Frank Abagnale, Jr. and seen and done it all before. And he wrote a book about it.
He's the man who, as a teenager in the 1960s, successfully impersonated an airline pilot, doctor, teacher and lawyer, traveling the world on Pan Am and conning his way into people's hearts. He was caught, at age 21, in France. He served jailtime there before being moved to prisons in Sweden and then Virginia. After five years in jail, the FBI decided he'd be perfect for their team.
He wrote about his story in the best-seller Catch Me If You Can, which was made into an Oscar-nominated movie by Steven Spielberg, with Leonard DiCaprio playing him; and then into a Broadway musical by the team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray), with a book by Texas native Terrence McNally.
As the tour of the musical opens tonight at Dallas Summer Musicals, we chatted with the man himself about the movie, the musical and his life.
TheaterJones: How can I be sure that you're the real Frank Abagnale?
Frank Abagnale, Jr.: You can't.
What was your reaction to the movie?
I thought that Steven Spielberg, he went out of his way to stay as accurate as he could to the story. He didn't really want the actors to meet me, because he told them "it's a movie about this person when he was 16 to 21, I'm not making a movie about who he is today or what he's done with his life. I don't want you to get caught up with who is today."
He got the three FBI agents who are portrayed in the film, brought them to the set and he took a lot of his material from their original notes on the case. The bureau sent their information officer to the set to make sure that the bureau information was accurate. I thought he did a very good job.
Was there anything inaccurate?
A few small things. I have two brothers and a sister in real life; in the movie I'm an only child. My mother never remarried, and in the movie she remarried. In real life there was no interaction with my father. I sent [my parents] postcards telling them I was hitchhiking around Europe, so they didn't think I was dead. [Spielberg] put Christopher Walken in the movie as my father so there was some relationship.
How did the process of turning it into a musical begin?
After the movie had been out for a long time, he called me and asked me if I heard of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman? I hadn't been to Broadway since I was a kid. He said "they have contacted me and they're interested in making your story into a Broadway musical."
I didn't see it as a musical, neither did Spielberg. But he told them "I'll give you my blessing to develop it, and then if I think it's worthwhile, I'll release the rights."
Then three years later, Marc emailed me and invited me to a rehearsal. I was totally blown away. I've seen the musical about 15 times, I've seen the movie twice. Spielberg did an incredible job, Leonardo DiCaprio was amazing in it. But the music tells the same story, and it's surreal and entertaining, and the musical has incredible songs. I've been lucky that the people that have told my story have been the best of the best, and they got the best of the best entertainers to be in their [adaptations].
The musical is basically a blueprint of the movie, with those same liberties you mentioned before taken?
Yes. The only thing I never understand for both: In reality my father was a very straight, honest guy, he was the exact opposite of a conman. He always told the truth, was very straight-forward. He was very humble. When he lost his business, he became a postal employee, it was an honest job, with honest pay and he was glad to have a job. I don't know why Spielberg decided to take that character of the father and make the audience feel that he's a little bit of a conman and he was encouraging his son along the way. Broadway took that same theme.
You've said that you had no appreciation for the theater growing up, but some would argue that what you pulled off when you were a teenager was a master acting feat.
Leo, on the DVD of the movie, says that I was "one of the greatest actors who ever lived." I never looked at it that way. It was me being on the run and portraying who I was portraying.
I was just a young kid who was very creative. I was extremely observant. I was very much an opportunist, very much an entrepreneur. I was in New York City, I was 16 years old. It was the '60s, a lot of kids had run away, but they got into the hippie scene in Haight-Asbury. I thought "[if] I am going to survive, I have to convince people that I'm not 16 and that I'm 26."
Your first con was to write bad checks from your father's checks?
Yes. I started out by changing my driver's license and telling people I'm older. Then I figured out you could write checks. Everything I did, and I sincerely mean this, I didn't say "I'm going to be an airline pilot." I walked by a hotel and saw these airline employees, and I thought if I could get a uniform then it would make it much easier to cash checks. And I did, and the difference was night and day. I realized the power of the uniform. But I never dreamed I'd get on planes and ride around the world and stay at hotels as an airline crew member.
Then I moved to Atlanta, gave up the pilot's uniform, then I met another doctor and became friends. Everything I did I kind of just fell into. I always believed that the reason I got away with so much was because I was an adolescent and I had no fear of being caught and the consequences of my actions. If I had been a little older, 21 or 22, I probably would have rationalized it all to death.
I was always smart enough to know that I could only get away with it for a certain period of time. I was smart enough to move on to the next thing. It started as survival, and then people started chasing me, then it because a game of cat-and-mouse.
Tell me about the conversation with the FBI when they offered you a job when you were in prison
I would be lying if I said that I was rehabilitated and was a changed man. I looked at it as an opportunity to get out of prison. I took it, and I realized when I started with the FBI that these were incredible people with integrity, love of country and family. It took me years to get credibility within the bureau.
For the first couple of years, I worked undercover. In Houston, Texas, I met my wife. I broke protocol, and I told my wife who I really was. I wanted her to know the truth. I've been married for 37 years. Three songs, oldest boy is an FBI agent. That's what really turned my life around, fatherhood and being married and realizing the importance of family.
When I look back on my life, I'm not really amazed that about all those things I did between 16 and 21, and I know many people are; what amazes me most about my life is that fact that I did those things, I went to prison for five years, I came out of prison, I worked for my government for going on 37 years, I paid back all the money that I stole and I never dreamed I'd ever have the ability to do that. I've done so much good with my life, and I've been married to the same woman for 37 years and raised three successful kids.
Why to Americans love this story so much?
It goes to show that we live in an incredible country. No matter what you do, you can get up, brush yourself off and start your life over again. It doesn't matter if you're an alcoholic or a drug addict or whatever, if you really want to change, you can do it.
Do you consult with famous people who have deceived the public and have to make amends, such as Lance Armstrong, to use a recent example?
I've gotten calls from journalists about Lance. Yes, you can overcome anything and he can overcome what's happened. This is what I've found about human nature and people.
People feel deceived. Once they feel that they were your friend and you've deceived them, that's more difficult to overcome to someone who lies to you and you don't care about.
But I have no doubt in my mind that he's done a lot of good things, he's a good person.
We do love the story of the outlaw. Is being on the run from the law glorified by the American public?
It was a very lonely life to life, there was nothing glamorous about it. I was a kid on the run, I had no friends. The people I knew were older than me, even the girls I dated. I never went to a senior prom or a high school football game, never shared a relationship with someone. When I was sick, there was nobody to come and take care of me. It's not a life I would wish on my worst enemy.
I have to smile when I see the movie or musical. It's not as glamorous as people think it was. Until my wife came along there was no meaning to all of this.
Steven Spielberg told Barbara Walters when the movie came out "I loved his story because it's an incredible story of redemption." He had the rights to the story for years, going back almost to Jaws. She asked him why he waited so long, and he said "I wanted to see what Frank Abagnale did with his life, and he did something good."
Do you sing the songs from the musical at home?
"I sing them in the bathroom in the morning. I know every line and word, I play the CD every morning."
◊ And you can sing along, too. Here's the song "Fly, Fly Away," performed by Kerry Butler from the original cast recording, which is available on iTunes: