Improvisationally Speaking Podcast interview with Frank Abagnale, inspiration for the movie & musical, Catch Me If You Can
In this week’s Improvisationally Speaking podcast, we are joined by Frank Abagnale. His fascinating life was one of constant improvisation, and the inspiration for the movie Catch Me If You Can. To hear the podcast, visit our podcast page here. Or you can read the transcript below.
Julian: So last month I attended a technical conference in Florida where the keynote speaker was Frank Abagnale. And it was kind of a trip because this is the man who was the inspiration for Steven Spielberg’s 2002 film Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo Dicaprio playing him, and Tom Hanks, and subsequently turned into a musical that was a Tony Award winning one. It ran on Broadway and then it ran around the country. His keynote was fascinating. It was basically him just talking about his life—from his early life as depicted in the movie and the musical—where he was known as the world’s most famous con man, up to when he joined the FBI catching people like the person he was when he was young. And I thought to myself, “What a perfect, perfect person to interview for Improvisationally Speaking! Who better knows improvisation than someone who, in real life, impersonated a doctor, a pilot, a professor? Nowadays Frank Abagnale is a lecturer for the FBI Academy and for the field offices of the FBI. He’s a faculty member at the National Advocacy Center. Through his company, Abagnale and Associates, he works with more than 14,000 financial institutions, and corporations, and law enforcement agencies around the world helping them to get the upper hand on fraud and fraudulent activities.
I’m really pleased to have Frank Abagnale on the program today!
From the Improv Alive! Studios in Seattle, Washington, I’m Julian Schrenzel and you are listening to Improvisationally Speaking.
Julian: Frank Agagnale, thank you and welcome to Improvisationally Speaking.
Frank: Good to be here. Thank you.
Julian: I remember hearing you talk about your experiences as a child and as a young person and you described what you did—the things that you did, that were not legal and the things that you did to…con, essentially…and you described them as unremarkable. And to illustrate, you point to a series of uncomplicated steps that you took in order to accomplish these things. But when I thought about it, what I think is that the public at large looks not at the difficulty or the complicatedness of the steps that you took, but more at your ability to execute those actions being the amazing thing that kind of stood out. And I wanted to ask you, Frank: why do you think you were able to execute the actions that you did more easily, it seems, than most anybody else?
Frank: Well, I truly believe, and I know I get these comments all the time, you know, that you’re a genius, you’re brilliant. I was just a child and I think that’s why I was so successful. I ran away from home, I found myself on the streets of New York, so it was “How am I going to survive?” And the only thing I had going for me is I looked a lot older than sixteen, but I think that most of it came from being an adolescent who had no fear of being caught, no thinking about consequences of what will happen when I get caught. I always believed that, had I been a little older, had I been twenty-one or twenty-five when I started to do these things, I wouldn’t have done half of them because I would have sat out there and thought to myself, “That’ll never work, they’ll never believe this…” I would have rationalized everything and never did it. For example, you know, when I stood out in front of a bank with a $500 check and I was going to go in and cash that check, I didn’t sit there and think to myself, “Okay now, here’s the plan…I’m gonna go in…if they say this, I’ll do this…if they do this, then I’ll do this…” I just went in and did it. It was just adlibbed and I think that was truly the adolescent in me. It kind of reminds me of when I’m on the interstate and a kid drives by me doing a hundred miles an hour and I think to myself: look at this crazy kid and then you realize when you were a kid, you did those things. You just didn’t have that fear and thought about all the consequences that go along with it. And I think that was the real key to my success. Yes, I was creative and yes, I was very much an opportunist and saw things other people didn’t see and took advantage of them, but I truly believe the key to it all was the fact that I was so young.
Julian: You know, even people like, for instance, myself—my brother and I have a relationship where we like to go out and—it’s part of my improvisational background—we go out and we do things that are kind of outlandish. They’re not detrimental to anybody. They’re certainly not illegal, but they’re things that regularly you probably wouldn’t do because they’re kind of silly. Like walk into a store and sing a song to the cashier, serenade the cashier, or do something crazy. But even with no stakes attached like that—nothing to gain, nothing to lose—that is something that almost nobody is really able to do because it’s just so hard, so I get what you’re saying, Frank, about that there was no big stakes attached to it and you were doing it to survive. But can you tell me, can you at all describe what is it, how were you able to remain focused and calm in these kind of situations where, you know, the time where you took the role, the job in the hospital as a leader, a team leader, at the hospital? How were you able to remain so calm and in a place where you could function in your head when you knew you were just so pulling the wool over people’s eyes?
