Frank Abagnale’s Colorful Capers Haunt Him in ‘Catch Me If You Can’

AP Entertainment Writer

LOS ANGELES (AP) _ As a teenager in the 1960s, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. traveled the globe by masquerading as a pilot, stole millions of dollars with phony checks and seduced an abundance of unwitting women while forging credentials as a doctor, lawyer and teacher.

The reformed con artist and infamous charmer sold the movie rights to his story in 1980, but with the release of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can,” the capers Abagnale has renounced for years are back in the public eye.

“I thought I had bypassed walking into a room where people would say, ‘Oh, better watch my watch, Frank’s in the room!”’ said Abagnale, 54, now the head of an anti-fraud consulting firm in Tulsa, Okla. “The biggest problem with me and this movie is having to go through all that again.”

“Catch Me If You Can” stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as the FBI agent assigned to nab him. The film details the divorce of Abagnale’s parents, his subsequent life as a runaway who turns to fraud to survive and the myriad scams and escapes that follow.

“He has a way of making you feel at ease,” DiCaprio says. “He looks you in the eye constantly; it constantly feels like he’s drawing you into the world that he’s talking about it.”

Abagnale, whose thinning, silver hair and impeccably tailored suit bespeak the suave sophistication he possessed even as a youngster, is both amused and a little frustrated over the film.

With its A-list stars, “Catch Me If You Can” could earn 50 times the $2.5 million he swiped during his youthful crime spree, and Abagnale isn’t likely to see a dime beyond the relative pittance he sold the story for decades ago.

Meanwhile, his work as a security consultant has earned him a fortune, and the media focus on his checkered past could become an embarrassment. He stopped taking new clients five years ago, so the publicity is useless, too.

Nonetheless, he praises the film and says it’s more accurate than his 1980 autobiography of the same name, co-written with the late Stan Redding. As stipulated in the movie-rights contract, Abagnale has a cameo in the film, as one of the French policemen who takes DiCaprio into custody, and is submitting to interviews to promote the film _ albeit grudgingly.

It all started with a checkbook his father gave him. There was little money in the account, and when it ran out he found it was just as easy to pay for things with checks that bounced.

“I never, ever premeditated anything. Everything was strictly opportunity,” he said. “All my successes were based on the fact that I was adolescent. … I was impulsive. People say, ‘You were brilliant. You were a genius.’ No, I wasn’t. I was a true opportunist at a very young age.”

When he spotted a sharply dressed airline pilot, he thought the uniform would supply the authoritative presence he needed to cash larger phony checks. Then he learned he could travel for free as a pilot and charge hotel expenses to the airline.

While on the lam, he told neighbors he was a pediatrician on sabbatical as a cover to explain his lavish lifestyle. A real doctor who lived in his building then asked Abagnale to substitute briefly as an administrator at a local hospital.

“If I had applied, they’d have run all kinds of background checks, but they were saying to me, “Can’t you do this?’ They were asking me to do it,” he said.

His jobs as a lawyer and college professor were also covers. “I was this kid just going along,” he said. “I knew I was going to get caught, but figured: `I’m already wanted.”’

Joseph Shea, the now 83-year-old former FBI agent who was the partial basis for Hanks’ character, said that he developed a liking for Abagnale even while pursuing him.

“He was very good at being bad at a very young age,” Shea laughed. “He never hurt anybody, never physically harmed anyone. He mostly used his brain in pretending.”

Toward the end of his run, Abagnale said he was overwhelmed by guilt.

“When I used to walk into a bank, at 16 or 17, all I would say to myself is, ‘This bank has a billion dollars, so I’m coming in to cash a $100 check, what do they care?”’ he said. “As I got a little older, 18, 19, I realized I was convincing this teller to break every rule in the bank to cash the check. Then what bothered me when I walked out of the bank was that this girl is going to lose her job.”

Once captured, he was briefly incarcerated in France and Sweden. Later, he was sentenced to 12 years in a United States prison but was released after five years to help the FBI improve its anti-fraud investigations by turning his expertise against other con artists.

In his late 20s, Abagnale used his newly recovered freedom to flirt with celebrity, co-writing his comically sensationalized book and bragging about his glamorous shenanigans on the Johnny Carson and Merv Griffin shows.

At that time, he now says, he was “egotistical and self-centered.” Since then, he said he has spent decades trying to build enough integrity to raise himself from his criminal past.

The autobiography was a best seller but fell out of print while unproduced screenplays about his life bounced around Hollywood for years.

Abagnale, married for 26 years and the father of three grown sons, said his clients _ which include banks, credit card companies, airlines and universities _ were always aware of his background, but many friends and associates were not.

He liked it that way.

“I’d be a liar to say that there wasn’t some parts of it that were glamorous,” Abagnale said. “I was a 16-year-old boy dating 25-year-old women. It was wonderful and I’ll never say it wasn’t. I got to go all over the world. But in reality, I look back over my life and I do understand that it was immoral, it was illegal, it was unethical, and it’s not something I’m proud of.”