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Why Did George Clooney Leave ER?

Being an “overnight success” is a popular saying in Hollywood, but not necessarily something that happens for many aspiring actors. 

As an exception to the concept of overnight success, George Clooney’s career changed quickly and took off almost instantaneously after one fateful role. Before ER, he was a nobody but quickly became a household name once he landed the part of Dr. Douglas Ross. 

So, why did George Clooney eventually decide to leave ER, the show that earned him stardom? 

Clooney’s Early Television Career

Clooney’s big break took hard work and perseverance to finally achieve. His acting career began in 1978 as an extra on the show Centennial. Eventually, the actor signed a contract with Warner Brothers that required him to film a pilot episode for a new show each year. 

Over fifteen years, Clooney filmed approximately thirteen pilot episodes and had a role in seven various series. Although it sounds like a dream, the star himself even admits that many of the series were not the highest quality television. 

Big Break

In 1994, the trajectory of Clooney’s career changed. He signed a five-year deal to play a pediatrician, Dr. Doug Ross, on ER, an NBC medical drama. No one expected the ultimate popularity of the show, especially in the era of other hit sitcoms, including Friends. Nonetheless, at its height, 40 million viewers were tuning in to watch the cast of doctors in the Chicago hospital.

As both the show’s popularity and Clooney’s fame simultaneously escalated, he remained committed to honoring the original show contract that bound him to Dr. Ross for five seasons of ER. The actor never sought higher pay or even a means to break his contract. 

The show’s executive producer, John Wells, said, Clooney “lost literally millions of dollars by staying on the show,” and stated that,

Many other actors in the past, under similar circumstances, have left.

Why Did Clooney Leave ER?

In 1999, Clooney’s contract with the show was nearing its end – he could either re-sign or move on. While working on ER, Clooney had begun to make appearances in a few films. None of his early films were blockbuster successes, but Clooney concluded that he wanted a full-time career in film. 

Ultimately, Clooney let his contract on ER expire in order to further concentrate on his movie career. However, his success after ER was never guaranteed, as the transition from television fame to film can be a hard one for many actors. Clooney quickly established himself, though, and landed roles working with some of the industry’s biggest names, even co-founding a production company in 2001. 

Clooney’s ER character, Dr. Ross, once said, “there are no accidents.” And it was certainly no accident when Clooney made the conscious decision to fulfill his contract on the show – earning the respect of his castmates and the show’s producers – before leaving to pursue a career in film. 


George Clooney was fortunate enough to have experienced the elusive overnight fame when he joined the cast of ER in 1994. While he had dreamed of pursuing the spotlight of Hollywood all along, Clooney honored the five-year agreement that he made when he signed on to the medical drama.

It was only after the contract was fulfilled that he chose to leave the NBC show and focus on his career in film. His popularity grew with ER’s success, but he chose to remain committed until it was time to move on. 

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  • Gretchen Roberts is a freelance content creator and aspiring digital nomad. She has a degree in WGS from the University of Virginia. In her free time she enjoys spending time outdoors, trying out new recipes and curling up with a good book.

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