Frank: I mean, it was interesting, I watched an interview with Leonardo Dicaprio where he was asked about me and he said, “You know, Frank Abagnale has to be one of the greatest actors that ever lived because this person was playing the part of several people twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. He always knew who he really was, but he got up in the morning and he started acting and he acted till he went to sleep, and then he got up and started acting again and I think a lot of that is true. And now, I was very much, you know, I saw things that, everything…people always say, you know, “I watched the movie, I thought, ‘Wow, how’d this guy do all these things?’ But then I read the book…” And they said, “You know when you read the book, you see how a lot of this stuff, you just kind of fell into, you didn’t premeditate it.” And I agree. If I’d premeditated it, none of it would have worked, so you know, I started cashing checks and it was very hard because I’d go in a bank and they’d say to me, “Well, you don’t have an account here…we don’t normally cash checks for people who don’t have an account…you can go over and speak to that man or woman behind the desk and see if they’ll okay it…” I’d have to go over and give them some kind of sad story and once in a while they said okay. Sometimes they said no. And then, all of a sudden I’m walking up the street in New York, I’m sixteen, I see this airline crew come out of the hotel and I thought to myself, “Wow! If I could get that pilot’s uniform, then I’d walk in the bank and I want to cash a check, I’m this pilot from out of town, I ran a little low on cash…” –of course, this is back before ATMs and debit cards—never dreaming of anything beyond that other than, “If I can get this uniform…” Then I happen to go by the PanAm building and I thought that would be a great airline to use, so, you know, I placed the phone call to PanAm. Right away, the first thing that came to my mind, I asked for somebody in purchasing, I gave them a story that I was a pilot with PanAm, been with the company seven years, I was on a trip to New York leaving later in the day, I had sent my uniform out the day before to be dry-cleaned, now the cleaner can’t find it, the hotel can’t find it. They asked me if I had a spare uniform. I said yes, back in San Francisco where I’m based and the next thing led to the guy saying, “Well, you’re going to have to get another uniform, you have to pay for it, you have to go down to this company.” Which was nothing more than social engineering at the time, but I didn’t think of social engineering, but that is what they would call it today. But I got all this information over the phone, so I went down, I got the uniform. I thought I would have to pay for it. I had the money to pay for it. But then the guy said, “Well, we don’t take cash. You have to bill it back to your uniform allowance, so just give me your employee number.” I saw how many boxes were on the IBM card, I filled in the boxes and I got the uniform. And it was like night and day. I mean, I walked in the bank, I walked up to the teller: Could I cash a check? I don’t have any cash. Absolutely. You don’t have your company ID? No problem at all. Didn’t have to speak to anybody. Didn’t have to worry about how much money. And I realized right then at sixteen years old the power of that uniform, that people were just seeing the uniform and they weren’t even paying attention to the check I was writing. And then, here I go out to the airport and I’m going to buy a flight on TWA, a ticket, and the ticket agent says to me, “Are you flying or riding?” I beg your pardon? “Are you paying for the ticket? Or are you riding the jump seat?” I said, “The jump seat?” “Yes.” I said, “Well, uh, no, I’ll do the jump seat.” And I didn’t even realize you could do that. Then the next thing you know I’m flying all over the world for free, riding in the jump seat of all these planes, I’m staying at these hotels where the crews stay, I’m billing it back to the airline…all those things.
