UPDATE: George Clooney has chimed in, and said that he was the victim on the Ocean’s Twelve set with Brad Pitt circulating an Italian language note to local crew from Clooney asking he be addressed by his character’s name.
In his newly published book Paul and Me, author A.E. Hotchner reminesces about his pal Paul Newman’s fondness for mischief that made the author unable to resist becoming wingman to the actor on all his pranks. Newman had the same effect on co-workers, especially because of his penchant for knocking down directors a few pegs with schemes that only a big star like him could get away with. “Paul so enjoyed life, and never acted like a superstar,” Hotchner tells me. “Whether he was pulling pranks on a movie set, or mixing the first batch of Newman’s Own salad dressing with a canoe paddle, he was a maverick who did what he wanted. He never would have turned in those performances if he wasn’t a person who took risks and had fun.”
There is much to like about Hotchner’s book. But his descriptions of Newman’s movie set pranks that got me wondering how he compares to today’s consummate prankster, George Clooney. Newman’s pranks come from the book, Clooney’s exploits were described to me by a confidante. I’ve seen other mentions of his pranks where credit went to others, but I’ll stick with my source for this tally:
Newman vs. George Roy Hill: When Hill didn’t buy a round of drinks for the crew on Slap Shot, Newman staged a fake horrific car crash —with himself behind the wheel — and scared the daylights out of his director. On Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, when Hill refused to make changes Newman suggested for a scene, Newman had the director’s desk sawed in half, causing it to collapse in Hill’s lap when he sat down. On The Sting, Hill once again resisted Newman’s suggestions — and later found his car cut in half. (Newman bought him a new one).
Clooney vs. Ocean cohorts: When Ocean’s Twelve shot a segment in Italy, Clooney circulated and signed Brad Pitt’s name to a memo that directed the local crew to only call him by his character’s name, Rusty, and never make eye contact. Because the memo was written in Italian, Pitt could only wonder why the crew behaved so oddly toward him. Another time, Clooney affixed the sticker “I’m Gay And I Vote” to the rear bumper of Pitt’s car. One time, after a late night of shooting, Clooney called room service and used his best gruff Jerry Weintraub impression to order breakfast for 17 delivered to the producer’s suite when Clooney knew Weintraub would be fast asleep.
Advantage: Newman. (How do you saw a car in half?)
Newman vs. Directors: When the humorless Otto Preminger directed Newman in Exodus, he not only rejected Newman’s script suggestions, but sternly lectured the actor on why actors shouldn’t make them. Newman got even during a fight scene on a high balcony. As Preminger shot from below, Newman started scuffling, then tossed off the balcony a dummy outfitted to look like himself. According to Hotchner, Preminger collapsed and required medical attention. On Buffalo Bill and the Indians, Robert Altman was twice victimized. During shooting, Newman snuck 300 live chickens into Altman’s trailer. But this one backfired on the actor because Altman slept elsewhere and returned the next morning to find 300 dead birds. Newman was billed for a new trailer. Later, after Altman hosted a dinner party and served cheap wine, shooting was interrupted the next day by the delivery of a live goat bearing this note: “Dear Bob, since what you serve at dinner is goat piss, you may as well have one handy.”
Clooney vs. Richard Kind: Kind was the victim of two meticulously planned Clooney pranks. When they shared an apartment, Clooney secretly began scooping the cat litter box. When Kind became very concerned about what he thought was his constipated kitty, Clooney said laxatives would do the trick. Clooney left a half-empty package of Ex-Lax for Kind to see as he left for work. Clooney then filled the cat box with his own Man-Turd, leaving his horrified pal to find it. Later when they had their own homes, Clooney made the curbside discovery of the most atrocious painting he’d ever seen. Clooney stored it and told Kind he’d begun taking art classes. Later, he framed the awful painting, presented it to Kind as his first major work, and suggested his pal display it in his living room as a testament to their friendship. It hung there for weeks before Clooney ‘fessed up.
Advantage: Clooney. (For the dedication needed to allow pranks to unfold over time).
Newman vs. Redford: For Newman’s birthday, Robert Redford deposited a junked Porsche in Paul’s driveway — sans wheels and fenders but wrapped in a blue bow. Newman retaliated by engaging a compacting company to crush the Porsche into a lump of steel, which he deposited in Redford’s living room, re-wrapped in the same blue ribbon.
Clooney Vs. Ben Weiss: Before they went off on a two-week golf holiday, with the agreement that neither would check voicemail, Clooney got hold of Weiss’ voicemail password. Doing his best Weiss impression, he re-recorded the answering machine message. Callers heard Weiss introduce himself, admit that he liked to perform a rather graphic sexual act, and then invite callers to leave messages. Weiss couldn’t erase it even after he got home because Clooney had changed the password. Weeks of messages piled up.