USD catches up with Abagnale: Legendary impersonator shares his life story

Although Steven Spielberg's 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can" made the story of check-forger and con man Frank Abagnale famous the world over, the real Frank Abagnale had nothing to do with its production.

That being said, he is extremely satisfied with how it turned out.

Frank Abagnale – the inspiration behind the book, movie and Broadway play “Catch Me If You Can” – makes an appearance in Aalfs Auditorium Monday night in Vermillion. (Photo by Travis Gulbrandson)

"(Spielberg) did an incredible job, I thought, of telling the story," Abagnale said. "He went out of his way not to glorify what I did, and stayed as close to the story as I thought he could."

That's just the way Abagnale wants it, and in an appearance at the Aalfs Auditorium Monday night, he elaborated on why that is.

Between the ages of 16 and 21, Abagnale posed as a Pan Am pilot, a pediatrician and an attorney.

He also cashed more than $2.5 million in fraudulent checks in every state, as well as 26 foreign countries.

"Pan Am said they estimate that between the ages of 16 and 18, I flew more than 1 million miles for free on more than 250 commercial aircrafts to more than 26 countries around the world," Abagnale said.

"And Pan Am says, 'Keep in mind, Frank Abagnale … never once stepped on board one of our aircraft,'" he added.

The reason for this, Abagnale said, was that he felt it would be easier for him to be caught in a lie by the actual employees of the airline he was pretending to represent.

As the various re-tellings of his story have been released, Abagnale has continued to receive mail from curious people asking questions or paying compliments.

"Some people write and say, 'You were a genius. You were absolutely brilliant,'" he said. "I was neither. I was just a child.

"I know that some people are fascinated by what I did 40 years ago as a teenage boy, but I've always looked on it as something that was immoral, illegal, unethical and a burden I live with every single day of my life, and will to my death," he said.

What people don't realize is that the period was an extremely difficult one for him that was launched when his parents were divorced when he was 16.

"With most divorces, the children are the first to know," Abagnale said. "My parents were very good about keeping it a secret."

So good, in fact, that Abagnale didn't know it was going to happen until one day when he was taken out of class, brought to the courthouse and asked by a judge which parent he wanted to live with.

"I started to cry, and I turned and ran out of the courtroom," he said. "My mother never saw me again for about seven years, until I was a young adult.

"Contrary to the movie, my father never saw me nor spoke to me again," he said.

Abagnale eventually was arrested at the age of 21 by French police, who put him in prison – an experience Spielberg reconstructed for the movie by poring over the institution's log books.

"He said there was a blanket on the floor, a hole in the floor to go to the bathroom, no plumbing, no electricity," Abagnale said. "He said the log books show that I entered the prison at 198 pounds, and left the prison at 109 pounds."

Even more painfully for Abagnale, his father died during his incarceration.

After his release, he was imprisoned by Swedish authorities, and then by the U.S.

Four years into a 12-year sentence he was approached by the FBI to work against fraud, and he's been doing so ever since.

"I was very fortunate because I grew up in a great country where everybody gets a second chance," he said. "I owe my country 800 times more than I could ever repay for the opportunity it's given me for the past 36 years."

One idea Abagnale shuns is that his story is a glamorous one.

"How could I tell you my life was glamorous when I cried myself to sleep until I was 19 years old?" he said "I spent every birthday, Christmas, Mothers' Day in a hotel room somewhere in the world by myself."

Beyond his work for the FBI, Abagnale said it has been his wife and three sons who have turned his life around.

"Steven Spielberg made a wonderful film, but I've had nothing more rewarding, nothing more worthwhile, nothing that's brought me more peace, more enjoyment, more calm in my life, than a sense of being a good husband and a good father," he said.

The program was presented by the Beacom School of Business and sponsored by the Beacom Opportunity Fund, Arthur Volk Symposium and the USD Office of Student Life.

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