When it came to the doctor, I had moved to Atlanta and I had moved in an apartment complex and it was a singles’ complex, and on the application it asked occupation and I didn’t want to write down airline pilot because it had all these questions about employer’s name, supervisor’s name, contacts, phone contacts, so I thought to myself: I need to come up with something different, so I just said I was a doctor. I didn’t even go into any detail and the woman said, “Oh wow, what kind of doctor?” You know, I’m young, I’m seventeen, eighteen, and I said, “Um, I’m a medical doctor.” “Oh, really? Well, what kind of doctor are you?” Then I thought: well, this is a singles’ complex, so obviously there’s no children here. So I said I’m a pediatrician. And then the next thing you know I move in as this pediatrician and I meet a real pediatrician and I started having conversations with him. We become little friends and he takes me up to this hospital and he introduces me to other doctors and people at the hospital, and then one day, he simply says to me, “One of the doctors had an emergency, he had to go back to the west coast, he had a death in his family…we were wondering if you could supervise a shift? It’s just supervision, no medical treatment, but if you could just take over this shift…” And I at first said, “There’s no way I could do that, I’m not licensed to practice medicine in Georgia, just California where I hold my residency…” “Oh, no, that’s no necessary, this is just an administrative position temporarily.” So then it was more of well, could I get away with this? You know, I went and did it and I just basically, again, was just basically following people’s leads. I mean, again, if I had said I’m going to Georgia, I’m going to become a doctor and…it would have never happened.
And the same thing occurred basically, you know, with the lawyer. I met a—in the movie, it’s a little different—but in real life I met an Eastern Airlines flight attendant, I was dating her, her father was the Attorney General in Louisiana, she asked me to come home and meet her folks. Again, back in those days, a lot of pilots had other jobs—they were lawyers, they were accountants because they were only allowed to fly eighty hours a month, so I happened to say to her I was a lawyer, oh my dad’s a lawyer and he’s in Louisiana and then that led me to Louisiana. I think everything I kind of just fell into, but had I ever set out and planned all of that, none of that would have ever happened.
Julian: When you describe these things, it’s almost like you’re reporting, like you’re a reporter and you’re objectively looking at it and describing it. In your work now, does this—this has got to carry over—I think, I would say this must be part of your personality, is to almost be objective in how you look at a situation, like taking yourself out of it. Does this play…I mean, this is a trait of yours and I think it has served you well—obviously, it served you back in the day—but does it serve you in your current work? You currently work for the FBI now. Does it serve you now?
Frank: Yes. I’ve been at the FBI for forty-one years working with the Bureau. I started out doing undercover work more than forty years ago and I think that the whole purpose of what I was able to do back then was that they would simply say to me, “I need you to go and apply for this job, at this place, basically: here is the paperwork, you are a social worker, you have a Master’s degree in social work, you graduated from Columbia, this is your name, this is your background. We don’t have an inside person there, so you need to go apply for this job along with other people who are applying for it and try to get the job because we need to get you in there to try and find something out. Well, I would go do those kinds of assignments, but I would literally go in and apply with other real people who were actually social workers, or had a degree, and go do the job and get the job.
And even today, I always put myself, you know, if I try to figure out how somebody’s doing something, then I just ask myself: if I was doing this, how would I do it? And the things that have changed—of course, you know, forty years ago, there were no computers and no internets or things like that, so a lot of it is cyber-related—so I’ve had to learn all that. I’ve had to learn as I’ve gone along just like anybody else about how these crimes work and how people think. But social engineering has not really changed much. It’s the same thing that I did fifty years ago when I was a teenage boy. It’s the same thing they do today only they have the ability of using the internet, the computer, the phone, text mail, and things like that, but it’s basically the same thing—getting information from people and people giving you information by social engineering. And the truth is there is no technology to defeat that, just education. You have to educate people how to recognize social engineering.
Julian: Yes, exactly. But now in your work, when you started working with the FBI, now all of a sudden you’re having to do those things, you’re having to play a part, but unlike when you were a child, now there’s a lot of stakes in it, isn’t there? So is there anything you might add to how you were able to keep yourself cool, calm and collected now that there are stakes involved? You were still able to do it.
Frank: I just think that, you know, it’s like when people say, “How do you get up in front of 20,000 people at a commencement and speak? Aren’t you nervous?” I don’t have a nervous bone in my body and I think, you know, I don’t get nervous. I just do whatever I’m supposed to do and I go out and do it and I don’t overthink it or anything like that. I just take whatever I need to do and I go do it. I don’t get nervous about it. I have a lot of confidence in myself which I did when I was sixteen. I always believed that I can do this, I can pull this off, whether it was going to the hospital and saying I can pretend to be a doctor. The only thing I was smart enough to know was the thing about you can fool some of the people some of the time. I was smart enough to know you can’t fool people all of the time. So this is why when people go, “Why did you stay there being the lawyer? You passed the bar. Why didn’t you stay there practicing law?” Because I was smart enough to know that, sooner or later, someone would catch on or someone would start looking into my background. I was smart enough that it could only work for a short period of time. And it’s the same way when I deal with criminals today—they might be smart 99% of the time, but 1% of the time they’re going to make a mistake and I’m just looking for that mistake and I know what that mistake is usually going to be, so I wait for them to make that mistake, or I seek out what that mistake is.
Julian: What is the most exciting part of your job to you now?
Frank: I think it’s just the same thing, you know, it used to be that the cat was chasing the mouse and now the mouse is chasing the cat and now I’m kind of that cat. I used to be the mouse and now I’m the cat and I chase people. It’s always challenging because there’s always something new to try to figure out and how people’s minds work. People are extremely creative and so you just try to figure out what they’re doing and again, I put myself in their place and say: if I was going to do this, how would I do this? If it’s a financial crime, I think to myself: if I had to move this money, how would I move this money? If I had to hide this money, how would I hide this money? And that’s always worked for me. It’s just putting myself in the place of that mind. So, give you a perfect example: I have been involved in some great technologies as an advisor. I’m working on one right now called Trusona which will do away with the need for passwords. The CEO of that company who’s brilliant, he was asked by a reporter, that one time… that said, “You work with Frank Abagnale a lot, he’s your advisor on a lot of great technologies you’ve created for banks and fraud detection that are used all over the world, but my question to you is: Frank doesn’t write code.” And the CEO whose name was Ory Ison said, “No, Frank doesn’t write code, but I’m not a criminal. I can’t think like Frank. So I can develop all the code in the world, I can develop all the software in the world, but I can’t think like Frank thinks so Frank and I, over the last fifteen years, just played chess together. I sit down and say, “Here’s what I’ve developed,” and Frank says, “Well, here’s how I defeat that.” And then I go back and I fix it and then I come back and he says, “Well, you still have a loophole right here because someone could do this…” And then I go back and fix that, and until the day that Frank says to me, “Well, I think you’ve closed all the doors and locked all the doors for now…so you can put this in the marketplace, but you need to make sure you stay on top of it year to year to make sure that it’s as good and secure as it is today.” And he said, “I can’t do that, I don’t have the mind he has, I don’t think like he has and you know, that’s just what he brings to the table.”
Julian: How has your appetite for excitement or adventure changed from when you were younger to now?
Frank: I don’t have all that excitement. It’s more about the curiosity and solving something. I don’t get real…like when I was younger and solving the case, or working on some project and got very excited about it. Now it’s kind of become a bit more routine in my life. It’s just more about doing whatever I’m supposed to do and getting it done. I do like…I teach at the FBI Academy and, you know, I enjoy teaching young agents.
What I find today, which is amazing to me, is that a lot of young people today are not resourceful at all. I mean, they are not at all resourceful, so if you say to a seventeen year-old today in New York City, “I’m going to take your phone away and I need you to find your way back to Richmond, Virginia,” they would be in a total loss. They wouldn’t know where to begin, what to do, how am I going to get back, I have no money. They’re not resourceful, so I try to teach them 1) to be very resourceful and 2) to think out of the box—that not everything is black and white, so what you see is not always that way. You need to look beyond that and figure it out. So sometimes they say to me, “Well look, you already know who did it, so why don’t you just tell us?” No, I’m not gonna do that. I think I know who did it, but you need to figure out who did it.
Julian: If you were to give one piece of advice to people who are a community of less resourceful people who have not developed that resourceful muscle, what is that change that needs to take place? I mean, it’s not just hey, get used to carrying a map. It’s more of a mindset, isn’t it? And what is that?
