One step ahead

Charleston Stage mounts “Catch Me If You Can: The Musical” during April. The show is based on the movie of the same name, which is based on the book of the same name, which is a memoir by Frank Abagnale Jr. Pictured are (from left Charleston Stage professional resident actors Katie Bianchi as a stewardess, Corbin Williams as Frank Abagnale Jr. and Jocelyn Lonquist as a stewardess.

He was like many other disaffected teenagers, upset about his parents’ divorce, feeling a little lost.

The judge had said he must decide with whom to live, his mother or father. So at 15, Frank Abagnale Jr. ran away from his Bronxville, N.Y., home in search of ... well, he knew not what.

Decades later, Abagnale would look back at his adventures and marvel at the fact that his life has inspired a book, a movie, a TV series and a Broadway musical. How many people can say that about themselves?

The musical, “Catch Me If You Can,” was based on Steven Spielberg’s 2002 blockbuster movie by the same name, which in turn was based on Abagnale’s 1980 autobiography, co-written with Stan Redding.

The USA Network drama “White Collar,” which aired 2009-12, was inspired by Abagnale’s adventures in forgery, deceit and impersonation, according to many sources.

The stage production was nominated in 2011 for six Drama Desk Awards and four Tony Awards (including Best Musical). It won one of each, for Best Actor in a Musical, recognizing Norbert Leo Butz.

Now the show, created by the same team responsible for “Hairspray,” comes to the Dock Street Theatre, presented by Charleston Stage.

“As soon as it left Broadway, we began inquiring about the rights,” said Julian Wiles, founder and producing artistic director of Charleston Stage. He’d heard the 1950s-style soundtrack, knew about the award nominations and the especially successful touring production. But, of course, it was the fact that Abagnale was now a local that excited Wiles most, he said.

This production will feature a 10-piece live band and a cast of professional and semi-professional actors.

Abagnale really likes the movie, but he likes the musical even more, Wiles said. (Abagnale confirmed this in a recent interview.) “It’s just got a lot of energy to it. It certainly touches, as the movie does, on the angst that he had as well, cut off from family and friends. He left a lot behind.”

“Frank, have you ever heard of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman?” It was Spielberg on the phone, reaching out to Abagnale several years ago. “They called me with an idea for a musical. I tried to think which of my movies might work on the stage.”

The songwriters, friends of the director, didn’t leave Spielberg hanging for long. They wanted to turn the movie “Catch Me If You Can” into a Broadway extravaganza.

“What?!” the famous filmmaker replied. “I definitely don’t see that as a musical.”

So the director of “Jaws,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark,” “Schindler’s List” and “Lincoln” told his friends he’d wait to grant approval until after he’d seen the show.

“Get it ready, then I’ll see if I like it,” he said, according to Abagnale.

In an unusual, and unusually risky, arrangement, the theater team went to work writing and casting and staging and funding a big production, even though they weren’t sure they’d ever be able to sell tickets.

Flash forward to 2011. Abagnale is in New York City on one of his regular business trips when he receives an email from someone involved with the musical. “If you’re in New York City, come see the show.”

It was all put together. Abagnale and his wife, Kelly, went to a designated large rehearsal space to watch. And they loved it.

Good thing, the producers of the show said. Because tomorrow is the big day, the day Spielberg’s people are coming.

Spielberg’s people loved it, too, Abagnale said. “They gave their approval.”

What they were approving was a retelling (the third) of an extraordinary early life experience.

It began with petty deceit. Abagnale at 16 was a distressed kid with a raging libido and a knack for subterfuge. His parents’ divorce was a factor influencing his decision to quit school and run away from home. It would be his first of many escapes.

Alone in New York City, he got a job too low-paying to finance his interest in girls, so he began to draw from the $200 his father had put in a Chase Manhattan Bank account for him. Soon he learned that other places would cash personal checks, too.

Meanwhile, he figured he would alter the year of his birth on his driver’s license card, changing the four to a three. He looked mature for his age, and he reasoned he would have more luck finding a better-paying job if he was thought to be older. Surely no one would question the new fact that he was suddenly 26. No one did.

At a big bank, he tried to cash one of his checks, but the banker refused because Abagnale didn’t maintain an account there. When he noticed a uniformed airline pilot emerge from a hotel one day, and saw how people doted on him, he procured for himself a similar uniform, then returned to the bank. This time he cashed his bad check without a problem, he said.

He had devised no grand scheme. “If I had planned any of this, none of this would have happened,” he said. It was a question of survival at first, and expediency. One thing led to another, and before long he was forging checks and cashing them at multiple banks and hotels. By the time he was caught five years later, he’d stolen more than $2 million.

