The Oscar-nominated Steven Spielberg movie, Catch Me If You Can (2002) was inspired by the real-life events of Frank William Abagnale, Jr. The plot appears to be as unbelievable as Leonardo DiCaprio's role in Inception. In this case, however, Leo moves beyond fiction and actually embodies the real life of the legendary con-artist.
So, what did Frank Abagnale's life entail?
Upon discussing the movie, Leonardo DiCaprio stated:
"Things that happen in real life are sometimes a hundred times more fascinating than anything a person could make up off the top of his head."
Who Was Frank Abagnale, Jr.?
Frank Abagnale was born on April 27, 1948 in the Bronx, NY, as the son of a stationery business owner. Being the third of four children, Frank grew up in a fairly stable home until his parents separated when he was 12, and later divorced when he was 14.
Once his mother grew more independent, Frank moved in with his politics and theater-loving father. This is all starting to make sense... The divorce transition was quite devastating and it was then that Abagnale, Jr. tagged along on his father's business deals, thus learning about white collar transactions.
What Was His First Con?
Although Frank's father was his role model, he was also the "Great Imposter's" first con victim. Frank, Sr. would equip his son with a truck and a gasoline credit card in order to facilitate the commute to his part-time job.
Frank, Jr. used this credit card to buy expensive automobile items only to return them in exchange for a cash refund. At the ripe age of 15, the teenager had conned his father out of $3,400. The latter definitely took notice when he glanced at his bill. Frank, Jr. also went through a minor shoplifting phase.
This was only the very beginning, as Abagnale would become the master of impostors, fraudulent checks, and a handful of con tricks. He was the man that couldn't get caught... Until he did.
Why Did He Do It?
Frank's parents' divorce truly affected him as a teen. To make matters worse, all his siblings, particularly his father, were horrified at the idea of the mother leaving. This got so unbearable that Frank, Jr. ran away from home.
"I had to grow up very quickly and become very creative in order to survive. But what started out as survival became more and more of a game. I was an opportunist, so when I saw an opening I asked myself, 'Could I get away with that?' Then there was the satisfaction of actually getting away with it. The more I got away with, the more of a game it became... A game I knew I would ultimately lose, but a game I was going to have fun playing until I did."
Did Everything In The Movie Actually Happen?
Abagnale disclosed that many of the events were exaggerated and that most names were changed in order to conceal identities. Most of the movie remains quite accurate in comparison to the 1981 memoir.
In the latter, Frank includes his escape from a jetliner by removing the toilet and crawling underneath it through the hatch onto the tarmac. This supposedly happened, according to Abagnale. However, professionals have been approached on the matter and ensure that this is impossible.
Did Tom Hanks's FBI Role Actually Exist?
The FBI Inspector played by Tom Hanks is fictionally named Carl Hanratty. In reality, it was a group effort in the agency that managed to capture Abagnale. There is a principle Agent who is referred to in the memoir as FBI Agent Joseph Shea.
Special Agent Shea was the head of the FBI investigative team in charge of Frank's case and he indeed spent many years looking for him. At first, Shea was under the impression that his suspect was a middle-aged man, completely oblivious to the fact that he was dealing with a teenager. Just like in the movie, Shea was Abagnale's main contact at the Bureau.
Was Frank's Time As A Con-Artist Worthwhile?
Abagnale himself once said in The Art of the Steal (2001):
“I had enjoyed a misguided and regrettable run as one of the most successful con artists the world has ever known. [...] The New York Times, in its coverage, referred to me as ‘The Great Impostor.'"
In 1974, Frank, Jr. had served over four years of his 12-year sentence at the Federal Corrections Institute facility in Petersburg, Virginia. Fortunately for him, the US federal government released him in exchange for his unpaid help with the federal authorities. His expertise was put towards investigating crimes committed by fraud and scam artists.
After his release, he struggled to legitimately find a job, so he started his own firm where he visits banks and educates the personnel on how to detect fraudulent checks.