Frank: Well, yeah, I think you have to understand people. You have to be observant. You have to be a little bit creative. And you have to stop and think for a minute and think things through. I think everything today with young people today is: I gotta have it immediately, I’ve gotta do it immediately, there’s only one way to do it and that’s the fastest way. That’s not always the best way. So I think if you stop really and think out and think to yourself: how do I accomplishment this and how do I go about doing it correctly? You can do that instead of just rushing into it and not thinking it out. That’s what happens today with a lot of technology that is brought to the marketplace, a lot of solutions that are brought to the marketplace, is that the marketeers are pushing it out on the street before anyone has ever said, “Well, wait, this isn’t foolproof. Someone could beat this. Aren’t you going to stop and figure out all the loopholes before you put it in the marketplace? Otherwise there’s going to be victims who use this technology.” And I think that’s what you have to do: you have to stop and think through it before rushing out to get it out.
Now I always remind people about creativity. You know, if someone goes and robs a bank tomorrow and sticks a gun in somebody’s face, nobody cares about that guy, he gets locked up and sent to jail. If the guy that goes in the bank behind him is very creative and he finds some way to swindle the bank through some very amazing ideas and things that he does, he’s kind of become a hero in the public’s eye and they think, “Wow, that guy’s pretty cool. He did something cool.” They both broke the law. They both were illegal. Both were immoral. So just because someone is creative in what they do doesn’t mean what they do is ethical or right. So I try to remind people that are amazed by what I did that yes, it was creative, but it wasn’t right. It was the wrong thing to do. I try to remind myself that I was in a situation where I did that because it started out as survival and people started chasing me and I was this kid thinking: how do I stay ahead of all these people chasing me? But in the end, it was wrong what I did and I had to pay my debt to society for it.
Julian: I understand. You deal a lot now…your job with the FBI is to be able to track and try to essentially bring con artists to justice. You know, con artists always has this bad connotation, but it also has this sexy connotation. And I was wondering: from your perspective, do you always associate con artists with something negative and is there a personality characteristic that is consistent, that every person who is really good at conning people employs and has?
Frank: Okay, first of all, any good politician, any good car salesman, any good salesman, are con men. They have the same traits that a con man has. The only difference is that the con man is looking to get there very quickly and he’s willing to work outside the guidelines of the law. Whereas the salesman and politician, in many cases (not always), are trying to stay within, inside the line of the law and not do anything illegal. But the traits are the same. The only thing that you see now, in the last ten or fifteen years, is today the con man has kind of gone away because the day of the well-dressed, well-spoken, sophisticated guy or girl that was a con man, or con woman, because most of the people who are victimized today are victimized by someone thousands of miles away by somebody sitting in their pajamas on a laptop in their kitchen in Moscow, or India, or China, or somewhere in the United States. So the people really never see who’s stealing their money, who’s victimizing them or who’s conning them. They only know the voice or the words typed on the screen. So there isn’t so much…we don’t see any more of that con man because there is no more of that personal one on one. But I’ve always said if you show me a good politician, you show me a good car salesman, they’re the same personality traits as a con man. The only thing is they’re doing it within the means of the law and staying within the lines of making, doing something legal.
Julian. Yes. You have spoken in the past about when you talk about your past in con artistry, you are very remorseful for what you did and you bring up a lot of times the fact that you broke the law and what you did was not moral, and you’re very remorseful. But also what you did, you also say that you did what you did to survive, to be able to make it, and I wanted to ask you: you seem very…very remorseful at times in your interviews and in your speeches, but at the same time there’s a really good reason for you to have done what you did and you never hurt anybody. Why do you feel so remorseful?
Frank: Well, you know, I think…first of all, let me explain to you that people, no matter what you do in your life, and it’s unfortunate, but really don’t let you forget. So you know, people say…all your life you hear that life is short. But the truth is life is really long. I mean, someone…I’m sixty-nine years old. If I’m lucky, I might make it to ninety or so. Someone in a younger generation, like my children, they may live to be over a hundred years old. So when you make a mistake in your life and you do something wrong, you have to live with that for a long, long time, and even if you try not to live with it, people remind you about it. So I notice almost everything ever written about me—and probably why I don’t do a lot of interviews—no matter what I’ve done in my life, all people write about, and the headline will be, “World’s Greatest Con Man Says This…” or retired con man, or former con man, and mainly talk a lot about my past, but never talk about the things I’ve done over the past forty years. So people remind you of that all the time, so that’s why I tell young people you have to be…you don’t want to put a lot of burdens in your life. So you know, if you mistreat somebody in a relationship, or you lie to somebody, you deceive somebody, or you do something wrong, you know, it means nothing at the time you’re doing it, but later on in life, it comes back to kind of haunt you, and comes back to bother you, and you end up having these burdens in your life. So even if I was willing to forget all the things that I did, there will always be people there to remind me that I did and I understand that I did and that’s why I’m fine with living with that, but I always don’t lose sight of the fact that it was wrong.
