There’s a YouTube video on the Net of the old TV show To Tell The Truth. Very popular in its day, it shows host Joe Garagiolo introducing the Great Imposter. The panel has to correctly select the Great Imposter from a line-up of three guys and two of them are not the real guy so they also are imposters. His deposition: “I Frank William Abagnale am known as the world’s greatest imposter. In the course of my nefarious career I’ve pawned myself as a doctor, a lawyer, a stock broker and the pilot of a major airline. For six years I also cashed $2,5000,000 in bad cheques in 26 countries. Ultimately I was sentenced to 72 years in prison; I served one year in France, one year in Sweden and four years in a federal prison in the United States. Parolled, I now devote my life to the prevention and detection of crime.”
In the spring of 2001 I filled in for the Great Imposter. Five hundred Canadian travel agents attended a conference in Cascais, Portugal and I was one of four speakers booked for the week-long conclave. Frank, who by this point in his life had gone from career criminal to motivational speaker was the keynote. Then there was Robert Sharma (The Monk Who Sold His Ferrari), Elaine Denby listed as a motivator/chiropractor (“get your life together or I’ll manipulate your neck”) and me.
I even brought Frank’s book Catch Me If You Can – The True Story Of A Real Fake for him to sign. Steven Spielberg had directed the movie Catch Me If You Can starring Leonardo DiCaprio and Tom Hanks. The movie grossed $352 million worldwide and it must have killed Frank not to have embezzled that too.
So the night before it all starts we’re all tasting wine in a candlelit cavernous wine cellar up in the mountains of Sintra when the event meeting planner came up to me, white as a ghost.
“Frank Abagnale,” she said breathlessly. The Great Imposter? He’s a ‘no show’.”
“Oh, no,” I said, feeling her pain.
“Now you’re our keynote speaker. You go on tomorrow morning.”
“Oh, no,” I said, feeling my own pain. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll do whatever it takes.” Looking back I realize I was too stupid to say: “How much were you paying Frank?”
Frank had given some lame excuse about being turned back by the airline in Chicago because he tried to use his own Air Mile points to fly to Lisbon.
I suppose if you’ve surgically removed a guy’s spleen while holding a doctor’s operating manual in your other hand, then ripping the heart out of a meeting planner is not such a big deal.
The travel people were noticeably not happy about this and tomorrow morning I could well become their target of disappointment. So I rejigged my speaking notes and led off with a new presentation titled: “Bury Frank.”
So there I was standing in front of 500 disgruntled conference goers substituting for Frank Abagnale who even today remains Number One on the list of the World’s Most Successful Con Men. Honest. Charles Ponzi who invented the “Ponzi scheme’ and was Bernie Madoff’s mentor is number two. (And no, I checked, Benny Hinn didn’t even crack the top ten.)
“Thank you for coming out this morning, I hope you’re not too disappointed that you get to hear me speak and not Mr. Abagnale because frankly I have spent very little of my life in jail.”
A few people found humour in this. My mother would have been very proud.
‘Yes, I’ve lived a very sheltered life. I mean in the 70’s while Frank was screwing over good people like you, I was just trying to pay off my student loan.”
They were coming around, nodding in agreement.
‘And believe me, if I’d have known you could write cheques on other people’s bank accounts, I could have paid those loans off a lot sooner.”
And then we were off to the races.
“Frank claims he couldn’t get on his flight here to Lisbon but really, you would think a guy who impersonated an airline pilot would be able to read a boarding pass.”
“I’m, sure Frank is a great motivator and would have made a fine keynote speaker but the good news is when you shake my hand later, your watch will still be on your wrist.”
“Seriously, I’m sure Frank’s a great guy and it’s a shame that when he goes to Sunday dinner, the in-laws still lock the silver in the trunk of the car.”
Oh yeah, I was relentless … and it worked. All humour needs is a victim and the guy who disappointed 500 people with a lame excuse about his Air Mile points was perfect.
March 28, 2001, the day I threw a phoney airline pilot under the proverbial bus. And believe me, the people at that conference who had come especially to hear Frank speak, they wished it had been a Greyhound instead of a ‘proverbial’ bus.
For comments, ideas and copies of The True Story of Wainfleet, go to www.williamthomas.ca