George Clooney is one of those superstars who are almost as entertaining to learn about off the screen as they are to watch in movies. He has a playful way of interacting with interviewers and a practical joker personality, so news about him is often amusing one way or another. I recently saw a clip online about him teaching his very young children to put Nutella in their diapers and then eat it to make his wife scream in panic before realizing the prank.
The George Clooney news item that has really stuck with me, however, has to do with his way of giving back to the strong circle of friends who helped him scrape by before he become rich and famous. As hard as it is to imagine now, Clooney struggled to find work early in his career and was in his mid-thirties by the time he got his breakout role on the hospital drama ER.
Before ER, Clooney describes relying on his close friends for decent meals and couch surfing as his way of getting by. None of those guys could be sure at that time that Clooney’s acting aspirations were anything more than futile pipe dreams, but they supported their freeloading friend generously anyway. As we now know, Clooney’s bankability increased exponentially after ER. By the time he was 50, he knew he had amassed far more money than he could ever use in his lifetime. He was already being charitable, and he was not expecting to meet a wife or start a family. He had long proclaimed himself a lifelong bachelor after a failed marriage early in his twenties. He began thinking about the friends who had helped him early on. He knew they would be in his will, but he wasn’t planning on dying anytime soon. Some of them were struggling financially, and he knew he could help them. So, he hatched a plan to give them each a million dollars in cash.
Giving away that kind of cash apparently involved serious planning, which was all part of the fun, and Clooney was up for the challenge. The story involves a few security guys, a rickety van and 14 Tumi bags. He invited each of the friends for a mandatory dinner party at his home in 2017, where he handed them each a bag with the money inside.
This anecdote is fascinating to me for many reasons, not the least of which is how difficult it was to procure the $14 million in cash. Also, I am intrigued that Clooney saw fit to calculate a monetary value for the friendship and support he’d received. I think most people would agree that $1 million is an extremely generous amount to gift to friends, no matter how rich you are or important these individuals have been in your life.
Most people think of friendship as a priceless commodity, separate from money. I’ve always felt that truly dear friends don’t keep score or track of the favors traded back and forth over the years. Clearly, Clooney’s friends gave freely of what they could when he needed them, and he appreciated it so much in later years that it felt unfair to him that he had profited so much while at least some of them still were struggling.
Clooney seems to be equating the early, vital support from his friends with an investment in his career, not unlike a seed investment in a startup company. Early investments in an unproven startup are crucial to getting a nascent company off the ground. These early believers in the success of the company’s mission are often rewarded with huge gains worth many times more than their initial investment if the startup hits the bigtime. Similarly, George Clooney seems to want his friends to share in the financial returns from his wildly successful career, even though they would have had no expectation of that as an outcome from their efforts to be there for him as a friend.
By the time I was in my mid-thirties, I was married with two kids and living in the suburbs. My career had begun to take a backseat to my family’s needs, as I recognized that my support at home was a vital investment in our family. My husband and I have artist friends who have struggled over the years, and we’ve tried to support them by buying their art and attending their events, but that’s pretty much all that was asked of us. We were not asked to let them live in our basement or to loan them meaningful amounts of cash. None of them have ended up as rich or famous as George Clooney (yet), but even if they did, I would never expect to be paid back a dime for anything I’d done for them, and I suspect Clooney’s friends felt the same. Their selfless generosity with him over the years helped him become who he is today. For that, he is clearly grateful to them, and sharing his wealth was his way of recognizing the value of their friendship. Who knew that helping out a struggling friend could end up being so lucrative?