I just, I tell people all the time when they look at my life or they watched the movie or they read the book, they’re amazed by or fascinated by what I did fifty years ago as a teenager. But the truth is at sixty-nine—and I just turned sixty-nine last week—when I turned sixty-nine and I look back on my life, I think to myself: the most amazing thing is that I did all these things…I went to prison for five years, the government took me out of prison, I’ve worked for my government for four decades, I’ve developed some incredible print technology, paper technology, as well as technology used for cyber defense, and I’ve done some amazing things in my life. I’ve been married to my one and only wife for forty-plus years, I’ve brought three wonderful sons into the world—one who is an FBI agent celebrating twelve years in the Bureau—I mean, I look back and say: this really happened? I mean, is this really where my life went and what happened in my life? And I think that says a lot about the country we live in. You can make mistakes. You can have problems. You can be an alcoholic. You can be a drug addict. But if you want to change your life, if you really want to do something with your life, at any stage in your life, you can change your life! Because we live in a great country that lets you do that. Yeah, people will remind you of your mistakes, but you can go do something positive with your life if you want to do it and in the end, you only do it for yourself, to prove to yourself that you can do something and not worry about what other people think about you. So I’m just grateful that I’ve been able to do something great with my life because sometimes I do believe that old saying about things happen in life for a reason. And I would obviously not be where I am today if all those things didn’t happen. So you know, I think that’s just part of life.
Julian: That’s a really good, positive statement about the country where you hear a lot of negativity these days. Frank, you don’t grant interviews very often, I know that from seeing your website and you said it before. May I ask you: why did you grant me this one?
Frank: I just, I have a very good sense of people, so when you…normally, to be very honest, this is a question that my assistant was asking me: why did you grant this interview? She kept reminding me every time I went about it today and…I have a sense of people. I met you, I got a feeling that you were the type of person that had a loving family, that you were somebody who cared about your family, cared about your country…I just got a very positive feeling about you and when you said, “Would you do this?” you know, I said yes right off the bat. Normally I just refer people to my office knowing that they’ll say no. And it’s…and the real reason, like I told you, the real reason I don’t do interviews…I mean, if you go back and see the interviews I’ve done, people just really…90% of the interview is really about things I did and my past. They really don’t care so much about what I’ve done with my life and go with my past and then they use these terms of…I always have to smile when somebody says, “The World’s Greatest Con Man.” When you think about it, you know, there’s people I have on my desk every day that embezzle from Medicare and Medicaid, and doctors, and people of that nature, who steal 30 million, 40 million, 50 million. You know, I stole pennies compared to these people and I’m sure they were probably better con men than I am. And we look at some of these politicians every day and realize some of them are a lot bigger con men than I would ever pretend to be, or be. So I get, I’m amused by that, but I felt very comfortable in giving you the interview and so I did it.
Julian: Thank you, Frank. The last question for you: what legacy would you like to leave on this earth when it’s all said and done? What do you want to be remembered by?
Frank: I only care about one thing to remembered by…not the world’s greatest con man. Not the world’s greatest government official. Not the greatest cyber guy or anything else. I only want to be remembered that he was a good husband, he was a good father, and he was a great Daddy to his children, and that’s really all I care about.
Julian: Frank Abagnale, thank you so much for giving me this interview.
Frank: Thank you, Julian.
Julian: Thank you for joining us on Improvisationally Speaking this week. Thank you especially Frank Abagnale for granting us the interview. I’m Julian Schrenzel. You’re listening to Improvisationally Speaking from Improv Alive! We’ll see you in a couple Fridays.
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