George Clooney on his 'Catch-22' TV series, and the 'life-changing' experience of 'ER'

Gary Levin
George Clooney as Scheisskopf,  Christopher Abbott as Yossarian and Pico Alexander as Clevinger in Hulu's new adaptation of "Catch-22."

PASADENA, Calif. – Twenty-five years after he began his breakout role on NBC’s “ER,” George Clooney is back in a new TV series. 

Not just any series, but Hulu's six-episode adaptation of Joseph Heller's acclaimed novel "Catch-22," published in 1961 and made into a 1970 Mike Nichols film.

Clooney, who directs some of the episodes and co-stars as military boss Scheisskopf, told the Television Critics Association Monday that "Catch-22" is "one of the great American novels of all time; it was required reading when I was in high school." The 57-year-old actor then jokes, "I hadn’t read it in a long time; high school was 15 years ago!"

Grant Heslov (left), George Clooney, Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Ellen Kuras and Luke Davies promote Hulu's  "Catch-22" at the Television Critics Association.

The book was sometimes interpreted as a Vietnam War protest, Clooney said, even though it predated that conflict. Instead, it reflected the "bureaucracy of war and the ridiculousness of it." 

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This version focuses more heavily on Capt. John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), played by Alan Arkin in the film, as he struggles to come to terms with his missions that cause death and destruction (and put him in peril) as a World War II bombardier. His main dilemma, spawning the popular use of the book's title: The conundrum of trying to win discharge from the war by claiming he's crazy, even though that very act is proof of his sanity. 

George Clooney laughs at the idea that he and wife Amal will serve as godparents to Prince Harry and Duchess Meghan's child while promoting his Hulu reboot of "Catch 22" Feb. 11 at the Television Critics Association winter press tour in Los Angeles. Although they attended the royal couple's wedding, the father of twin toddlers said, "I have enough (expletive) to deal with – literally."

"When you do a movie, you don’t really get enough time to get to know the characters," Clooney said. Writers "figured out a way to interpret it that we didn’t think was possible."

Luke Davies, an executive producer and co-writer, says the book traffics in "war and insanity and capitalism and democracy," but has new resonance in politics today. "In a specific sense, we all wake up every morning these days in kind of a shared anxiety situation, and this is a prophetic distillation of that anxiety; this is like an origin story."

Milo (Daniel David Stewart (left) and Kyle Chandler (right) in Hulu's 'Catch-22.'

And while the film "just re-creates the wild kaleidoscoping madness of the novel," the new series' length allows it to portray "actual emotional journeys (of the characters) from beginning to end."

Especially Yossarian's. Abbott's "likable" performance, Clooney said, helped "engage the audience to like and trust a character who does some pretty despicable things. ... It’s a pretty gruesome business, so there’s a morbid comedy to it."

As for what's perhaps his first appearance at TCA since "ER," Clooney quipped to critics: "You look exactly the same." But he reflected on that mega-hit, which jump-started his career and lasted 331 episodes (though he left the series in 2000).  "'ER' was a nutty moment in my career," he said. "The six of us were suddenly thrust into the stratosphere. It was life-changing."