Catch Me If You Can (book)

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Catch Me If You Can
First hardcover edition (1980)
AuthorFrank Abagnale Jr.
Stan Redding
CountryUnited States
PublisherGrosset & Dunlap
Publication date
Media typePrint (hardcover)

Catch Me If You Can is a 1980 book based on the early life exploits of Frank Abagnale Jr., a former con artist. As a young man, Abagnale reportedly cashed $2.5 million worth of bad checks while impersonating a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a teacher, and an attorney. The book is co-written by Stan Redding, and was adapted into a 2002 film of the same name by director Steven Spielberg, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as an FBI agent who pursues him.



The book details the life of Frank Abagnale, who was one of the most famous con-artists in the 20th century. It is written in the first person and describes how he cashed $2.5 million worth of bad checks. He assumed various jobs, such as pretending to be a Pan Am pilot, a doctor, a teacher, and an attorney. Abagnale was eventually caught by the FBI Agents, who had been chasing him the whole way, while living in France and then served approximately five years in prison — six months in France, six months in Sweden, and four years in the United States. The book ends with an epilogue telling the story of Frank Abagnale's final capture and the story of his rehabilitation, which resulted in the creation of his security firm.


Frank W. Abagnale has parents with starkly different ideals on discipline. They discover his crude, small-time scheme to profit off a line of credit for auto work that was never done and car parts that were never sold. His father forgives him. His mother sends him to boarding school for boys where he feels like a prisoner.

It's not the discipline he minds nor a sense of freedom that he misses, for he is quite mature for the age of sixteen and does not mind a peaceful living environment. It is only that he has no further contact with girls, and the extreme playboy lifestyle was always his motivation.

Between school terms, he is devastated when his parents decide to divorce. He runs away and takes up forging checks.

He is easily mistaken for an adult, and uses this to his advantage by impersonating a 26-year-old in New York. Soon he decides he can not stay there because the banks have questions about checks associated with an empty account.

Deadheading on Airplanes

Inspired when he sees some smiling pilots and pretty stewardesses leaving a hotel, he does some research on airline work culture. After some time, he successfully fakes a pilot's license by ordering a replica plaque from a catalog as a template. He also lies his way into a warehouse to get a tailored uniform identifying him as First Officer for a commercial airline.

He begins passing himself off as a deadhead (a pilot riding along in cockpits on the way to scheduled takeoff points). Thus he cons his way on much free air travel. He explores cities throughout the U.S. and stays well ahead of his expenses with increasingly innovative check fraud. In the course of these adventures, he makes a number of friends and girlfriends.

Running the Hospital

Eventually, Abagnale uses his profits to advance a year's worth of rent in the city of River Bend. He whimsically claims to be a Doctor on his rental application. Consequently, he is befriended by a curious neighbor who happens to be a legitimate Doctor. Frank luckily bluffs his way through conversation about their medical schooling and backgrounds. At his first opportunity, he forges physician's credentials to supplement his cover. He claims to be on a long hiatus so as not to be offered employment in this field.

At first, the local medical community members respect his preference for no work. Then a position opens for head of a hospital and they insist Frank is the best temporary fit, practically begging him to accept it.

Frank resists due to the dangers involved if a fake Doctor ends up treating real patients. However, hospital administration continues to believe he just wants leisure time. They promise him he will not have to do much of anything while he is on the clock. Frank decides he can scarcely refuse.

He is welcomed warmly by the staff and he comes up with tricks to improve his facade as he goes. For one, he memorizes medical terms he hears, then looks them up in private. For another, he fills out forms with mere scribbles after finding that doctors do not write legibly anyway.

He also gets to know one Brenda Strong and enters a relationship, seeing something special in her. But the romance is overshadowed by his fear that the FBI may be getting closer every day to tracking him down.

Uncomfortable delays transpire in the search for Frank's permanent successor, and he can not entirely avoid doctor duties. On one mortifying occasion, he is relieved that a tragedy is averted (no thanks to him) after he did not know what "blue baby" meant. He resolves to make an excuse and resign, but notes the extraordinary good luck when a replacement is finally found, for him.

Practicing Law

After relocating, he once again forges credentials and once again attracts the attention of professionals in the field he has chosen.

This time, he poses as an attorney. That necessitates the toughest bluffs yet. It turns out that a favorite topic of real graduates from his fake alma mater, Harvard Law, is Harvard itself.

As if it were fate, he is again implored to fill a job opening and has the hiring conditions finagled for him. One requirement is that he pass the state bar exam. He manages that honestly on the third try thanks to his wrong answers being highlighted and sent to him.

Grand Ambition and Close Calls

When he resumes his pilot persona, he recruits his own fake airplane crew at a flight attendant school on pretense of needing advertising stills. As his confidence increases, so do the amounts on his forged checks.

Occasionally, in narrating, Frank flashes forward to intel that supposedly comes later on about exactly how and when his acts of fraud become of interest to the FBI. At first, scattered investigations get a late start because Frank chose routing numbers that would make the checks take as long as possible to bounce. Later, an agent named Sean O'Riley is assigned to coordinate the detection of his identity and give pursuit.

Throughout his escapades, Frank has some close calls. Once, the pilots he is with get ominous orders by radio to inspect his license and have him taken to an office for questioning. He never drops his pilot act, and the exact reason for his detention is never communicated, so he is simply let go.

There's also one point at which investigators unwittingly have a face-to-face encounter with Frank. Keeping his cool, he flashes his wallet open and shut as if showing credentials, then acts like he is another member of law enforcement until he can make an inconspicuous exit from the scene.

