If you've been busy studying for the bar exam and don't know who Frank Abagnale Jr. is, not to worry. Take a little break and learn all about the life of one of America's best conmen. His story was the basis for the movie Catch Me If You Can, starring Tom Hanks and Leonardo DiCaprio.
The movie was about Frank Abagnale Jr., an American security consultant known for his history as a confident trickster, imposter, and escape artist. A young Leonardo DiCaprio gives us a lovely performance as a charismatic Abagnale running around the country, tricking hundreds of people into believing his various stories.
Abagnale became one of the most famous imposters of all time, having assumed no fewer than eight different identities as an airline pilot, a doctor, a US Bureau of Prisons agent, and, yes, even a lawyer. He escaped from police custody twice, and all before he was the ripe age of 21 years old.
The Real Frank Abagnale Jr.
Frank Abagnale was born in the Bronx, NY, in 1948. His parents divorced during his adolescence, and he moved with his mother and stepfather to Mount Vernon, NY. He states that he committed his first crime at 15, when he stole a neighbor's car and ended up leaving his father on the hook for the theft, amounting to a $3,400 bill.
He quickly ramped up in the seriousness of his crimes, and by 1968, at 20 years old, claims to have disguised himself as a TWA deadhead pilot and moved to Louisiana. There he talked himself into the company of a minister who hosted him, and he claimed to be a former pilot turned social worker. After his host family grew suspicious and contacted TWA to verify his identity, he was found to be a fraud and arrested.
Eventually, it was found that he was also in possession of bank checks from his host family and was sentenced to 12 years of probation, but instead, he fled to Europe. After defrauding people in Europe for a few weeks, he was caught and served two months in a Swedish prison, then was extradited back to the United States.
Abagnale Jr.'s life only got more interesting from there. After returning to the US, he resumed his deadhead pilot schtick, this time as a Pan Am pilot, and traveled around to college campuses, claiming to be a part of a program looking for potential Pan Am stewardesses. Portraying himself as part pilot and part doctor, he also conducted phony physical exams on unsuspecting women who wanted to join the fake program.
He scaled up the con by cashing personal checks he forged to look like Pan Am paychecks, and after cashing a series of them, the FBI took notice. By November 1970, he was apprehended in Cobb County, GA, for forging a total of $1,448.60 in phony checks. He was sentenced to 12 years in prison but was released on parole after only serving 2 years.
After his time in prison, he gave up his cons, which he attributes to finding love and starting a family. He founded a consulting firm, "Abagnale and Associates," which advises its clients on fraud and document storage. He also speaks about his life story at conventions around the country.
Differences Between the Movie and Reality
The biggest difference between Catch Me If You Can and Frank Abagnale Jr.'s real-life story is the character of Carl Hanratty, played by Tom Hanks. In real life, no such character existed. While it's true that Abagnale was hounded and ultimately apprehended by the FBI, he did not form a bond with any specific FBI agent. Furthermore, for a conman who is avoiding apprehension to continually seek out communication with an FBI agent (like that Christmas Eve phone call) would be extremely unlikely.
However, movies are different from reality for a reason. Movies like Catch Me If You Can are only fun if there's a cat and mouse element, and without Tom Hanks' character, there just wouldn't be the same sense of suspense.
Abagnale's Time as an Attorney
For those who know of Abagnale's story, you may have heard about how he faked his way into being an attorney. As the story goes, Abagnale forged a Harvard Law School transcript, passed the Louisiana bar exam, and got a job at the Louisiana Attorney General's office at nineteen.
While he was posing as a Pan Am Officer, he told a stewardess he was dating that he was a Harvard Law student, and she introduced him to a lawyer friend. That attorney mentioned to Abagnale that the bar needed more lawyers, which gave Abagnale the idea to apply. Abagnale forged a transcript from Harvard and applied to take the bar exam. He studied hard, and after failing the exam twice, he passed the Louisiana exam on the third try after eight weeks of studying.
According to Abagnale, he was not fond of his job as an attorney. He described his legal job as a "gopher boy," having to fetch coffee and knickknacks for his boss. Eventually, Abagnale left because there was a real Harvard Law graduate who worked for the attorney general, and he had begun to ask too many questions about Abagnale's Harvard past. Abagnale didn't want to be discovered, so he quit after eight months of working as an attorney.
A Grain of Salt
While all of Frank Abagnale Jr.'s story seems incredible, and a book about his life and the blockbuster movie definitely make it seem like there's truth behind his claims, it's important to take all of his stories with a healthy grain of salt. Over the years, many of Abagnale's claims have been proven to be exaggerated and straight-up lies.
The biggest one? That he was an attorney or even passed the bar at all. There is no record of Abagnale having passed the bar in Louisiana (or elsewhere), and he never worked in the Attorney General's office. After a late-night talk show appearance, he was even challenged with questions about the former Louisiana Attorney General he claimed to have worked for and failed to answer any of them accurately.
So don't slack on your bar exam prep, thinking that you might be able to skate by on sheer luck. If it didn't work for America's best conman, you're better off putting in the hard work and actually becoming an attorney.