George Clooney – American Film Institute

George Clooney

46th AFI Life Achievement Award Honoree

George Clooney is America’s leading man, a modern–day icon who combines the glamour of a time gone by with a ferocious passion for ensuring that art’s impact echoes beyond the screen. His is a presence bigger even than his extraordinary movies.

Clooney’s work is undeniable — with eight Academy Award® nominations across more categories than any living individual in the awards’ history, including two wins.

“George’s talent shines through the screen and into people’s lives. He moves people. He makes them swoon. He makes them laugh. He makes them care.” — Julianna Margulies on George Clooney

The 46th AFI Life Achievement Award was presented to George Clooney at a Gala Tribute on June 7, 2018 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles, California. Presenters and performers included Jennifer Aniston, Cate Blanchett, Don Cheadle, Amal Clooney, Nick Clooney, Courteney Cox, Miley Cyrus, Laura Dern, Julianna Margulies, Bill Murray and Shirley MacLaine. The televised special premiered on TNT on June 21, 2018.

George Clooney is America’s leading man, a modern–day icon who combines the glamour of a time gone by with a ferocious passion for ensuring that art’s impact echoes beyond the screen. His is a presence bigger even than his extraordinary movies.

Clooney’s work is undeniable — with eight Academy Award® nominations across more categories than any living individual in the awards’ history, including two wins.

His is the story of the American dream. He was born in 1961 in Lexington, Kentucky, where stars filled the night sky and seemed as far away as dreams of Hollywood. The son of a popular local news broadcaster and a beauty queen, Clooney had a flair for entertaining. “Most kids have to create a fantasy life; they make–believe characters. We were a vaudeville act as a family,” said Clooney, who guest–starred on his father Nick’s talk show as a child. But Clooney had his sights on stardom of another form — playing Major League Baseball for the Cincinnati Reds. After two years of tryouts, it seemed that if Clooney were destined for greatness, it was elsewhere.

Clooney worked odd jobs including selling women’s shoes, cutting tobacco and as a DJ at a nightclub. It was his cousin, actor Miguel Ferrer, who introduced him to the world of Hollywood when he invited Clooney to a movie set in the summer of 1982 — and Clooney was seduced by the process. “I got a bit part and a couple of lines, and just decided this was really glamorous and exciting, and I wanted to do it,” he said.

With only $300 in his pocket, the 22–year–old Clooney headed to Los Angeles in a rusty Chevy Monte Carlo, hoping to crash on the couch of his aunt, singer Rosemary Clooney. His success was not handed to him overnight, however; when he arrived on her doorstep, she put him to work. After a year as her assistant and chauffeur, Clooney left to find his own way — living in a friend’s closet for the next year and riding a bicycle to auditions.

During the mid– and late–1980s, his dogged tenacity began to pay off, earning him roles on TV series such as THE FACTS OF LIFE; THE GOLDEN GIRLS; MURDER, SHE WROTE; and ROSEANNE; bringing a wry, roguish charm to small parts on the small screen. However, it was when Clooney read the pilot for the 1994 drama series ER that he knew he’d found the role that

would become his big break. With trademark determination and his signature personal touch, he went straight to executive producer John Wells and convinced him that the role of the heroic–but–troubled Dr. Doug Ross was his. “‘Don’t read anyone else. This is my part,'” he told Wells. “I was never going to get a second chance to introduce myself to a wide audience. This was my opportunity,” said Clooney.

ER quickly became the highest–rated drama on television, and nearly 30 million American viewers fell in love with Clooney every week. He earned two Primetime Emmy® nominations for his performance as Dr. Ross — a character whose multilayered moral complexity presaged many of Clooney’s later roles.

Clooney made his move to the movies as a fugitive bank robber opposite Quentin Tarantino in Robert Rodriguez’s gonzo vampire film FROM DUSK TILL DAWN (1996). But it was OUT OF SIGHT (1998), as career criminal Jack Foley, that signaled Clooney’s arrival as a talent transitioning from TV star to movie star. Rising auteur Steven Soderbergh cast him opposite Jennifer Lopez — and the pair’s smoldering chemistry remains the film’s legacy.

“This is his Butch Cassidy,” Soderbergh said of Clooney’s role. “His taste, his ambition and his fearlessness were something that I only came to know through working with him. That’s not the stuff you can tell just by looking at somebody, and those are three crucial components in his success.” Clooney and Soderbergh proved an inspired pairing, and the duo became key collaborators through the coming decades on nearly two dozen projects.

Clooney campaigned for the starring role in David O. Russell’s Gulf War satire THREE KINGS (1999), a performance that earned him rave reviews. His emerging star–status soon caught the attention of two other movie mavericks — the Coen Brothers, who cast Clooney as the eccentric leader of a hapless band of escaped convicts in O BROTHER, WHERE ART THOU? (2000).

“George is a big movie star, but he’s got a complete lack of vanity when he comes to work with us,” Joel Coen said. “He’s perfectly willing to go wherever we ask him to, which is the mark of a real actor.” Clooney has continued to bring comic brilliance to his collaborations with the Coen Brothers, working alongside them as a writer and producer, and as an actor.

