This is the story of a love affair between a heartthrob Hollywood movie star and his 300lb Vietnamese pot-bellied pig. But first, another story.
George Clooney, Danny DeVito and a group of friends went out to a fancy Italian restaurant in Manhattan last week and before they knew it they were chugging back shots of limoncello and getting royally wasted. Clooney claims he was so bewildered by the amount of alcohol being plunked in front of him that he started dumping limoncello into a flower pot next to his seat.
Clooney's publicist, Stan Rosenfield, later admitted that he was so drunk he threw up three times in the course of the night. Clearly, the mixture of red wine and limoncello didn't agree with him. Or so he said. DeVito, meanwhile, pulled an all-nighter and sank who knows how much poison into his system.
By daybreak, he hadn't sobered up or slept, but he did have a pressing engagement as a guest on a morning television talk show called The View. The show made for interesting viewing, to say the least. DeVito and Clooney both had TV appearances that day, and they had done a deal with other over the third - or was it the seventh? - limoncello, that each would give the other's upcoming movie a plug.
DeVito, looking distinctly dishevelled in the previous night's clothes, duly put in a word for his buddy and his forthcoming release, the Steven Soderbergh-directed Cold-War thriller The Good German. But he also put on one hell of a merry drunk routine, including an extended riff against President Bush that involved looney-tunes mouth-blathering, punching himself in the head and referring to the most powerful man in the world as "numbnuts".
Clooney, meanwhile, mentioned DeVito's new seasonal comedy Deck The Halls and chatted amiably about the bender that both of them had taken part in at La Scalinatella. What does all of this have to do with the pig? Not a lot, except for the crucial detail that while Clooney was living it up in Manhattan and steeling himself for extended exposure to the entertainment press - an ordeal that would drive even the most upright of citizens to the bottle - his old, ailing pet Max was back home in the Hollywood Hills quietly dying.
The two of them shared quite a history. Clooney first bought Max 18 years ago for his girlfriend at the time, the actress Kelly Preston. When their relationship broke up - she went on to marry John Travolta - she left the pig behind. Since then, Max has been Clooney's most faithful companion, and an irresistible talking point for friends and journalists who have had to step over the beast blocking the threshold of Clooney's Tudor mansion above Laurel Canyon.
Clooney's been known to joke that Max is the longest relationship he's ever had and given the peripatetic state of his love life, that's probably true.
Max had already defied the odds by surviving to the age of 19. He was partially blind and suffered from arthritis. So the end was not completely unexpected, even if Clooney was not exactly nursing him at his bedside. Clooney is altogether much too suave a character to let us know what kind of emotional impact Max's death might have had on him, but he did acknowledge that the news caught him off guard.
When a journalist from USA Today caught up with him last Friday, he announced, simply: "He just died, like an hour ago... He was as old a pig as the vets have ever seen. I was really surprised, because he's been a big part of my life."
It took a few days for the news to trickle out, not least because the only thing the entertainment press wanted to talk about over the weekend was the limoncello bender. (For the scoop on The Good German, we might now just have to wait for its official US release later this month.) To judge by the belated rush of reaction, it's going to take a while to get this pig out of the collective media system.
Already the craziest George-and-Max stories have started circulating. It is said that the pig is the reason Clooney has never married, that the pig actually slept with Clooney, that the pig made the tantrums and hissy fits and absurd on-set demands of Clooney's co-stars, directors and publicists seem trivial by comparison.
History will doubtless one day record where Max and George really stand on the scale of celebrity eccentricity. It's worth remembering that Clooney is hardly the first prominent entertainer with an unusual choice of pet. Elvis had a monkey called Scatter who died of cirrhosis of the liver. Michael Jackson had a chimpanzee called Bubbles. Just this week, the self-consciously weird cult director David Lynch was seen sitting on a street corner in Hollywood with a pet cow, a poster for his new movie, Inland Empire, and a sign that read: "Without cows there would be no cheese in the Inland Empire."
For the record, it seems safe to say that Max had not slept in Clooney's bed for some time. As Clooney himself put it: "You get a lot of grief from people when you sleep with a pig." As for the link between bachelorhood and his pig, it is true that Max has at times been one of those relationship deal-breakers.
"I've had different reactions over the years," Clooney once said. "But I always say, 'Love me, love my pig.' What can I do?"
Perhaps the most reliable take on Max the pig comes to us from George's journalist father, Nick Clooney, who wrote about him a while back in his column in the Cincinnati Inquirer. Evidently, when Clooney first bought him, he was a cute little thing you could cradle in your arms. "Those who fostered the adoption," Clooney Sr wrote, "neglected to tell George that Max would one day be the size of a linebacker with an appetite to match."
Contrary to the wilder stories in circulation, it seems Max spent most of his time in a little pig shelter 100ft down the driveway from the main house. He also had a spot reserved for him in the garage - his "vacation home" - which was much closer to the front door.
"When Max is hungry," Clooney wrote, "he lumbers over to the front door and lies down lengthwise over the welcome mat, completely blocking the entrance. He then grunts and squeals until someone brings him breakfast. George has not required an alarm clock for 17 years." Naturally, a squealing 300lb black pig with a ravenous appetite is going to get you some attention, which is why Max has been a steady feature of Clooney's media coverage for years.
Max was famous enough in his own right, in fact, to generate a hoax story of his death at the beginning of last year. Clooney himself hasn't been shy to discuss his pet's character defects. "He's eating his way through life," he cheerily admitted in one interview. "I'd put him on a diet, but he screams like hell if he's not able to stuff himself the way he likes it." Occasionally, all that squealing can come in handy, like the early morning hours of 16 January 1994, when the Northridge earthquake shook most of Los Angeles, prompting shortlived but very real fears that the Big One had struck.
As Clooney recounted it: "Max was in bed with me and woke up minutes before it happened. And I was yelling at him for waking me up, when everything just exploded. So, I'm naked with Max, and running ... because I'm in a house on a hill, and if it's going down I want to be up on the street, dodging the next house.
"My buddy, who lives in the downstairs guesthouse, comes running up. And he's naked. With a gun, because he thought someone was breaking in. And I'm trying to write a note to my folks, trying to explain to them in case we die that it's not what is seems: two naked men, a gun and a pig."
Max himself almost died in 2001 when a friend of Clooney's, Tommy Hinkley, accidentally ran him over. Hinkley later recounted: "Max is a black pig and it was dark. It seems like it's funny now but at the time it certainly wasn't. We thought he might have lost his leg ... Thank God George and I are best friends. I think he has forgiven me but he was upset at the time."
Clooney has had other pets over the years, most notably a pair of French bulldogs he named Bud and Lou, after the old comedy duo Abbott and Costello They too were a gift from Clooney to a girlfriend, his one-time French fiancée Celine Balitran. Like Max, they stayed behind even after the relationship came to an end. Bud died earlier this year. "It's been a bad year for my pets," Clooney told USA Today. "It's strange how animals become a big part of your family. They really become a big issue with you." The reporter asked Clooney if he might consider getting another pig. "No," Clooney replied. "I think Max covered all my pig needs."