By the time he was 21, Frank Abagnale Jr. had acquired and spent more money than most people will ever see in their lifetimes. And every penny of it -- $2.5 million -- was ill-gotten by the master con artist.
Prematurely gray, tall and handsome, Abagnale posed as an airline pilot for Pan Am, which allowed him to fly for free and to bill his hotel stays to the company. He impersonated a doctor at a hospital. He passed himself off as a college professor and a prosecutor, among other things, all the while staying one or two steps ahead of the law that pursued him in 26 countries. Police even had a mythic handle for him: "the Skywayman."
His made-for-TV exploits were made into a 2002 Steven Spielberg movie, "Catch Me If You Can." Leonardo DiCaprio played his character, with Tom Hanks co-starring as FBI agent Carl Hanratty, who in real life was named Joseph Shea.
In 2011, the con man's story premiered as a musical adapted by the creative team behind "Hairspray." Much-lauded composer Marc Shaiman and celebrated lyricist Scott Wittman, partners in the theater and in life, brought in Terrence McNally ("The Full Monty") to write the book. And they tapped legendary director Jack O'Brien, with whom they had worked on "Hairspray" and other projects, to bring the musical to life.
"The reason I wanted to do this was not to get into a competition with the movie," said O'Brien, who has Tony Awards for "Hairspray," "Henry IV" and Tom Stoppard's "The Coast of Utopia." "The film is a chase movie, which isn't the best thing to do onstage."
Like the film, which is based on Abagnale's 1980 memoir co-written with Stan Redding, the "Catch Me" musical revolves around the fugitive and his FBI pursuer. When the older lawman discovers the true age of his quarry, he starts to feel parental toward him. That's not the first angle one might think of for a musical about a flimflam man. But it is the one that most fascinated O'Brien.
"For me, the real story is about a father figure and his son," said the director. "Most of us have our own biological fathers or biological children. But there are also fathers who choose surrogate sons in the same field, and sons who choose fathers. When the agent realized that he wasn't just chasing a felon, it becomes an opportunity for another kind of exploration."
One of the good guys
In real life, Abagnale paid his debt to society by serving prison time. Now living in Charleston, S.C., he is still retained by law-enforcement agencies and financial institutions to test all manner of security devices and instruments, including ATMs and currency.
"They were smart to go with the one guy who could shut them down," O'Brien said. "Frank is an extraordinarily gifted young man. And because of his ingenuity, he's largely responsible for the [counterfeit-foiling] design for the $20 bill in your pocket right now."
Abagnale consulted with the creative team, and attends select performances of the musical. On Tuesday, he will do a post-show discussion at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis, where "Catch Me" opens for an eight-performance run.
"You'd think that someone with all his fame and notoriety would be full of himself, but he's so humble and so nice," said Stephen Anthony, a 2012 graduate of Florida State University who depicts Frank in "Catch Me." "That influenced how I play him in the show. I have to get away with this masterful con and still be liked by the audience."
Anthony believes that his in-person meeting with Abagnale also led to another insight.
"I asked myself, was he as much a masterful actor as he was a con man?" he said. "His greatest skill may be his understanding of people. People believe what they want to believe. He didn't work too hard in terms of being an actor. He fit an image that was in their heads. I'm finding the balance of portraying him with the ease that he has."
Rohan Preston • 612-673-4390