There are some actors and actresses that seem to catapult beyond A-list status into a new stratosphere that is more akin to royalty in Hollywood. Folks like Marlon Brando, Jodie Foster, Robert Redford, Meryl Streep, Brad Pitt and of course George Clooney. There are a million reasons for this, be it Oscar nominations and/or wins, infamous scandals, reputations, or crazy life stories, or just an amount of sheer charisma that separates them into an almost more-than-human stature. For whatever reason, some people are just mega stars. Most of these folks got to where they are with very few missteps or wrong turns in their career, they were just kind of destined to become gods and goddesses of film.
In the curious case of George Clooney though, the person he is today (and has been really for the last 20 or so years) seems like a completely different one that started his career back in the late 70s as the Hollywood-bound nephew of Rosemary Clooney, and who ended up with a rather long career as a C-level actor. That George Clooney was one I was very familiar with as a kid from his stint in some silly horror films and forgotten TV shows, and was one who seemed to hit his ultimate career high in 1996 with his starring turn as Seth Gecko in From Dusk Till Dawn. Since we’re covering the movie his month on the Club I thought it would be fun to take a minute to look back on the career of Clooney before the film and how it seemed like FDTD should have been the final shift in the actor’s career opening the door to a final stretch of grindhouse classics that never came to be.
The first time I stumbled on Clooney was probably around the time I turned 11 (sometime in 1988) and was home sick from school. Like a lot of kids back in the 80s my mom wrapped me in a blanket, gave me a can of ginger ale and then plopped me in front of my babysitter for the day, our old (even for the time) faux wood-paneled, behemoth of a television. I remember flipping through the channels (a real feat as I had to actually stroll up to the TV and shift a sliding knob on the attached cable box), and passing by episodes of Gomer Pyle and Bewitched in favor of a more recent sitcom that was running in syndication on the USA network called E/R. The 1984 show, not to be confused with the television drama mega hit ER from the 90s, starred Elliot Gould as the head doctor in a Chicago area emergency room dealing with all the crazy hijinks that happen in a hospital. The episode I caught that day was called The Storm and centered on the staff and Gould’s on-screen daughter getting caught in the ER overnight during a blizzard. Honestly, the main reason I remember this episode so clearly is that it featured a guest appearance by MTV VJ Martha Quinn who I had a mad crush on at the time. Long story short, I kind of fell for the show and started doing my best to catch episodes whenever I could. That episode also happened to feature a new series regular, a young George Clooney as the nephew of Nurse Thor (played by Conchata Ferrel). This was the longer, shaggy, mulleted version of Clooney who was right at home in a black leather jacket and jeans, macking on Quinn through the whole episode. I seem to remember the chemistry between Clooney and Gould being pretty great.
E/R wasn’t Clooney’s first role though. He started his career in 1978 in a scene as an extra on the set of the Centennial mini series, and then with help of his uncle (Jose Ferrer) got a small part in the 1982 horse-racing movie And They’re Off alongside his cousin Miguel Ferrer and friend/star Bill Allen (Cru Jones from Cult Film Club favorite film Rad.) That role led to a couple of guest-star parts on some lesser known 80s action shows, Riptide and Street Hawk. After E/R Clooney snagged a lot of television roles in shows like Crazy Like a Fox, Hunter, Murder She Wrote and The Golden Girls, but it was his turn as series regular George Burnett on The Facts of Life, the sarcastic contractor hired by Mrs. Garrett to help rebuild the decimated Edna’s Edibles into a new store called Over Our Heads, where I next noticed him.
Clooney’s television work was picking up a lot during this period where he ended up snagging reoccurring roles on the first season of Roseanne (as Booker Brooks, the foreman at Wellman Plastics where Roseanne, Jackie and Crystal work), as well as a couple other series that weren’t big hits, but featured some heavy hitters of television (like the 1991 show Baby Talk, Amy Heckerling’s television reboot of her film Look Who’s Talking that featured Scott Baio, Tony Danza or the detective drama Bodies of Evidence starring Lee Horsley.) He also snagged a role in the very short-lived 21 Jump Street rip-off series Sunset Beat (1990) starring Tuesday Knight (of A Nightmare on Elm Street 4 fame.) It was around this time that Clooney was also dating porn actress Ginger Lynn.
Now, as far as his movie credits go, he seemed to be cutting out a nice path to b-movie stardom. The first flick I remember seeing him in was 1987’s Return to Horror High, a comedy/horror movie within a movie feature. It was a low budget affair that I think I caught on cable, where Clooney plays a small part as the lead in the movie within the movie that gets killed off fairly early in the flick. But he followed up this role with his turn as Matt Stevens in the sequel to Attack of the Killer Tomatoes (coincidentally titled Return of the Killer Tomatoes), a super tongue in cheek horror comedy. This one really stood out to me because the film consistently breaks the fourth wall to shill product placements to the audience in order to complete the funding of the movie as it plays. Clooney in this flick is basically playing a variation of the rest of his television roles, the hunky, sarcastic friend. He’d follow up these roles with some choice bits of fun ultra b-movie parts like his turn as Remar the drug-running surfer in the 1989 flick Red Surf (if you want to see the entire flick it’s up on youtube), or starring alongside his cousin Miguel again in the 1992 flick The Harvest where he’s billed as the “Lip Synching Transvestite”.
So up to this point, considering his body of film and television work, Clooney had a very specific career trajectory playing the dark, sarcastic, hunky characters in a slew of movies and shows, he was dating porn stars, and honestly just didn’t seem like the kind of guy who was destined to hit the A-list, let alone become Hollywood royalty. Granted, he landed the role of Dr. Doug Ross on Michael Crichton’s medical drama ER in 1994, which for sure altered his career path, but looking back, when he was cast in From Dusk Till Dawn it seems like less than a big Hollywood film he snagged because of ER and more like the culmination of almost 20 years worth of work as a b-movie actor. When I think about the actors and actresses that Tarantino tends towards, they are very rarely the big names in the business, but rather down on their luck actors in need of a break or experienced b-movie actors who made the films that he loved watching as a kid and teen.
I find it kind of crazy that Clooney didn’t start making a slew of grindhouse style horror and action films after playing Seth Gecko.
After compiling this retrospective of the younger Clooney, I stumbled upon a short piece in an issue of Fangoria, an interview with Clooney where he himself gets into his mindset in terms of the kinds of projects he was seeking out. In a weird way it kind of backs up my thesis in that he compares his career to that of Richard Grieco, in particular in Grieco’s choice to take on the big budget disaster If Looks Could Kill which effectively blacklisted him from Hollywood. Clooney, seeking to sidestep that fate chose to go with something lower on the studio’s radar and not what they hoped would be a sure-thing hit that could still bomb terribly. He goes more in-depth in his thought process in this snippet from issue 148 of Fangoria below.