Thursday, February 27, 2003

Frank Abagnale Jr.

Felon tells moral of his story


Well, he's shorter than Leonardo DiCaprio. And not as cute. But I wondered if Frank Abagnale Jr. is a better actor.

Could Leo have passed himself off as a doctor, a pilot and a lawyer before he was 21? Mon Dieu, can you imagine Leo in a French prison? Can you see him outfoxing the FBI? Yeah, OK, me too. But can you imagine him outfoxing Tom Hanks?

The movie of Abagnale's life, Catch Me If You Can, has earned more than $200 million so far, and he told a Cincinnati audience Wednesday that, for once, he probably got the worst of a deal. He was paid $250,000 for the option 20 years ago, but admits wryly that he wishes he'd had "points," Hollywood-ese for a percentage of the action.

The audience at the Montgomery Women's Club Town Hall Lecture Series listened raptly as he spun his tale. No coughing, even in this petri dish-like winter. No rustling, no squirming.

The criminal life

Life as a criminal began, he said, when he was 16. Pulled from his 10th-grade classroom in New Rochelle, N.Y., he was taken to a courtroom where he was told his parents were divorcing and he needed to choose where to live.

"Some stranger," he said, "suddenly was telling me I had to decide between the two people I loved most in the world." The judge called a recess when the boy started to cry.

When court resumed, "I was gone. My mother didn't see me for seven years. My father never saw me again." Abagnale ran away to Manhattan, 45 minutes from home. Over the next five years, he cashed $2.5 million in rubber checks.

"I looked older than I was," he said. "My hair started going gray when I was 14 or 15." He still looks a bit older than his 55 years. His lush, steel gray hair is worn longish, brushed back from a high dome. He wore a double-breasted dark suit with a crisp white shirt and banker's tie.

The distinguished-looking ex-felon - and now consultant to the very banking industry he bilked and the government agency he eluded - spent about 45 minutes telling the audience what he did. Cheating. Stealing.

Abagnale has worked for the FBI without pay since his release from prison. He says he is "grateful to live in a country that always gives you a second chance" and is proudest to be a "faithful husband" of 26 years and father of three sons, who "know I love them." His own father died while he was in prison. And he says he never thought his life on the lam was glamorous. "I cried myself to sleep every night. I was lonely. The only people around me believed I was somebody else."

He says "divorce is devastating for kids" and he would be glad if telling the details of his past would help "bring people full circle, to what's important." The moral of his story, you might say. God. Country. Home. Family.

"People ask what made me change. I tell them a good woman, my wife. And my parents taught me about God. I was able to reach out and grab that rope when I needed it."

And I could be wrong, but I don't think this part was an act.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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