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The truth? Just try to catch it if you can

A teen con man's tale was impossible to verify even before it got the Hollywood treatment.

December 28, 2002|Bob Baker | Times Staff Writer

The filmmakers were not shy about changing Abagnale's story. To heighten the pain of his parents' divorce, they made him an only child, rather than one of four. To enrich the relationship with his father, they turned his straight-arrow dad into a hustler. They compressed the narrative from five years to three. They doubled the amount of money Abagnale said he stole. They invented an FBI agent who pursued Abagnale around the country early on in his scam and eventually to France, when in fact the lack of a coordinated law enforcement effort allowed Abagnale to avoid detection for years. (The epilogue goes so far as to credit the fictitious FBI agent -- a composite character -- with the career honors won by the real FBI agent who arrested Abagnale but spent little time on the case.)

Said screenwriter Jeff Nathanson, who worked on the script for three years, "Nobody really cares about ... having to know exactly what happened. But it does matter that we stayed true to sort of what we know happened emotionally to him as a kid." Still, Nathanson said, the "focus on what's true and what's not true" is "very hard for me

"Frank's an interesting guy and I consider him a friend, but ... he doesn't really allow people to get to know him all that well," Nathanson said. "I don't know if anyone will ever know the actual truth."

Abagnale acknowledged that the movie audience will be watching a cinematic approximation of his life based on an already stretched literary approximation. "Basically, I felt the movie was more accurate than the book, but in the final analysis only I really know," he said.

Now married, the father of three sons and living in Oklahoma, Abagnale says he has taken pains throughout his adult life to condemn his youthful behavior, and had no role or financial interest in the making of the movie. He feels it is unfair for people to challenge his veracity. "I hope some day people will judge me on how I've spent the last 25 years of my life and not on a few years as a teenager," he said.

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Times staff writer Rachel Abramowitz contributed to this story.

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