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The Real Frank Abagnale
Catch Me if you Can ' s real story

 

Catch Me if you Can is based on the true story of con artist Frank Abagnale, Jr., but Abagnale himself (right) was quick to point out some of the liberties the film took with his story. "Number one, in my family there were four children," Abagnale said. "In this there is none but the one child. My father was probably as honest as the day was long, so there's a little bit [of embellishment] to show him more as a kind of con man. He was not like that, but he certainly was everything else that Christopher Walken was, the articulate dresser, the entrepreneur. All of the other elements he did very well. There was no relationship between me and the FBI agent by telephone call. I mean, the last person I'd be calling up is, 'Hey, FBI, what's going on?' So, that never happened. The actual agent who arrested [me] and I did become personal friends for 25 years. What amazed me is all of the opening of the film, the family life, like I told my mother, 'This movie is not flattering about you, but it's what really happened, the truth.' I actually thought I was in my home. It was so real and surreal to me. The thing about running away and the checkbook and going and getting the uniform and making the checks and the old printer I used that they found at a museum somewhere to use. All that was a very accurate description of exactly what happened."

Leonardo DiCaprio (left) plays Abagnale in the film, and it was important for him to learn from the real Abagnale. "I spent a couple days with him," DiCaprio said. "I'd heard this story, and in great detail, I read [the book] 'Catch Me If You Can' in great detail. I knew he pulled off these sorts of outlandish stunts. What I really wanted to know is how he operated, how he had this magnetism. How he was so convincing and how he engaged people. That was very easily explained in my first initial meetings with him because he has a way of making you feel at ease with him and trust him unlike anyone I've ever met. He seems as innocent as a schoolteacher almost. But it's his eye contact, the way he physically, I don't know, all these indescribable things. The biggest thing I picked up on was that being the way he is was really instinctual. I asked him, for example, did he ever put on any different accents, or did he just put on the costume and try and embody these different professions. He said, 'No, no, I never changed the way I spoke or anything like that.' I said, 'Well, give me an example of you conning someone from Pan Am, for example.' And all of a sudden he slipped into this Southern drawl. I said, 'You realize what you're doing?' He said, 'No, no, I don't. What did I just do?' I said, 'Well, you started speaking like a man from Texas.' He said, 'No, I didn't.' I said, 'Yeah, you did.' And I automatically associated that with somebody who must have at the time associated that Southern drawl with the voice of authority in the late 60s. In the aviation world, he must have thought that made him sound older or something. It was just so interesting to ask him these questions as an actor, because he wrote the book from a different perspective. He didn't get into the magic of how he operated on a day to day basis. He was so into the detail of the cons, this was interesting stuff for me to bring out in him."

Abagnale summarized the development of his con. "I was truly an opportunist," Abagnale said. "I started to write those checks and then I realized that people asked a lot of questions and said, 'We don't cash checks unless you bank here' and all that. Here I'm walking up 42nd Street in front of what was the Commodore hotel and this crew steps out. So, the first thing to me was, 'Boy, if I had one of these uniforms and I went around cashing these checks around the airport and all that, I could get these cashed all day long.' So, that was my only thing. Let me get this uniform and I'll put it on so I can go write these checks and be able to cash 'em with a story about I'm from out of town and we're laying over here and I ran out of money, could you cash this check? Credibility. And then when I got the uniform and went out to the airport and started seeing these pilots ride on the plane, I said, 'Whoa, I could ride around on the planes in this uniform.' Then when I started riding around and talked to the [pilots], 'Yeah, we lay over at the Parma House out in Chicago.' Then I realized you just go in and sign in in a book and the airline's billed for your room, so I then went and stayed in all these hotels for free. If I ever had sat down and premeditated, it would have never happened. I'd just go do these things. I'd meet a doctor and then he'd sign me up for his hospital. I was always willing to take it to the next level. Could I get away with this?"

The doctor con was enough to give Abagnale pause. "When I went down and there was a child there with a problem with his leg, I realized that this could be very dangerous. If this could have been a child with something else more serious and I was there to make a decisionů that's when I left the hospital. That was the one thing I knew I couldn't do. But I was always willing to go up to that level and say, 'Can I get away with this just to get there?' That was good enough."

For DiCaprio, it was important to know the time period of the '60s in addition to the specifics of Abagnale. "Other than reading the book and speaking to the real Frank Abagnale and learning about the time, [I looked] at a couple documentaries," DiCaprio said. "One in particular called High School, which was interesting to me. It was during the '60s, and it was interesting because, looking at how serious students were at the time, how your profession represented so much about who you were. How serious these young men and women took their career and their goals and their future. [It was] unlike what I saw in high school. It was a different code of ethics. It was a different world. These people took things extremely seriously. They took their future extremely seriously."

Abagnale admits he still scams a bit today, even though he now works for the FBI in fraud prevention. "When I get to travel with the Dreamworks people, I kind of have fun with them," Abagnale said. "One time one of them asked me for a stamp to mail a letter to his mother. I said, 'No, I never carry stamps. You don't need a stamp. Just on the envelope put your mother's name and address on the left corner, put your name in the middle, drop it in and it'll be returned to the sender.' And his mother got it a couple days later, said, 'I got this envelope, I knew I didn't write it so I opened it and it was a check from you.'"

DiCaprio speculated on why audiences love con artists. "Because they're great actors, I suppose," DiCaprio said. "I mean, they're able to manipulate their surroundings to their liking. I don't know, there haven't been truly that many movies about con artists lately, I don't think. Maybe Talented Mr. Ripley was one. But it's certainly fascinating and adventurous to go on the journey of the character and see how they're able to manipulate their environments like that, I suppose."

See Abagnale's scams in Catch Me if you Can.

(Photos provided by Dreamworks Pictures)