George Clooney Says Director Tried to Physically Fight Him on Set
The altercation happened during the filming of 1999's Three Kings.
George Clooney has earned a reputation as one of the nicest actors in Hollywood, but it appears even the affable star of ER and Ocean's Eleven has his limits. Nearly 25 years ago, and before he was a director himself, Clooney engaged in a shouting match with Oscar-winning filmmaker David O. Russell on the set of the 1999 Iraq War drama Three Kings—and to hear the actor tell it, the director wanted to escalate matters into a physical fight. Keep reading to learn what got the mega-star so heated, and how Clooney feels about the dust-up today.
Clooney fought to be cast in the film.
At the time time of Three King's production, David O. Russell was best known as the auteur behind a pair of twisted indie hits—the black comedy Spanking the Monkey, released in 1994, and 1996's Flirting With Disaster, a darkly funny update to the screwball comedy formula. Though these oddball films didn't exactly presage the writer/director's ability to helm a war film, Clooney was sold on the project as soon as he read the script and became determined to land a role.
"David Russell wrote as good a script as I've ever read," Clooney told Playboy in June of 2000. "I fought to get it. He wanted a lot of other actors before me. They went to Mel [Gibson] and to [Nicolas] Cage. I wanted to work on this movie. David is in many ways a genius, though I learned that he's not a genius when it comes to people skills."
Clooney felt Russell was disrespecting the crew.
As brilliant as Clooney found Russell's work, he was none too fond of the director's working style—specifically, his reported tendency to explode in anger at the actors and crew members ostensibly working to help him achieve his artistic vision.
"He yelled and screamed at people all day, from day one," Clooney told Playboy. "[Russell yelled at] me often and at someone daily."
As recounted in an article in Vulture compiling allegations of Russell's bad behavior, Clooney took particular issue with the director's treatment of below-the-line crew members who might not have been able to defend themselves quite as easily as the film's leading man.
He also told the outlet that Russell once "went after" a camera car driver Clooney had known in high school, and "screamed at a script supervisor and made her cry. Both times, the actor was prompted to defend Russell's alleged victims. "I told [Russell], 'You can yell and scream and even fire [the camera car driver], but what you can't do is humiliate him in front of people. Not on my set, if I have any say about it," the Michael Clayton star remembered.
After the incident with the script supervisor, Clooney even wrote a letter to the director, telling him "I think you're a good director. Let's not have a set like this. I don't like it and I don't work well like this."
Clooney became a target too—and things got physical.
According to Clooney, his star status didn't prevent him from becoming a target of Russell's ire. Things got truly heated when the production began running behind schedule and the director was struggling to capture a scene involving a group of real Army soldiers who were serving as extras in a scene in which they were all supposed to tackle Clooney's character.
"David wanted one of the extras to grab me and throw me down," Clooney said to Playboy. "This kid was a little nervous about it, and David walked up to him and grabbed him. He pushed him onto the ground. He kicked him and screamed, 'Do you want to be in this [expletive] movie?"
When Clooney attempted to intervene and calm the director down, he said, Russell began goading him into a fight, eventually hitting him in the head and grabbing him by the throat. At that point, Clooney "went nuts," he remembered. "I had him by the throat. I was going to kill him. Kill him. Finally, he apologized, but I walked away."
Clooney swore he'd never work with Russell again.
After the blowup, production continued, with the director on somewhat better behavior, per the star.
"David sort of pouted through the rest of the shoot and we finished the movie, but it was truly, without exception, the worst experience of my life," Clooney said.
Despite the drama, Three Kings was completed and released in the summer of 1999 to decent box office returns ($107 million, more than twice its budget) and greater critical acclaim. Still, a year later, Clooney was none too eager to sign on for another David O. Russell project. When Playboy asked him about the possibility, he responded simply, "Life's too short."
Russell continued to be hit with allegations of bad behavior on set and off.
True to his word, Clooney has not worked with Russell again in the past 24 years—even after the director earned acclaim and multiple Oscar nominations for subsequent films including Silver Linings Playbook and American Hustle. Though, he revealed years ago that he'd made peace with the director.
"There came a time when I just said to him, Is this going to go on forever? We've got to shake hands and let it go," Clooney told Showbiz411 in 2014. "We put it behind us. And that's great."
That's not to say Russell that became less combative with her collaborators. Rumors of on-set altercations have dogged him ever since—sometimes with video evidence, as when a leaked tape of his shouting match with actor Lily Tomlin on the set of 2004's I Heart Huckabees went viral.
Asked how he feels about the incidents during a roundtable discussion with The Hollywood Reporter in 2010, Russell was conciliatory. "They're terribly embarrassing," he said. "Those are my worst moments and they make me be more vigilant to never, ever repeat such a thing."
Even still, he reportedly made Amy Adams cry on the set of 2013's American Hustle and yelled at Jennifer Lawrence during the production of 2015's Joy. More troublingly, in 2011, his then 19-year-old niece accused him of sexual misconduct. He denied any wrongdoing and was not charged with any crimes.
Russell's most recent film, 2022's Amsterdam, starring Christian Bale and Margot Robbie, was a critical and commercial flop, losing the studio almost $100 million, according to Deadline.
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