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The truth? Just try to catch it if you can

Times Staff Writer

A brazen escape through an airport, with a bevy of comely stewardesses-in-training, right under the nose of the FBI. A deliciously successful impersonation of an emergency room physician -- complete with swinging parties and sexy entanglements on the side. A harrowing stay in a French prison. And all before the protagonist was old enough to drink.

Some viewers of Steven Spielberg’s “Catch Me if You Can,” the story of teenage con man Frank Abagnale, may walk out of the theater wondering how much of the picture’s audacious larceny is true.

They’ll never know.

Directors and screenwriters routinely take liberties with real life, usually in the belief that it suffers from a poorly timed dramatic arc or insufficient conflict. But this film -- which claims merely to be “inspired” by actual events -- has an even trickier relationship with the truth because its source material is largely unverifiable.

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What’s known: In 1970, Abagnale was arrested by the FBI, which suspected him of posing as a Pan Am pilot and cashing forged checks in a number of cities. He served almost four years in prison. Once released in 1974, he began working as a check-fraud consultant to the government as a condition of his parole, then gradually expanded to a private-sector consulting business. His appearances on several “Tonight” shows in the late ‘70s led to a 1980 first-person book whose title the movie borrows.

What’s unverified are most of the intriguing claims in both the book and the movie, all of which Abagnale says are true: That, beginning at age 16, he cashed $2.5 million in bad checks in every U.S. state and two dozen foreign countries. That his impersonation of a Pan Am pilot -- which helped him wangle free transportation to stay one step ahead of the law -- went on for the better part of five years. That he also posed for months at a time as a hospital pediatric supervisor, a college sociology professor and an assistant district attorney. That he spent six months in French prison when authorities there caught up with him.

Abagnale, now 54, with a highly successful business catering to financial institutions, is a man of charm, polish and evident intelligence whose nuts-and-bolts knowledge of fraud melds perfectly with his teenage scenario. Over the years, those who have tried to independently verify his escapades have been told by Abagnale that he would never embarrass the people or institutions he conned by naming them.

In 1978, after Abagnale had been a featured speaker at a San Francisco anti-crime seminar, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter took apart Abagnale’s assertions at the seminar and on a subsequent “Tonight” show appearance. Phone calls to banks, schools, hospitals and other institutions Abagnale mentioned turned up no evidence of his cons under the aliases he used, the Chronicle said.

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Abagnale’s response then: “Due to the embarrassment involved, I doubt if anyone would confirm the information.” Asked recently about the incident, he said he had intentionally used incorrect names.

Two years later, Abagnale’s account of his years of fraud, written with a professional writer, the late Stan Redding, was published by a Manhattan publishing house. Although it read like an autobiography, it featured a strange prefacing sentence: “This book is based on the true-life exploits of Frank Abagnale. To protect the right of those whose paths have crossed the author’s, all of the characters and some of the events have been altered, and all names, dates and places have been changed.”

Several efforts to turn the book into a film stagnated. Finally, Spielberg’s DreamWorks prevailed. As the film began to attract media attention this fall, Abagnale added a page to his business Web site to acknowledge the gaps between the book, the film and the truth.

“I was interviewed by the [book’s] co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted,” Abagnale wrote. “He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography. This is one of the reasons that from the very beginning, I insisted the publisher put a disclaimer in the book and tapes.”

The filmmakers were not shy about changing Abagnale’s story. To heighten the pain of his parents’ divorce, they made him an only child, rather than one of four. To enrich the relationship with his father, they turned his straight-arrow dad into a hustler. They compressed the narrative from five years to three. They doubled the amount of money Abagnale said he stole. They invented an FBI agent who pursued Abagnale around the country early on in his scam and eventually to France, when in fact the lack of a coordinated law enforcement effort allowed Abagnale to avoid detection for years. (The epilogue goes so far as to credit the fictitious FBI agent -- a composite character -- with the career honors won by the real FBI agent who arrested Abagnale but spent little time on the case.)

Said screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who worked on the script for three years, “Nobody really cares about ... having to know exactly what happened. But it does matter that we stayed true to sort of what we know happened emotionally to him as a kid.” Still, Nathanson said, the “focus on what’s true and what’s not true” is “very hard for me

“Frank’s an interesting guy and I consider him a friend, but ... he doesn’t really allow people to get to know him all that well,” Nathanson said. “I don’t know if anyone will ever know the actual truth.”

Abagnale acknowledged that the movie audience will be watching a cinematic approximation of his life based on an already stretched literary approximation. “Basically, I felt the movie was more accurate than the book, but in the final analysis only I really know,” he said.

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Now married, the father of three sons and living in Oklahoma, Abagnale says he has taken pains throughout his adult life to condemn his youthful behavior, and had no role or financial interest in the making of the movie. He feels it is unfair for people to challenge his veracity. “I hope some day people will judge me on how I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life and not on a few years as a teenager,” he said.

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Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this story.


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