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Confessions of a versatile mind

George Clooney sets his good looks aside and setps behind the camera in his new film

NEW YORK -- Aging doesn't trouble George Clooney. He simply doesn't want to relinquish control.

''The minute I can't care for myself, I want out," says the 44-year-old actor.

In all likelihood, Clooney admits, he's four to five decades away from doddering infirmity. Still, he never loses sight of the fact that nobody -- not even cool, charming movie stars -- can hold on to beauty and youth forever.

So Clooney has turned his attention to directing, where his good looks and physique are beside the point. He directed, co-wrote, and acts in ''Good Night, and Good Luck," which opens Friday. The film chronicles television newsman Edward R. Murrow's attack on Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, when McCarthy's crusade to rid the country of communists was systematically destroying innocent lives.

Clooney says the film, his second directing effort, was a labor of love and ''being the boss" was gratifying. ''Getting old is not the greatest thing for an actor, so, as a director, I'll have a job to fall back on," he says,

Ironically, when Clooney left college to pursue acting, his father, Nick Clooney, a former Cincinnati news anchor, urged him to finish his degree in case his acting career didn't pan out. The single-minded Clooney responded at the time by telling his father, ''If I have something to fall back on, I'll fall back."

These days, he confesses he finds comfort in working with a net. ''Now I've got myself a fall-back position," Clooney laughs. ''I've turned chicken in my old age."

George Clooney, a chicken? No way, say those who know him best. ''He's a really civic-minded guy," says Grant Heslov, who co-wrote the film with Clooney and has been his close friend for 23 years. ''He's really interested in politics and social justice. And a lot of the discussions that we have with our friends are about how we can effect change and how we can use our place in life to help. George's attitude is 'I want to do as much as I can as long as people let me do it.' "

The projects Clooney boasts of most loudly do not appear on his impressive film list, but instead are those he's worked on to promote social justice. Following the Sept. 11 attacks and last year's tsunami in Asia, he took part in telethons, which bolstered his faith in humanity. ''I was proud to see how good people could be in the face of a disaster," he says.

In addition, last summer he traveled to the G-8 summit in Edinburgh, Scotland, where he and other entertainers worked to bring the issue of poverty to the forefront of the meeting of world leaders.

''I really loved being at the G-8 summit," he says. ''It was exciting and educational and taught me a lot of things about issues that I really feel I need to know more about."

For Clooney, ''Good Night, and Good Luck," was, in a sense, the Big Bang of his career -- the collision of his political and artistic passions -- which resulted in an edgy, educational film about a painful time in American history.

''The movie is a collaboration of idea and entertainment," says David Strathairn, who plays Murrow in the film. (Clooney plays Murrow's boss, Fred Friendly.)

''It's about the fight that everyone's been fighting since the beginning of broadcast journalism, which is the fight to keep the information as pure as possible," Clooney says. ''But I also thought this is an important time to talk about issues that are always worth debating -- like how we should not use fear to erode civil liberties and the importance of the Fourth Estate and how we must check and balance whoever's in power."

Clooney says he wanted to keep ''Good Night, and Good Luck" as authentic as possible, so he would not be accused of producing his own interpretation of well-documented events.

''It's really a presentation of life, as it was at that moment, in a really artistic way," Strathairn says. ''Everything was double-sourced. George was determined to do this as a journalist."

To shoot the newsroom ''pitch meetings," he handed out daily newspapers from 1954, and told the actors to propose stories based on the events of the day.

''We were actually making news," Strathairn says. ''He told each of us to cover a different subject and then find something that's germane and pitch it. It was improvisational acting and it was great."

Apparently, the film succeeds in accurately depicting television newsrooms because, according to Clooney, broadcasting luminaries, including Dan Rather, Tom Brokaw, and Barbara Walters were full of praise following a screening of the film that was hosted by Walter Cronkite.

''I had a great night at the screening," Clooney says. ''I got drunk with Morley Safer and Andy Rooney. It was really fun to sit and listen to them tell old stories. It was a big night for me."

The fact that Clooney could turn even elder statesmen like Safer and Rooney into party animals comes as no surprise to his friends. ''His public persona dictates that he's the life of the party -- which he is -- and that he's all about fun -- which he is," says Heslov.

Clooney's public persona is also one of an avowed bachelor, which the star says is a false perception stemming from an interview that was televised more than a decade ago.

''I am not married, I am not looking to be married, I'm not looking to have children, but I don't have these great platitudes about it," he said. ''I said it once and now it's just out there."

Clooney does not choose to say more about the subject, believing people have no right to know the ins and outs of his private life. ''I find that the more people know about your personal life, the faster you bring an end to your own career," he says. ''The less people know, the longer you seem to last."

Whether or not it's thanks to this particular strategy, Clooney is in high demand and has a full schedule. This year, he stars with Matt Damon in ''Syriana," a thriller about the CIA's role in the Middle East, which was directed by Stephen Gaghan and based on Robert Baer's memoir. In addition, he will star in ''The Good German," in which he will play an American journalist in post-war Berlin. That film will be directed by Steven Soderbergh, who was the executive producer of ''Good Night, and Good Luck." Clooney and Soderbergh run Section Eight, a production company that is producing ''The Good German" and produced ''Good Night, and Good Luck," ''Syriana," and ''Confessions of a Dangerous Mind," Clooney's 2002 directorial debut. Clooney is also slated to begin filming Tony Gilroy's ''Michael Clayton," in which he will play an attorney whose career is at its end.

''I'm at a place right now where I'm doing exactly what I want to do and I'm having a good time with it," Clooney says. ''I understand it doesn't last very long -- you end up on 'This Is Your Life,' and Ralph Edwards comes out and says, 'You were famous and then tragedy struck,' or something like that."

If Clooney sounds slightly fixated on the ephemeral nature of fame, it could be because of a frightening spinal injury he sustained last year while filming a torture scene in ''Syriana." Clooney underwent surgery last December to repair the damage, but still lives with considerable pain.

''I enjoy my age right now, except for the stuff that hurts," he says.

Judy Abel can be reached at Jabel1000@aol.com.

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