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Newsweek correctly guessed the five Oscar nominees (or beat an independent auditor from PricewaterhouseCoopers until he gave up the names) for Best Director, then assembled Ang Lee, Steven Spielberg, George Clooney, Bennett Miller, and Paul Haggis for a roundtable discussion. In the ensuing pigpile of comraderie and mutual admiration (they actually managed to answer some questions in between loving, Oh, you scamp! shoulder-punches and hair-musses), we're reminded of Haggis and Clooney's shared, shadowy past in—gasp!—80s sitcoms.

SPIELBERG: Paul [Haggis] and I were working together on a script of Clint Eastwood's "Flags of Our Fathers" [which Spielberg is producing].

CLOONEY: So it wasn't "Facts of Life: The Movie"?

HAGGIS: No, no, no. [Laughs]

Are we missing an inside joke?
CLOONEY: I was on the series "The Facts of Life," and Paul was a writer.

HAGGIS: Three years you were on it?

CLOONEY: Two years. Two fantastic years.

SPIELBERG: The network did not want me [as executive producer] to hire George for "ER," because George had—

CLOONEY: Because of that "Tootie Drives" episode.

HAGGIS: Because I had basically destroyed his career.

The two old friends, suddenly Oscar-nominated peers, can laugh about that once-controversial Facts of Life episode, in which a collision between novice driver Tootie's new car and handyman George's primer-spotted pick-up truck set off an improbable chain reaction of racial divisiveness in Mrs. Garrett's house, during which Blair's long-suspected biases against her African-American housemate exploded over a misunderstanding about a "borrowed" plaid skirt. No, "Tootie Drives" didn't destroy Clooney's career, despite Haggis' best efforts to bring an important, if heavy-handed, dialogue on race relations to the world of lighthearted boarding school sitcoms.

[Photo: CPI/Newsweek]