If You Think Catch-22's Yossarian Is Based On A Real Person, You're Half Wrong

Photo: Courtesy of Hulu.
Whether it was on a required reading list in high school or you saw it on a “must-read” table in Barnes & Noble, chances are you have come across Joseph Heller’s best-selling and highly acclaimed novel Catch-22. The war satire has been annotated and discussed since its release in 1961. But few have attempted to translate the layered text into cinema or television. Well, executive producer and director George Clooney decided to take on that challenge with Hulu's Catch-22 series.
Like the book, the six-part limited series will follow protagonist Yossarian or "YoYo," played here by Christopher Abbott (The Sinner, Girls), a captain in the Army Air Forces during a World War II who is convinced millions of people are trying to kill him. You might have read Yossarian’s story before and feel prepared to watch Clooney’s adaptation. But do you know the backstory of who Heller possibly based Yossarian on?
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In the novel, Yossarian — who has the honor of uttering the famous lines “That’s some catch that Catch-22” — is fighting during World War II which is the same war Heller served in. Like Yossarian, Heller was also a bombardier. According to the Encyclopedia of World Biography, Heller enlisted in the Army Air Corps in 1942, following the United States entry into World War II. He was sent to an island in the Mediterranean Sea called Corsica where he served as a fighter pilot. Similarly in Catch-22, Yossarian is stationed on an island named Pianosa off the Italian coast. In Heller's obituary from 1999, The New York Times wrote, “During the 1950's, he had written a short story that was evocative of his experiences in the Air Force and in his spare time he expanded it, slowly building it into the novel that was called Catch-22."
There are varying accounts on how much Heller drew on his personal experiences to write Catch-22. However, it is known that the Yossarian’s name inspired by a Heller’s friend who was a retired Air Force lieutenant colonel and fellow World War II bombardier named Francis Yohannan. Helder confirmed this in his memoir Now and Then: From Coney Island to Here, released in 1998. When Yohannah died in 2001, The Washington Post reported that a year before Heller died he confirmed with USA Today that from Col. Yohannah he “derived the unconventional name for the heretical Yossarian.” The publication also reported that Heller said the character was also based on Yohannan and other military personnel including Heller himself.
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The most known portrayal of Yossarian so far has been Alan Arkin in the movie version of Catch-22, released in 1970, which became sort of a cult hit. Stepping into the well-known role, Abbott will be tasked with combining humor and drama, hopefully just as successfully as the novel, to portray a soldier who hates the war. Abbott told Vanity Fair that he read the book twice to get into the headspace of Yossarian. Obviously, he already has approval from Clooney who is quoted in the article saying, “Chris came in and read, and within the first three lines it was clear that he was our man.”
And well, if you can't trust Clooney’s judgment, who can you trust?
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