Theater catches up with Frank Abagnale

Posted 8:43am on Thursday, Feb. 07, 2013

Despite having spent his late teens living out an incredible, twisty ruse that many would consider an acting feat of Olivier proportions, Frank W. Abagnale Jr. says that he never had an appreciation for theater. When you know this man's story -- so stranger-than-fiction that it was turned into an acclaimed movie and then a Broadway musical, both based on his autobiography, Catch Me If You Can -- you're taken aback when he describes his own awe at something else.

In this case, that would be the magic of creating a Broadway musical and the actors performing it eight times a week.

"When you're an actor and you're in a movie, you shoot one scene and you learn that page for that scene, and you go to the next one," he says. "It's amazing to me that people on Broadway can learn the show and do it for two-and-a-half hours."

The musical was the Tony-nominated Catch Me If You Can, with music and lyrics by the Hairspray team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, and book by Texas-raised Terrence McNally. The show, largely based on Steven Spielberg's 2002 Oscar-nominated movie, had a short run on Broadway in 2011 (about six months), and is now on a national tour, including two weeks at the Music Hall at Fair Park, where it opens Dallas Summer Musicals' 2013 season this week.

"I've seen the musical about 15 times. I've seen the movie twice," Abagnale says. "Spielberg did an incredible job; Leonardo DiCaprio [as Abagnale] was amazing in it. But the musical tells the same story, and it's surreal and entertaining, and has incredible songs. I've been fortunate that the people who have told my story have been the best of the best, and they got the best of the best entertainers to be in their [works]."

From boredom to bamboozle

Of course, none of that could have happened without Abagnale and his remarkable story. A bored teen in New York, he ran away from home at 16 and for the next four years, traveled the world conning people, writing bad checks and masquerading as an airline pilot, a doctor, a teacher and a lawyer. He was eventually apprehended in France, and spent jail time there and in Sweden before being sent to prison in Virginia.

After five years in jail, from ages 21 to 26, he was offered a job at the FBI. Why wouldn't they hire a natural-born trickster for a job that requires undercover work and subterfuge?

"I would be lying if I said that I was rehabilitated in prison. I looked at it as an opportunity to get out of prison," he says. "I took it, and I realized when I started that I was with the FBI and with incredible people of integrity, with a love of country and family. It took me years to get credibility within the bureau."

Early in his career with the FBI, he met his future wife on assignment in Houston. Now, as he's almost 65, he has been married for 37 years and runs a successful company in Washington, D.C., that helps companies protect against fraud, forgery and embezzlement. He also travels the world speaking on those subjects -- and about the power of redemption. His next North Texas appearance will be for the baccalaureate at Highland Park High School this May.

It's a pretty big turnaround considering that those three crimes are how he made a name for himself. But that was something that came naturally to him.

"I was just a young kid who was very creative. I was extremely observant. I was very much an opportunist, very much an entrepreneur," he says. "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-Ashbury. I thought 'How I am I going to survive? I have to convince people that I'm not 16 and that I'm 26.'

"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," he says. "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."

Making the musical

That led him to befriend a doctor in Atlanta, and another ruse in a profession he didn't know anything about (he moved on quickly when he realized people's lives were in danger).

"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 [or] the consequences of my actions," he says.

Turns out, that fearlessness would end up being fascinating subject matter for Steven Spielberg, who held the rights to Abagnale's story for decades before he made his 2002 film.

"Spielberg told Barbara Walters, 'I wanted to see what Frank Abagnale did with his life, and he did something good,'" Abagnale says.

He was unsure about the prospects of a musical, though. Shaiman and Wittman contacted Spielberg about the project after seeing a coffee-table book about the making of the movie. Spielberg and DreamWorks wouldn't release the rights until they were sure the musical would be worth it, so that meant three years of developing the book, music and songs. At a private workshop before the official green light was given, DreamWorks and Abagnale were invited to see it.

He says he smiles when he sees the movie and the musical because of the way they glamorize a life that he saw as lonely (he was on the run and had no friends), but he understands some of the dramatic license taken. Some facts are changed, such as the relationship with his father, which was nonexistent in real life. He does understand why people are drawn to the story.

"It goes to show that we live in an incredible country," Abagnale says. "No matter what you do, you can get up, brush yourself off and start your life over again. If you really want to change, you can do it."

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