Early on, he indicated that he'd be willing to star as Holden Caulfield in a play, but later on his one-time girl friend Joyce Maynard wrote: "The only person who might ever have played Holden Caulfield would have been J. D. Salinger." He passed on actors interested in playing Caulfied, from Jerry Lewis and Marlon Brando to Jack Nicholson, Tobey Maguire and Leonardo DiCaprio. John Cusack told Premiere he was sad the day he turned 21, too old to play the role. Salinger passed on Elia Kazan's 1961 offer to do it on Broadway, and the aging author never knew about Harvey Weinstein and Steven Spielberg's interest in movie rights; his agents at Harold Ober Associates passed for him and since his death, state that nothing has changed.
The one director I'd have liked to take a whack at a movie was Billy Wilder:
Of course I read The Catcher in the Rye....Wonderful book. I loved it. I pursued it. I wanted to make a picture out of it. And then one day a young man came to the office of Leland Hayward, my agent, in New York, and said, 'Please tell Mr. Leland Hayward to lay off. He’s very, very insensitive.' And he walked out. That was the entire speech. I never saw him. That was J. D. Salinger and that was Catcher in the Rye.
Here's a sample Salinger pass letter and some thoughts from Stephen King. UPDATE: Deadline has details of an upcoming Shane Salerno Salinger documentary. And Salinger's neighbors in Cornish, New Hampshire protected the author from the "annual parade of English majors."
R. D. 2
July 19, 1957
Dear Mr. Herbert,
I'll try to tell you what my attitude is to the stage and screen rights of The Catcher in the Rye. I've sung this tune quite a few times, so if my heart doesn't seem to be in it, try to be tolerant....Firstly, it is possible that one day the rights will be sold. Since there's an ever-looming possibility that I won't die rich, I toy very seriously with the idea of leaving the unsold rights to my wife and daughter as a kind of insurance policy. It pleasures me no end, though, I might quickly add, to know that I won't have to see the results of the transaction. I keep saying this and nobody seems to agree, but The Catcher in the Rye is a very novelistic novel. There are readymade "scenes" - only a fool would deny that - but, for me, the weight of the book is in the narrator's voice, the non-stop peculiarities of it, his personal, extremely discriminating attitude to his reader-listener, his asides about gasoline rainbows in street puddles, his philosophy or way of looking at cowhide suitcases and empty toothpaste cartons - in a word, his thoughts. He can't legitimately be separated from his own first-person technique. True, if the separation is forcibly made, there is enough material left over for something called an Exciting (or maybe just Interesting) Evening in the Theater. But I find that idea if not odious, at least odious enough to keep me from selling the rights. There are many of his thoughts, of course, that could be labored into dialogue - or into some sort of stream-of-consciousness loud-speaker device - but labored is exactly the right word. What he thinks and does so naturally in his solitude in the novel, on the stage could at best only be pseudo-simulated, if there is such a word (and I hope not). Not to mention, God help us all, the immeasurably risky business of using actors. Have you ever seen a child actress sitting crosslegged on a bed and looking right? I'm sure not. And Holden Caulfield himself, in my undoubtedly super-biassed opinion, is essentially unactable. A Sensitive, Intelligent, Talented Young Actor in a Reversible Coat wouldn't nearly be enough. It would take someone with X to bring it off, and no very young man even if he has X quite knows what to do with it. And, I might add, I don't think any director can tell him.
I'll stop there. I'm afraid I can only tell you, to end with, that I feel very firm about all this, if you haven't already guessed.
Thank you, though, for your friendly and highly readable letter. My mail from producers has mostly been hell.
(Signed, 'J. D. Salinger')
J. D. Salinger