Catch them if you can: The top five con men in pop-culture history
Americans love a good con-man story. They love hearing about attractive criminals -- the charmingly deceptive leading man or intoxicatingly distracting female -- getting away with it, and the loot that provides them with another kind fantasy in the land of the super-rich.
After a brief delay because of weather, on Wednesday, February 27, the Buell Theatre will host the Denver premiere of the Broadway musical adaptation of Catch Me If You Can , the biography of Frank Abagnale, the teenage con artist who passed himself off to grown adults as a doctor, lawyer, airline pilot and university professor. In honor of this gripping tale of masks, money and mischief, we put together a list of some of the great con stories that have caught the public eye over the last fifty years.
5. Marjoe, the corrupt Robin Hood of evangelists
In the 1970s, before Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell turned evangelism into a billion-dollar empire, the Mick Jagger-esque Marjoe Gortner stood at the crossroads of hippies and Jesus, preaching to tent revivals and black Southern gospel churches, and inspiring hundreds of naive congregations to donate their income to his ministry -- never once suspecting that he was a dope-smoking fraud. Placed on stages across the globe by his opportunistic parents starting when he was four, Marjoe was a star child-preacher throughout his youth, earning his parents millions while enduring constant mental and physical abuse at their hands. After disappearing into the California counter-culture at sixteen, he returned to the preaching circuit years later as an atheist con man, knowing all the tricks of the trade. As an attempt at redemption after years of thieving, he invited a documentary film crew to follow him in 1971, explaining how to rip off old ladies and turn God into big business. The film won the 1972 Academy Award for best documentary.
4. The Grifters
"Never take on a partner" is the first piece of advice young John Cusack learns when he first begins his apprenticeship as a conman. But when you've got a professional hustler for a mother and a seductive girlfriend who's eager to get in on the game, your plans of lone-wolf huckstering begin to get a bit murky. Based on the 1963 pulp novel by Jim Thompson, this at times comedic, though ultimately dark, noir film gave enterprising young thieves a lesson on what happens when the phonies attempt to band together, showing the deceit, betrayal and eventual murder that awaits for men and women living outside the law.
3. James Frey takes his medicine from Oprah
The Oprah Winfrey Show has become both a cathedral-like platform for meteoric celebrity rise and the awkward confessional booth when a few of those celebrities are exposed as frauds and come tumbling back to earth. First hyped through the coveted Oprah's Book Club, Frey's "memoir" A Million Little Pieces, which detailed the horrors of a young addict attempting to get clean, was a smash success that would go on to sell five million copies. After an expose on the The Smoking Gun revealed Frey had exaggerated -- and at times straight-up lied -- about the events of his life in the book, he said he'd written Pieces as a novel, but after numerous rejections, had marketed it as autobiographical. Similar to Lance Armstrong's reluctant confession of steroid use before Oprah last month, Frey returned to the show after his admission of guilt, ready to take his lashings from the queen of American truth.
Continue reading for more famous con artists.
2. Hunter Thompson ducks the massive bills for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas
Hunter Thompson sincerely believed the world owed its artists more than a simple paycheck, so this entry falls into a special category: If you believe what you're doing is just, are you a con man? Either way, Thompson was known throughout his career for gouging publishers with outrageous expense bills and abandoning hotel fees for destruction and Dionysian room-service orders. All this reached its peak during his Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas project. Explaining the necessary high cost of covering the American dream in a letter to his editor, he explained "ordering two servings of 'Crab Louey' in the Flamingo, then sending it back, uneaten, but covered with broken light-bulb glass, with cigarettes put out in the sauce, and maybe a condom full of Coca-Cola on the tray. . . . Renting a Cadillac convertible and then soaking the bastard with the hard-crusted, sun-baked scum of 100 grapefruits and 2 dozen coconuts and 26 pounds of catsup and french fry residue."
When the expenses and hotel bills were denied, he wrote this back to his employer: "Don't blame me when you get castrated leaving the building one of these nights. Rumormongers of your stripe shouldn't be allowed to procreate anyway."
1. Frank Abagnale, the con-man wunderkind
What makes a good con man is the nerve and talent to constantly take it to the next level. Few could pull this off quite like Frank Abagnale, a man (boy, really) who from the age of 16 to 21 impersonated an airline pilot, a lawyer, a doctor and a university professor, cashed $2.5 million in bad checks and escaped from police custody twice. After being caught and surviving a torturous six months in a French prison (as well as less horrendous sentences in other countries), Abagnale reformed and began working for free solving fraud cases for the U.S. government, then opened a firm advising banks on how to spot paper-hangers, earning him millions more than he'd originally stolen. Oh, and he's probably not doing too badly with his autobiography now adapted into a commercially successful film and musical.
Catch Me If You Can was set to start its run tonight, but it's been pushed back to 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, February 27, and will run through March 10 at the Temple Buell Theatre. Tickets are $65 to 90; for more information, visit www.denvercenter.org
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