George Clooney, who is now a famous movie star, was once a struggling television actor. He had a recurring role on the 1980s sitcom The Facts of Life, had appeared in several failed television pilots, and was a perennial name on the lists that casting directors assemble of actors who are available but, you know, can’t we do better?

In the spring of 1994—a few months before the premiere of his breakout role in the NBC hospital drama ER—he met with a friend of mine about a comedy project. Clooney was funny and gracious and self-deprecating—he still is, by all accounts—and expressed the kind of practicality that working actors usually have. I have no idea how this new hospital show is going to go, I’ve been in too many failed series to predict, my friend remembers Clooney saying, so I’d like you to keep me in mind for this comedy project you’re doing.

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