On another occasion, police have a chance to arrest him but lack grounds to do so for his known crimes. Instead, they invent a vagrancy charge and put him in a holding cell. A bondsman who goes by "Bail-Out" Bailey is admitted later. He sees no reason not to accept a wrongfully arrested vagrant as a client. Agent O'Riley arrives after Frank has exited and angrily informs Bailey that, having been paid by check, he has just become a fraud victim. Frank later takes measures to ensure that Bailey does actually get paid.

Meanwhile, Frank's wanderlust extends to international horizons. He forges a passport, then flies to France and explores other parts of Europe. He continues his criminal pattern everywhere he goes.

The Collar

One day while grocery shopping, Frank finds himself surrounded by law enforcers holding him at gunpoint. He has a moment of genuine mortal terror because they bark contradictory surrender commands at him. He confirms which movements will not get him fired upon, and he submits to arrest.

During the prisoner processing procedure, Frank makes a characteristically cunning claim of mistaken identity. This fails because the authorities have hard evidence of who he really is. He learns an eyewitness tipoff lead to his capture, but can only guess which of his former lovers it was who spotted and reported him.

International Prison Life

He serves a long sentence at Perpignan's prison, aghast at the subhuman living conditions typical for inmates. It's incredibly dark, cramped, and unsanitary. Guards harshly forbid him to even speak. The only sympathy he gets is from an embassy liaison (who regrets there are no legal grounds to get Frank better treatment) and from one official when the time comes to extradite him.

Frank is transferred to Sweden. He notes the contrast between the gruff Frenchmen who have come to give over custody and the petite, female official who shows up to take it. He repeatedly expects harshness from the Swedish justice system but finds it all surprisingly lenient. He is relieved to get a comfortable cell at the Malmö prison.

His sentence seems to pass swiftly enough, but he supposes his future is bleak. He is to be extradited to the many countries where he is wanted, one after another. Italy is next, and he is told prison conditions there are as severe as those of France were. His survival in such captivity is not guaranteed.

Great Escapes

But then a rare decision is made (sure to spark international protest) for special extradition back to North America. Frank is flown homeward. The plane lands. Knowing that arrest at the hands of O'Riley awaits if he simply disembarks, Frank tries the aircraft restroom and escapes by unbolting the toilet. {Special note: surpassing all other unlikely claims in the book, this act in particular is said to be physically impossible. See 'veracity' below.}

Some time during this fugitive stint, Frank is arrested once more. His new jailers have an unexpected suspicion about him. Possibly because his outlook on prison life never gets very emotional, they openly speculate that he is the undercover prison inspector.

Frank considers serving his full sentence quietly, but decides that opportunity has knocked. He uses his outside contact rights to recruit an old girlfriend as an accomplice. She agrees to a timetable and stands by at some payphones, one of which Frank has passed off as an official line.

The prison officials call the payphone. They get confirmation that they are to let Frank outside their walls just long enough for a short, confidential meeting with someone. All goes to plan, so the girlfriend picks Frank up and drives him to freedom.

The End of a Criminal Career

He continues to live his life in fear of being recaptured. His travels take him North of the Canadian border where he is caught by a Mounty.

Ultimately, Frank resigns himself to law abidance for the rest of his life. He earns parole and looks for honest work. He experiences a frustrating trend of employers wanting to promote him, then firing him when he fails his extended background check.

He finally changes his life by offering his services (for free, at first) as a security consultant on a specialized lecture tour. He speaks to bank personnel, fully disclosing his forgery methods and ways to detect them. He goes on to found the real-life firm that has been famous ever since.


The book is prefaced with the statement: "This book is based on the true-life exploits of Frank Abagnale. To protect the right of those whose paths have crossed the author's, all of the characters and some of the events have been altered, and all names, dates and places have been changed."[1]

After Abagnale spoke at a seminar in 1978, two years before the book's publication, a San Francisco Chronicle reporter phoned a number of institutions that Abagnale mentioned to confirm his claims and found no evidence for them. Abagnale responded that he doubted anyone would confirm them due to embarrassment. He later said he had changed the names.[1]

In 2002, Abagnale addressed the issue of the book's truthfulness with a statement posted on his company's website which said (in part): "I was interviewed by the co-writer only about four times. I believe he did a great job of telling the story, but he also over-dramatized and exaggerated some of the story. That was his style and what the editor wanted. He always reminded me that he was just telling a story and not writing my biography." Specifically he addressed details such as the amount of money he wrote in bad checks, and the years in which his crimes took place.[2]

Movie adaptation[edit]

The 2002 film Catch Me If You Can, directed by award-winning director Steven Spielberg, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as Abagnale and Tom Hanks as Hanratty. The film is based upon his life and the autobiography and is mainly true to the source as Abagnale was a consultant to the writers, but some of the details were changed to create a more dramatic narrative for film.[3]

Musical adaptation[edit]

Abagnale's life has been adapted into a musical of the same name, which previewed on March 11, 2011, and opened on April 10 at the Neil Simon Theatre on Broadway. The show stars Aaron Tveit, Norbert Leo Butz, Tom Wopat and Kerry Butler. Butz won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical at the 65th Tony Awards in 2011.


  1. ^ a b Baker, Bob (28 December 2002). "The truth? Just try to catch it if you can". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 25 December 2018.
  2. ^ "Abagnale & Associates, Comments". Retrieved July 7, 2009.
  3. ^ ISBN 0-06-052971-7 by Frank Abagnale, Jr. and Stan Redding