Friday, December 27, 2002
New York New York -- Frank Abagnale -- a con man who once was one of the most wanted fugitives in the world -- was nabbed in the 1970s, while eating hot dogs near the Waldorf Astoria, by two New York detectives.
"My poster was all over the place," recalls Abagnale, 54. "I walk by and they look at me and go, 'Hey, Frank.' And I, the idiot, turn around. Then they came over and arrested me."
That incident is not covered in "Catch Me If You Can," the film about Abagnale's life starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks and directed by Steven Spielberg, which came out Christmas Day. Perhaps it was too mundane for the screenplay about a big life stretched taut with unbelievable tales.
Abagnale successfully masqueraded as an airline pilot, a doctor and a lawyer for nearly five years, while living luxuriously off the $2.5 million he cashed in forged checks.
And he did it all before he turned 21.
Aided by gray streaks in his hair and a belief that a uniform is the best prop in selling a scam, the 16-year-old Abagnale, who was raised in upscale Bronxville, started posing as a Pan Am pilot. That ruse allowed him to travel the globe for free and aided his check-cashing con.
"I've always liked to dress well," says the dandyish Abagnale, who today is sporting a Brioni suit and a custom-made oxford shirt with his signature on the cuffs. "I do believe that presentation is everything. That's why I was a success at 16; that's why I'm a success today."
"He was mature beyond his years," says DiCaprio, 28, who plays the boyish-looking Abagnale in "Catch Me."
"He is a chameleon, able to adapt to his surroundings. He has mastered the art of misdirection. He is a great actor -- and his stage was the world."
That's hardly an exaggeration. At one time Abagnale was wanted in 26 countries and all 50 states. And just because he was apprehended never necessarily meant that the slippery grifter was securely behind bars. While being extradited from Sweden to the United States, he escaped from an airplane. Later, while serving time in an Atlanta prison, he escaped by talking his way out.
Today, however, he is a legitimate businessman. One of the world's foremost, self-taught authorities on fraud, Abagnale is a consultant for Fortune 500 companies, which he helps keep current on scam technology. He has also been a consultant for the FBI.
"There are no excuses for my actions," he says. "What I did was immoral, illegal, unethical and certainly wrong. I spent most of my youth -- 21 to 26 -- behind bars. And then I came out and I did something very positive with my life."
Almost as interesting as the story of his life is his life story's story. Johnny Carson (on whose TV show Abagnale was a guest nine times) advised him to write a memoir, which became "Catch Me If You Can." It is still in print. The prospect of the book's publication generated interest in the film rights, which Abagnale sold in 1980 for $250,000. But after a few false starts, the project never went anywhere.
"When I sold the rights," he recalls, "I thought, 'These people are idiots -- who's gonna make this into a movie?' I thought it was just ridiculous that somebody was paying me that money."
But when DreamWorks bought the rights, and Spielberg's and DiCaprio's names were attached, Abagnale was on the outside because he had taken a flat fee for the film rights.
"If this movie opens at a billion dollars, I won't see 10 cents of that money," he says. "And I'm not looking for it -- I don't want it -- but now it's a lot of hassle for nothing in return. And at 54 years old, I'm not thrilled that somebody's making a movie about my life. But there's nothing I can do about it." Except give interviews.
Still, Spielberg says Abagnale was cooperative.
"He was beautiful," says the director. "He was always on the set, telling stories, and we were scrambling to get them into the screenplay."