Bob Dylan is as good a songwriter that there’s ever been. He’s a poet, an author and a visual artist but one thing he is not is an actor. However, he was very nearly the star of the silver screen when he was approached to play the lead role in The Catcher in the Rye. Offered the film role back in 1962 before he became a world-conquering singer, it’s hard to imagine how different things could have been if he had taken the opportunity.
The J. D. Salinger novel remains one of the best selling books of all time, selling over one million copies a year even now and over 65 million in total since it’s release in 1951. The work has been the handbook for angsty teenagers for close to 60 years, countless generations who can relate to protagonist Holden Caulfield and his dazed outlook on society have all held it close to their heart. Following the success of the book, Caulfield became the face of teenage rebellion, a contributing factor as to why Bob Dylan became the perfect fit to fulfil the lead role—even though he was yet to be an icon, the producers could smell his star quality.
Salinger was always open to having the book adapted into a film but was naturally very precious over his magnum opus at the same time. Famously protective, the novelist would only allow the project to happen if he thought it married up perfectly with the original text. Leading industry figures including Marlon Brando, Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire, Steven Spielberg and Leonardo DiCaprio have all attempted to make a film adaptation over the years but have been routinely turned down. So it should come as no surprise that this 1962 adaptation never quite made it off the ground, but it arrived at a fascinating point in Dylan’s career. The singer was still yet to share his debut album and the film could have made him an overnight sensation.
During this period, Dylan had moved to New York City in 1961 and had already made a name for himself as one of the leading names in Greenwich Village. He found himself befriending and picking up material from folk singers in the city, including Dave Van Ronk, Fred Neil, Odetta, the New Lost City Ramblers and Irish musicians the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem. For Dylan, plying his trade while rubbing shoulders with prolific musicians, this was like his apprenticeship, one which made him truly take his craft to that next level and it wasn’t long before his signature was secured by Columbia Records.
His self-titled debut album was released on March 19th, 1962, but before that, Columbia had tried to drum up as much interest as possible in this new talent that they knew had that special something. Word soon spread about the magic of the record and the folkie at the heart of it, with MCA executives hearing it and setting up a meeting with Dylan with their proposal almost instantly.
“I’ve got two possible things for him,” the executive said. “I want him to audition for the Ed Sullivan Show, and I want to see if he can play Holden Caulfield. We own the rights to Catcher in the Rye and we think maybe we finally found Holden Caufield in your boy.”
Dylan then went up to the CBS TV studios to hear out the offer despite his reluctance, maintaining that “I don’t like to push my music on anyone.” He was then shown to a studio, got up on a stage in a room where he performed material from his debut record to half a dozen suited up executives from the network who didn’t have a clue what to think of this 20-year-old with an acoustic guitar.
He then went back up to Greenwich Village disenfranchised with the industry and allegedly told his friends over a glass of wine that there was no way that he was “going up there again”. The idea for Dylan to perform as Holden Caulfield then fell through, and he didn’t hear anything from the Ed Sullivan Show for another year, either, who then tried to tell him what to sing—something that didn’t go down well with Bob.
This potential film project at such an early stage of Dylan’s formation could have had an adverse effect on his music career and, if he caught the acting bug, it could have been a real sliding doors moment. Dylan’s principled nature, one that he had even back then, suggests that no amount of money or glamourous lifestyle would make the musician compromise his artistic morals that made him the star he would go on to become.