Clooney and Soderbergh reteamed to create Section Eight Productions, launching their new partnership with the smash–hit Rat Pack remake OCEAN’S ELEVEN (2001). This all–star house of cards required a strong foundation to succeed, riding on Clooney’s ability to catalyze great performances from his co–stars with his seemingly effortless charisma. OCEAN’S was one of the highest–grossing films of the year, spawning a blockbuster trilogy and cementing Clooney as one of the world’s biggest movie stars.

The film’s success allowed Clooney and Soderbergh to pursue riskier passion projects — including Clooney’s 2002 directorial debut, the spy comedy CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND. Critics praised Clooney’s deft direction, which heralded an emerging signature style of juggling black humor and psychological drama. “Directing is really exciting,” Clooney said. “In the end, it’s more fun to be the painter than the paint.”

Clooney went behind the camera again in 2005 — to write, direct and star in GOOD NIGHT, AND GOOD LUCK., an excoriating retelling of broadcast journalist Edward R. Murrow’s fight to bring down infamous Senator Joseph McCarthy.

“The cinematic intelligence on display in this film is entirely his own,” wrote The New York Times. “[Clooney] has found a cogent subject, an urgent set of ideas and a formally inventive, absolutely convincing way to make them live on screen.” The elegantly mounted black–and–white chamber piece earned six Academy Award® nominations, including Best Director and Best Picture.

In front of the camera, Clooney continued to build upon and subvert his leading man image across a series of acclaimed roles. This streak began with his Academy Award®–winning turn as a world–weary CIA agent in the petro–political thriller SYRIANA (2005), followed by his Academy Award®–nominated performance in MICHAEL CLAYTON (2007) as a fix–it lawyer suffering a moral breakdown — both of which brought shades of melancholy to Clooney’s image as an easygoing charmer. He earned Academy Award® nominations for his moving portrayal of an existentially adrift corporate hatchet man in UP IN THE AIR (2009), and for THE DESCENDANTS (2011) as a husband and father in turmoil. These four roles showcased his ability to play loner and leader, and often in the same movie.

His credits reflect an artist who is both tastemaker and tasteful in his choice of challenging, often offbeat roles, working with icons and auteurs in such films as Terrence Malick’s THE THIN RED LINE (1998); Wes Anderson’s FANTASTIC MR. FOX (2009); Alfonso Cuarón’s GRAVITY (2013), the biggest box–office hit of Clooney’s career; Jodie Foster’s MONEY MONSTER (2016); and many more. He has masterfully navigated both sides of the camera, directing and starring in LEATHERHEADS (2008); THE IDES OF MARCH (2011), for which he received a Best Adapted Screenplay Academy Award® nomination; and THE MONUMENTS MEN (2014).

“Yes, he’s gorgeous. Yes, he’s canny, he’s intelligent, he’s well–dressed. He’s also deeply loyal. He has no time for pretension and laziness and arrogance. He has incredible grace,” said Cate Blanchett, Clooney’s co–star in THE GOOD GERMAN (2006) and THE MONUMENTS MEN.

A leader off screen as well as on, Clooney has also helped to facilitate the talents of his peers with his gift for collaboration — including as the producer who took director Ben Affleck’s ARGO (2012) all the way to a Best Picture Academy Award®. Clooney shared the honor with Affleck and his longtime friend and producing partner Grant Heslov, with whom he currently heads Smokehouse Pictures.

With a lifelong desire to give back instilled in him by his father, Clooney has in the new millennium put his influence toward a greater good. He has been as much a champion for human rights, and the planet, as he has been for the art form.

“What we have to give him credit for is that his great talent brought him great power, and he decided to use it in this way,” said his father, Nick Clooney. “He helps people who have less power than him, and he challenges people who have more.”

His unflagging humanitarian efforts have included fundraising for 9/11 victims; rallying relief efforts for Haiti following the country’s devastating 2010 earthquake; bringing worldwide attention to the genocide in Darfur; and, in 2018, standing alongside hundreds of thousands in Washington, DC, calling for stricter gun laws in the March For Our Lives student–led demonstration.

“If I’m going to go somewhere that cameras are going to follow me, they might as well follow me to places where people should be looking,” said Clooney.

Throughout all his accomplishments, Clooney has maintained a signature allure, universal relatability and generosity of spirit that only could ever be his. Beneath his matinee–idol image is a self–deprecating, down–to–earth sensibility that both audiences and peers find irresistible.

“I feel like I’ve been given these keys and the ability to drive the old man’s car, and I know they’re going to take the keys away at some point, so I want to drive it as much as I possibly can,” he said of his toweringly ambitious life and work.

For the indelible characters he has created on screen, and for the power of his public spirit and philanthropy, the American Film Institute salutes George Clooney — icon, luminary and ultimate leading man — with the 46th AFI Life Achievement Award.




The AFI Life Achievement Award — the highest honor for a career in film — was established by the AFI Board of Trustees on February 23, 1973 to celebrate an individual whose career in motion pictures or television has greatly contributed to the enrichment of American culture.

The award is given to a “recipient whose talent has in a fundamental way advanced the film art; whose accomplishment has been acknowledged by scholars, critics, professional peers and the general public; and whose work has stood the test of time.”

In 1993, the AFI Board of Trustees extended the criteria to encompass individuals with active careers and work of significance yet to be accomplished.