On this day in 2000, in a sixth season episode of the NBC television drama ER entitled “Such Sweet Sorrow,” Nurse Carol Hathaway (Julianna Margulies) watches one of her patients, a woman dying from cancer, bid goodbye to her family. Realizing that life is too short to not take chances, Carol rushes out of Chicago’s County General Hospital and boards a plane to Seattle to pursue her former and future love, Dr. Doug Ross (George Clooney). Clooney had left the popular show in 1998 and his appearance in the May 11 episode was a surprise cameo; his five seasons playing Ross on ER had provided a launching pad to big-screen stardom and a solid place on Hollywood’s A-list.
Clooney grew up around Cincinnati in an entertainment family: His father, Nick, was a successful talk- and game-show host and the brother of the singer Rosemary Clooney. George moved to Los Angeles in 1982 after a failed attempt to play pro basketball and a stint studying journalism at Northern Kentucky University. He signed a contract with Warner Brothers that landed him in several TV pilots, and first gained notice in supporting roles on series like Facts of Life, Roseanne and Sisters. In 1994, he was cast in a new medical-themed drama, created by Michael Crichton and produced (at least in its first season) by Steven Spielberg. The show was called ER (not to be confused with E/R, a short-lived sitcom on which Clooney appeared in 1984-85).
When ER premiered on September 19, 1994, it became an immediate hit. As the drinking, womanizing yet still sympathetic Doug Ross, Clooney emerged as the show’s biggest breakout star. Over the course of five seasons, he shot to big-screen stardom as well, thanks largely to starring turns in Out of Sight (1998) and the big-budget films Batman & Robin (1997) and The Perfect Storm (2000). Clooney left ER in February 1998; in his last episode, “The Storm, Part 2,” Ross resigns from County General before being fired, after he is involved in a patient’s death.
Clooney would become known for his frequent collaboration with the director Steven Soderbergh (Out of Sight, the smash 2001 hit Ocean’s Eleven and its two sequels, 2006’s The Good German), with whom he teamed to establish a production company, Section Eight. Clooney has also made several films with Joel and Ethan Coen (2000’s O Brother, Where Art Thou?, 2003’s Intolerable Cruelty and 2008’s Burn After Reading). He moved behind the camera to direct his first film, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind, in 2002. In 2006, Clooney won an Academy Award for his supporting performance in the Middle East spy drama Syriana; he was also nominated that same year for Best Director for Good Night and Good Luck, about the legendary TV newsman Edward R. Murrow and his conflict with Senator Joseph McCarthy. In 2008, Clooney garnered another Oscar nomination, this time for Best Actor, for Michael Clayton. A two-time winner of People magazine’s “Sexiest Man Alive” title, Clooney has also emerged as one of Hollywood’s most visible political activists, speaking out against the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and traveling to Sudan as a United Nations “Messenger for Peace” in 2008.
In addition to Clooney’s brief return, “Such Sweet Sorrow” was the final episode for Margulies, also part of ER’s inaugural ensemble. Other members of the acclaimed show’s cast over the years have included Anthony Edwards, Sherry Stringfield, Noah Wyle, Eriq La Salle, Laura Innes, Maura Tierney and Goran Visnjic. At the peak of its popularity, the show boasted some 40 million viewers. It was also the network’s most expensive series, with the price tag for a single episode reaching as high as $13 million (a record set early on in the show’s run). According to a report in USA Today, NBC announced in April 2008 that ER will end its run in 2009, after 15 seasons and 327 episodes.