Catch 22: How George Clooney was lured back TV

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Clooney directs, produces and stars in the new adaptation of Catch 22

Until now, George Clooney has been a silver fox who has largely stuck to the silver screen.

Despite originally making his name in the 1990s medical drama ER, the last two decades have seen him stick to box office smashes like Gravity and Ocean’s Eleven.

The very few TV appearances he has made have been for live TV specials or cameo appearances, but for his latest project, Clooney is tackling Catch 22.

A new adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 classic satirical novel is about to hit screens – with Clooney not only one of the stars, but also a director and executive producer.

The actor has joined a string of big-screen names – like Richard Gere, Julia Roberts, Jane Fonda, Jennifer Aniston and Reese Witherspoon – in moving to the small screen for his latest venture.

“George Clooney has come to TV for a reason,” writes Daniel D’Addario in Variety. “It’s a way to surmount a tricky piece of the American literary canon, but to do so with the benefit of six hours and streaming-service money.”

Clooney himself acknowledges streaming offered a way of telling the story which released him from the constraints of film.

“A lot of the type of stories that I like to tell don’t involve superheroes,” he tells BBC News.

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Clooney plays Lieutenant Scheisskopf in the new adaptation

“So it’s not such a bad thing to be able to do these kinds of stories on streaming services, so it’s great.

“I read [Catch-22] 40 years ago… when I was just born!” he jokes, “and I just remember it being a very special book. I didn’t remember that much about it, but then the screenplay came around and I thought it was great, just a fantastic story.”

Is his ultimate goal that viewers will be inclined to read Heller’s literary original?

“If you ever do anything that encourages people to read, that’s probably a good idea, because that doesn’t happen very often,” Clooney replies.

“Why read when there’s such good television out there?!”

What is a Catch 22?

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While Catch 22 is the title of a Joseph Heller novel first and foremost, its meaning has taken on a life of its own in the English language.

The catch occurs when all your options in a situation lead to the same frustrating outcome. Whatever you do, you cannot win.

In Heller’s book, an American World War Two bomber pilot called Yossarian was caught in the original Catch 22.

Stationed in Italy and afraid of being shot down, he wanted to be declared insane so he could be sent home.

But military rules said fear of death was a rational response, so anyone who asked to be grounded could not possibly be truly crazy. And those who were insane would not request to be sent home in the first place, as they wouldn’t fear the danger. Therefore, effectively no-one could be sent home.

The 1970 film adaptation of Catch 22, directed by Mike Nichols, received a mixed response from audiences and critics.

Many felt that tackling such a towering work of literature in two hours was an almost impossible task.

“The truth is, the book is a big, sprawling, beautiful mess of a book,” director and star of the series Grant Heslov tells BBC News.

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L-R: Ellen Kuras, Grant Heslov, George Clooney, Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler and Tessa Ferrer

“And I think Mike Nichols would tell you, two hours is not enough time to tell that story. So for us, we got the chance to really delve into the arcs of all the major characters, and you just couldn’t do that in a film.”

In particular, the complex lead character of Yossarian, played here by Christopher Abbott, is given plenty of time to breathe in this iteration.

“We wanted to get the best actors we possibly could for the project,” Clooney explains.

“But,” he adds with perfect comic timing, “we couldn’t afford them, so we got these guys.

“And Hugh [Laurie] did us a favour,” he says of the project’s other big name. “We’re part of a fraternity, we played doctors.”

Laurie (famous for playing a doctor on House as Clooney was for doing on ER), is similarly good-humoured about accepting the offer to star in the project.

“When the emperor sends a signal across the water, you drop whatever it is you’re doing and answer the call,” he says.

“If what you’re doing happens to be nothing, it’s a little bit easier.”

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L-R: Catch 22 stars Tessa Ferrer, Hugh Laurie and Kyle Chandler

Laurie plays Major de Coverley in Catch 22 – an adaptation that has gone down broadly well with critics.

“Catch 22 is an almost perfect series,” wrote Merrill Barr in Forbes.

“Every actor is bringing their A-game to the table and the writing is absolutely top-notch.

“And thanks to its short episode order, the series is also going to serve as a brisk ride that won’t soon be forgotten by those that choose to hop on.”

Writing in Vulture, Matt Zoller Seitz said: “It works better as a TV show than you might think, though not well enough to quell the feeling that we have yet to see an adaptation as scathing as the source material.”

But, said Mike Hale of The New York Times: “Apparently the Catch 22 of Catch 22 is that to put it on screen, you have to eviscerate it.

“If you aren’t particularly attached to the book, and if you have a taste for World War Two melodramas with lots of big-band music on the soundtrack, then this Catch 22 may suit you fine.”

He added the decision to tell the story in chronological order of the book “has the effect of diminishing Yossarian”.

“The result is that for most of the series, Yossarian just seems petulant and whiny – instead of living inside his breakdown, as you do in the book, you wait for it to finally arrive.”

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Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler plays Colonel Cathcart in Catch 22

Speaking about how he began the process of adapting the book for the screen, co-writer Luke Davies jokes: “I started with fear, pain and anxiety.

“Just trying to work out how to wrestle it into shape, it’s such a massive, dense novel. So I started with whiteboards.”

Producer and director Ellen Kuras explains the classic novel “was required reading in American high schools.

“I remember it as something that was rambling. It was thematic but at the same time it was hard to follow.”

Indeed, when it came to studying the source material in preparation for her role as Nurse Duckett, Tessa Ferrer turned to more modern technology to help digest it.

“I went back and forth listening to it as an audiobook and reading it on Kindle, so I could get it done in a timely manner!

We ask all the cast and creatives what it was like working with Clooney, and all say he was a total delight. Well, almost all.

“It’s terrible. He’s miserable, he complains a lot, he is without any charm whatsoever,” jokes executive producer Richard Brown.

“He’s not even good looking! All of it’s a lie.”

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