When it comes to Hollywood royalty, there are few names as big as George Clooney. Certainly, with over $2 billion grossed in box office receipts, the actor can pull in audiences like no other. But before he became a celluloid icon, Clooney had to struggle like any other budding star. And his humble origins belie the screen legend he’d later become.
By all means, Clooney’s early years didn’t give any hints towards the megastar status he’d grow to enjoy. Born in Kentucky in 1961, the actor spent his youth living in the sleepy suburban town of Augusta, which today sports a population of just over 1,000.
Though they lived far from the bright lights of Hollywood, Clooney’s family were used to showbiz life. His dad Nick was a news anchor and local TV host. Also, his aunt Rosemary was a famed actress and singer who had hits back in the ’50s.
But despite his family connections, Clooney showed little interest in acting. Indeed, the young thespian originally planned a career in sports. He even tried out for the Cincinnati Reds in 1977. “I wanted to play pro baseball,” he revealed to The Cincinnati Enquirer in 1990. “I thought that would be it.”
Nevertheless, Clooney’s athletic ambitions never came to fruition, and the star found himself looking for a new calling. Fortunately, he didn’t have to search for long, as the following year camera crews for the miniseries Centennial rolled into town. Cast as an extra, Clooney gained his first taste of showbiz at the age of 17.
Eventually, he set his sights on higher education and sought a major in broadcast journalism from Northern Kentucky University. But, as with sports, college wasn’t his forte. Indeed, he soon dropped out without earning his degree.
During a 2012 episode of Inside the Actor’s Studio, Clooney explained his decision to abandon his studies. “I wasn’t a very good college student. In a funny way, it was a reflection of being raised in a very strict family and I was suddenly free. I was going out a lot,” he said.
With no baseball contract and no diploma, Clooney signed up to the University of Cincinnati and worked odd jobs to get by. For example, he worked in a women’s shoe store, a job he deemed “terrible” during a 2012 Newsweek roundtable. He also spent his summers earning a crust on a tobacco farm.
While he was busy hand-picking tobacco, Clooney got an unexpected call from his cousin Miguel Ferrer. He and his father José were making a movie nearby. It gave Clooney the chance to hang out on the film set and gain more work as an extra.
Although the movie never made it to screens, Clooney was smitten. “It was so exciting to be around a camera, to be around pretty girls,” he told Esquire in 2014. With his mind now set on acting, Clooney quit college once again and headed for Hollywood in 1982.
Taking residence with his extended family, the future star began studying acting and looking for work. At age 22, he gained a promising early role alongside Charlie Sheen in a film named Grizzly 2. Like his previous movie, however, this too never saw the light of day.
But while cinema stardom eluded the fledgling actor, Clooney found greater success on TV. Soon he secured supporting roles in the likes of The Facts of Life and Riptide. By the end of the decade, he was even appearing in ratings winners like Roseanne.
In addition to his work on the small screen, the actor was also busy treading the boards in theater. In 1986 Clooney appeared in the play Vicious, a part he deemed a “turning point” during a 2016 New York magazine interview. Besides gaining him his Screen Actors Guild card, the production also earned the star his first mention in the national press.
As Clooney’s reputation grew, so did the work offers. Finally, he received his big break when producers of a little show named ER came calling in 1994. Cast as pediatrician Doug Ross, Clooney gained increased credibility from the series and quickly became a household name.
The hit show also helped Clooney break into the evasive film industry. He gained leading roles in 1996’s From Dusk Till Dawn and One Fine Day. And, one year later, the star gained his biggest role so far as iconic superhero Bruce Wayne in Batman & Robin.
However, the film proved to be more of a curse than a blessing. Hampered by its campy overtones, Batman & Robin received overwhelmingly negative reviews and is now seen as one of the worst movies ever made. As a result, Clooney vowed to never again make a film based solely on money and would later hang a picture of himself in character on his office wall as a stern reminder.
Nonetheless, Clooney’s artistic sensibilities paid off. In 1998 he starred in respected director Steven Soderbergh’s Out of Sight. Unlike Batman & Robin, the film was a critical success and led the pair to collaborate again on Ocean’s Eleven, a movie that grossed $450 million worldwide.
Now firmly established in the Hollywood stratosphere, it was time for Clooney to change tack. Indeed, he turned to directing with 2002’s Confessions of a Dangerous Mind. Further respect followed with 2004’s political thriller Syriana, which featured the star’s most complex and nuanced performance yet.
Though the movie earned Clooney an Oscar, Syriana’s production would mark one of the star’s darkest moments. While enacting a particularly aggressive stunt, Clooney received spinal damage which caused him to endure agonizing pain. As he disclosed to Rolling Stone in 2011, his suffering was so great that he even contemplated suicide.
Thankfully, Clooney persevered and continued to star in acclaimed works like The Descendants and Gravity. Moreover, the star wed the love of his life Amal Alamuddin in 2014. In fact, the pair recently disclosed that they’re expecting twins. Certainly, Clooney’s present circumstances stand in stark contrast to his modest origins. More importantly, they prove what’s possible with hard work and a little dedication.