Impersonating a pilot (he forged a Pan Am employee ID card and FAA pilot’s license), he hitched rides for free, “deadheading” around the globe and enjoying hotel rooms at little or no cost.

After a while, he sensed that his pilot disguise was wearing thin, so he became a doctor, then a lawyer. He actually passed the Bar exam in Louisiana.

But the FBI was closing in.

“I had to be creative to survive,” Abagnale said. “Then people started chasing me. I knew I was going to get caught sooner or later.”

And when it finally happened, in France in 1969, he was relieved. He was wanted in 12 countries, served six months in a French prison, then six months in a Swedish prison before the FBI managed to extradite him to the U.S.

He escaped the clutches of his captors by slipping out of the airplane as it taxied on the runway at JFK International Airport, riding a cab to Grand Central and making it as far as Ontario, Canada, where he was reapprehended.

Awaiting trial at the Federal Detention Center in Atlanta, he escaped once again, with help from a friend. He impersonated a prison inspector and got away and posed as an FBI agent to elude a capture attempt in Washington, D.C. Finally, he was cornered by a couple of NYPD officers.

After spending four of his 12-year sentence in prison, the FBI hired him.

At first, he called upon his personal experiences with complex multicolor printing, forgery, fraud and impersonation to help the FBI crack cases, but little by little, he developed new expertise, becoming an adviser to thousands of financial institutions, security firms and corporations around the world.

With help from writer Stan Redding, Abagnale published his memoir in 1980 and soon sold the movie rights.

More than 20 years later, Spielberg made his film “Catch Me If You Can.” And in 2009, the musical got its first run in Seattle, then moved to Broadway. Abagnale has received no royalties due to restrictions imposed by the FBI, he said. Since his imprisonment, he has made his money legitimately, by advising the federal agency and by developing new security features for paper and electronic financial documents of all kinds.

Abagnale also wrote two more books, “The Art of the Steal” and “The Real U Guide to Identity Theft.” Over the course of three decades, he has worked with 65 percent of America’s Fortune 500 companies. Invited to deliver a talk, sometimes he’ll park, intentionally, in the employee lot and scatter about 50 thumb drives on the pavement. Inevitably, one or two of those devices get plugged into a computer USB port, prompting a message to appear on the screen: “This is a test and you failed.”

It teaches a valuable lesson. Fraud is as inevitable as rain, and there are a limited number of FBI agents and other law enforcement officers to combat it. It’s up to individuals to stay one step ahead, Abagnale said.

“Every breach occurs because somebody did something he wasn’t supposed to do, someone made a mistake.”

Abagnale and his wife have three adult sons — Scott, Chris and Sean — who they raised in Tulsa, Okla., partly to limit public scrutiny and provide a neutral environment for the family, Abagnale said. They have four grandchildren.

He looks back at his teenage years with no profound nostalgia, but with a dose of genuine wonder. “Others ran away,” he pointed out. Others found creative ways to survive. “Because I was an adolescent, I had no fear of being caught.”

And while his youthful exploits still provoke some retrospective amazement, Abagnale is especially proud that his son Scott secured a law degree, then joined the FBI. Scott Abagnale now is a supervisory special agent working with the espionage squad in Baltimore.

“People ask me what’s the most amazing thing that’s happened in my life,” Frank Abagnale said. “That’s it.”

Their middle son owns the clothing store House of Sage on George Street; the youngest son lives in Beijing.

Typically, when Frank Abagnale is traveling on business, he goes unrecognized — until he shows his ID.

“Abagnale, eh?” someone will say. “You know, you got the name of that con man.”

He and his wife relocated to Charleston in 2010, occupying a house on Church Street downtown, but the tourist carriages would stop in front of the house to point out where the famous trickster lived, and that sometimes limited Abagnale’s movements, he said. So they built a house on Daniel Island and moved about a year ago.

He continues to zigzag across the globe, helping companies keep their data and dollars safe.

“I did not make this film about Frank Abagnale because of what he did,” Spielberg once said, ”but because of what he has done with his life the past 30 years.”

About a month ago, Charleston Stage’s Wiles contacted Abagnale to tell him about the new production and invite the security expert to lunch so that he might meet Corbin Williams, the actor cast to play the lead.

The show is tricky: It’s a period piece with lots of scene changes, Wiles said.

“The biggest challenge is that it takes place in a lot of places: L.A., New York, New Orleans, Atlanta. So creating all those scenes very quickly, it’s very cinematic, so that’s a bit of a challenge,” Wiles said.

But he and his colleagues have figured it out, and they’ve benefited, sometimes implicitly, sometimes directly, from the man who inspired it all.

“He’s a great fellow, a great raconteur, he tells great stories,” Wiles said. “He’s been very supportive.”

Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902. Follow him at aparkerwriter.