me to say yes to do it. Ultimately I did because at the meeting they made a big case for it, saying, “This is the amount of people who will be out of work if you don’t say yes.” But I just thought we ought to tie a bow on the character and put it on the shelf.

CLOONEY: If you were to look at all the characters that you’ve created over the years, is Archie Bunker the most rewarding one? The whole idea of trusting that the American people will figure out that you’re making fun of him and making fun of prejudice by showing it that way was a pretty bold step.

LEAR: Well, there was a big concern that they would’t get it. But most people did. What I used to get from people who thought Archie was right was a postcard or a letter at the of which was written: “Why do they make a fool of such a good man?”

CLOONEY: Oh, that’s so funny.

LEAR: But that’s what I would get. It was either that or “Go home, Jew bastard.”

CLOONEY: It’s funny because I have been in a lot of network meetings where people say, “The American audience will never get it.” And you find that the American audience does get it, if you look back at the shows that they truly cerebrated, like M.A.S.H and All in the Family  and Maude and Cheers and ER, they are shows that were, for the most part, really intelligent.

LEAR: And South Park right now. There’s some wonderful stuff out there.

CLOONEY: And you look at it and think, Maybe it’s the networks themselves that are keeping the bar rather low.

LEAR: The two things that I used to hear all the time from the networks were “It won’t fly in Des Moines” and “there is going to be a kneejerk reaction in the Bible belt or the middle of the country.”

CLOONEY: And there wasn’t.

LEAR: There never was. What you constantly hear is “This is what people want, so this is what we give them.” The establishment uses that rationale all the time, and that’s why we do what we do. But leadership requires some understanding ta t you can say no. People have base instincts, but the transcendent also appeal to them.

CLOONEY: Well the argument is this: We’re always going to be a society that’s going to slow down and look at the wreck on the side if the road if there is one. We’re always going to do that because it’s still fascinating and it’s human nature. But it’s criminal to put that wreck on the side of road simply to have everyone slow down and look at it. That, to me, is the most irresponsible social thing you can do, and it’s causing quite a traffic jam. To me, the issue is that you have a responsibility as a broadcaster, so you get good numbers watching people blow themselves up and run in front of trains and get their heads cut off in cars, but is that what you want to be showing? It’s a tricky argument, but I find it sort of fascinating. Listen, I’ve been in some very violent films over the years, so I have to sort of say, “Wel, I’ve participated in part of that.” But at least movies are voluntary: you buy a ticket, you go into a theater, and it’s not part of the news program that’s sold to some advertiser. But I do have a responsibility, and I have to sort of take that in and say, “I’m going to try and do better.”

LEAR: But that’s the message: try and do better.

CLOONEY: Yeah, and that’s the secret in failing miserably at it. [laughs] I’m going to go videotape my friend running into each other now.

LEAR: Basketball? The people who are taking the trouble to read this interview should know that Clooney plays a mean game of basketball. A solid game—I shouldn’t say mean.

CLOONEY: We played. I should mention that we spent a few days together in Italy, and it was your family and my family and friends, and it was just as fun a time as you could ever have. You have an absolutely stunning family, and it starts from the top, but it is just the greatest time.

LEAR: You, my friend, were the coup de grace. What is the name of that restaurant that overlooks the world?

CLOONEY: Ill Gatto Nero. The Black Cat.

LEAR: Let’s send everybody we love there!

CLOONEY: Okay, I’m all for it. I think we should send everybody who reads the magazine there, too.

LEAR: Okay, done. Thanks’ George!

CLOONEY:Okay, I’ll talk to you soon.

LEAR: Good night and good luck.

CLOONEY: You too, my brother

 

 

Norman Lear, with his partner Hal Gaba, owns ACT III, which comprises the Concord Record Group and is part own of Village Rodshow.

THIS INTERVIEW ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE OCTOBER 2005 ISSUE OF INTERVIEW.