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Friends remember Joseph Heller and 'Catch-22'

The Associated Press, Wednesday, October 19, 2011, 10:48pm (PDT)

NEW YORK (AP) -- Fifty years after the publication of "Catch-22," author Joseph Heller is long dead and his editor has finally gotten around to re-reading it.

"I'm happy to report that I love it," Robert Gottlieb said Wednesday night before hundreds gathered at the Symphony Space performing arts center on Manhattan's Upper West Side. "(But) I kept wanting to edit it. I kept thinking, `How did I let this go by?'"

Gottlieb appeared with two other Heller experts — Mike Nichols and author Christopher Buckley, representing those who met the author in his 30s (Gottlieb), in middle age (Nichols) and in his final years (Buckley).

Interviewed by CBS television correspondent Lesley Stahl, they reminisced about a perpetually anxious, but life-affirming former World War II flyer and advertising man whose dark send-up of war and bureaucracy anticipated the disillusion of Vietnam. The novel that has sold more than 10 million copies, read alike by anti-war protesters and cadets at the Air Force Academy, where the book has long been taught.

Gottlieb was there at the birth, a new and promising editor at Simon & Schuster who convinced executives to give a first-time author and his strange mix of laughter and horror a chance. Gottlieb, who has since worked with such prize-winners as Toni Morrison, Robert Caro and Barbara Tuchman, said he never knew an author so collaborative as Heller.

"He saw his own work completely objectively," Gottlieb said, adding that he saw himself and Heller as "two surgeons working on the same patient together."

"It was always like that with him," he said. "He had the mind of an editor more than any writer I worked with."

Nichols, known for such films as "The Graduate" and "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?," entered the "Catch-22" story in the late 1960s. "The Graduate" had made Nichols one of Hollywood's hottest directors and he was encouraged to take on a seemingly hot property.

Nichols was reluctant, finding the novel too dense and complicated, wondering how to assemble a "huge, surrealistic movie that says war is madness." But he and co-writer Buck Henry became caught up in the story's circular power, the plot going "round and round and round."

Nichols had his pick of actors — from Alan Arkin and Anthony Perkins to Orson Welles and Jon Voight. But the film received mixed reviews, including from Nichols, who noted that "Catch-22" had the bad luck to come out the same year as Robert Altman's lighter, hipper "M(asterisk)A(asteri sk)S(asterisk)H."

The director has grown to like his movie more, reasoning that at least he made the film as faithful as possible to the book. The star, Arkin, remains a tough sell.

"He was always unhappy," Nichols said to much laughter about the actor, who played bombardier John Yossarian. Nichols said he had so enjoyed a recent viewing of the film that he wrote Arkin to assure him of his performance.

"`You have no idea how good you are in this,'" Nichols remembers telling him. "And he says, `You're right, I don't.'"

Buckley, who wrote the introduction to this year's anniversary reissue of "Catch-22," became friends with Heller in appropriately upside down fashion. Buckley had given a lukewarm review to Heller's "Catch-22" sequel, "Closing Time," published in 1994. Soon after, a letter arrived at the Buckley house, with Heller's name on the return address.

"`I think you understood my book better than I did,'" Buckley remembered the letter saying, the first of hundreds they exchanged before Heller died a few years later, in 1999.

The three speakers each knew a very different Heller.

Gottlieb first encountered him as a short-haired, carefully-dressed young businessman, anxious to make good as a writer. Nichols knew a much more fulfilled, although still troubled, man. As Gottlieb explained, no author so enjoyed success as Heller, who "blossomed" from the attention and took his time finishing the next novel, "Something Happened," published 13 years later.

Buckley knew him in shrewd old age, a "kindly guy" with a "steel trap mind" and a "switchblade-like intelligence." They were a "mutual despairing society" who tried to cheer each other up. Buckley remembered getting an unenthusiastic review in Publishers Weekly and faxing it to Heller, who crossed out the negative comments and faxed it back.

"Now it's a total rave," Heller wrote him.

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