In 1964 when Frank Abagnale was 16 years old, he was picked up from school one day by a friend’s father, taken to a courthouse, and deposited in front of a judge who asked him to decide which of his parents — who, unbeknownst to him, were divorcing — he wanted to live with. Overcome by sadness and fear, Abagnale ran out of the courtroom and into the streets of Manhattan; he would never see his father again, and didn’t see his mother until seven years later.
This is the sad beginning of the real-life story behind Catch Me If You Can, the musical (and the book and the film, both of the same name). Based on Abagnale’s life largely between the ages 16 to 21, when he successfully impersonated a pilot, a pediatrician, a college professor, and a lawyer while fraudulently getting his hands on millions of dollars, Catch Me If You Can has all the glitz and glamor a Broadway musical buff could ask for. There are singing stewardesses, dashing Pan Am pilots, slick cons, and at the heart of it, a young — and lonely — kid with way more money and freedom than he knows what to do with.
If you’ve seen the popular 2002 movie, directed by Steven Spielberg and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, you know how the story ends: Abagnale is apprehended in France and sent to prison for several years. He gets out because the FBI offers him a deal — he can walk out of prison if he’ll lend them his expertise to help combat the very sorts of crimes he committed so successfully. Naturally, Abagnale takes the deal.
That’s pretty much where the movie and musical end. But if you ask the real Frank Abagnale, the best part of his story has come after that point. At 66 years old, he still works for the FBI, and is one of the world’s foremost experts on forgery and embezzlement. He’s written books on the subjects and lectured all over the world. He also happens to live in Charleston, and will be in attendance at the Dock Street Theatre for opening night of Charleston Stage’s performance of Catch Me If You Can.
While Abagnale has greatly enjoyed watching those few years of his life transformed into a singing, dancing, high-production-value spectacle, he certainly doesn’t consider them his best, or even most incredible, period. “I’m not totally amazed at the things I did as a kid. I look at it as, I was a kid who ran away,” he says. “I got into a lot of mischief; I was very creative. I did those things, I got caught, I served my time, and I have now been at the FBI for 35 years. I’ve developed technologies that are used all over the world to combat fraud. I’ve been married to my one and only wife for 38 years. I am absolutely amazed, when I look back on my life, at that.”
That 180-degree turn, going from mastermind lawbreaker to mastermind law enforcer, is a big part of what makes Abagnale’s story so compelling. But just as compelling is the audacity with which he pulled off his stunts.
While impersonating a pediatrician, he took on a chief administrative role at an Atlanta hospital for a full week, filling in for another doctor, with nobody the wiser. He flew on hundreds of flights across the country and around the world for free, posing as a pilot (that’s an important point — he never actually piloted a plane. Instead Abagnale would go to the airport and pick where he wanted to go, find the flight, and ask if the jump seat, reserved for airline staff, was open.). He passed the Louisiana Bar Exam.
That’s not even mentioning the financial aspects of what he did, cashing fraudulent checks and getting his hands on cash through means both simple and cunning. Back in the 1960s, forging a check was no small feat. “Fifty years ago, for me to print a check, I needed a Heidelberg press, which cost a million dollars. There was color separation, typesetting plates, the chemicals to make the plates. Nowadays, someone just goes to their laptop,” Abagnale says.
Getting cash was a little easier. In a recording of one of the few talks he’s given detailing his youthful exploits, Abagnale offers two examples of how he did what he did.
Hanging around airports all the time, he noticed that at the end of the day, airline staff from every airline would take the day’s cash earnings to a deposit box located in one of the terminals. He watched them do this for a few nights, and then he rented a security guard uniform from a costume shop. As the close of business approached, Abagnale went to the box with a sign he’d made saying “Box out of order. Please give deposit to guard on duty.” And, even though a box can’t possibly be out of order, one after another, airline staff handed wads of money right to him.
Another time, he opened a checking account at a bank. Before he left, he grabbed a stack of deposit slips, took them home, and changed the numbers and the magnetic coding to his own account number. He dropped them off the next time he went in to deposit some money, ensuring that everyone who came in to make a deposit put the money into his own account.
It’s enough to make you want to call him a genius, which many have. But Abagnale disagrees. “I don’t believe I was a genius,” he says. “I was an adolescent. I was just a young kid who ended up on the streets of New York. Lots of young kids who ran away in that era got into drugs, Haight Ashbury — but my first thought was, ‘OK, how am I going to support myself? I’m 16 years old. So first, I’m going to have to make people believe that I’m a lot older than 16.’” And that’s the very first thing he did: he altered his drivers’ license, giving himself an extra 10 years.
Even though at the time Abagnale’s youth seemed to him like a liability, he believes it’s instrumental in why he was able to do what he did. “I had no fear of being caught. I didn’t think about the consequences. If I was going to walk into a bank and cash a check for $500, I didn’t sit on the sidewalk and think, “OK, here’s the plan.’ I just went in and did it,” he says. “If I had been a little older, 21, 22, I would have rationalized it — I’d have said, ‘Oh, you’ll never get away with that.’” Of course, that would have made for a much less interesting musical.
One would think that, after going straight and beginning a second career at the FBI, Abagnale would have missed the thrill of his former life. However, the FBI had him working undercover operations, so the old thrill was still there. “I used to be the mouse chased by the cat, now I’m the cat chasing the mouse,” he says. “It’s just as challenging and fun.”
He even met his wife while working undercover. He was in Houston, Tx. and posing as a social worker at the same institution where his wife was doing graduate work. He fell in love with her, and decided to tell her the truth about himself. It was she, he says, who really convinced him to make his life changes permanent. “I have to be honest: I didn’t sit in prison for a year in Europe and four years in federal prison in the U.S. saying, “Oh, I’m rehabilitated. I’ve found the Lord, I’m born again. When I got the offer [from the FBI], I truly looked at it as, well, here’s a way out of prison. I don’t know that in my mind I’d decided never to break the law again,” he says. “It was my wife who had the biggest influence on my life. That’s when I knew that I would never go back and do anything that would harm her, or embarrass her, or keep me away from her.”
In the end, Abagnale’s proudest achievement in a life full of achievements, both legal and illegal, is his family. He has three sons, one of whom is also an FBI agent. “What brings true happiness is finding the right person to marry and bring children into the world with,” he says. “Family. Whether you’re a mechanic in a shop or a doctor, that’s what’s going to make you happy.”
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