The Studio 'Scam' That Started Steven Spielberg's Film Career

Steven Spielberg's 2002 film "Catch Me If You Can" is based on the true story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. In the film, Abagnale (Leonardo DiCaprio) leaves home as a teenager, following in his father's footsteps as a con man. Many of his crimes involved fraud, but it was his ability to transform himself into someone else that made Abagnale so unique. He impersonated people in professions so specialized no one would have ever dreamed possible that someone was faking it, including a doctor and a pilot. The FBI eventually caught Abagnale and convinced him to help them with their fraud and forgery cases.

"Catch Me If You Can" spent nine years in "developmental hell" before Steven Spielberg was attached to the project. It's ironic that the story of Frank Abagnale might never have been told, at least the way Spielberg brought it to life, had life not imitated art four decades prior. It might surprise most to discover that Spielberg began his film career in a manner that would make Frank Abagnale proud.

He snuck onto a Hollywood studio lot as a teen

Frank Abagnale Jr. pulled off a lot of cons in his career, including as a lawyer, sociology professor, doctor, and pilot. But could he pull off being a filmmaker? In an interview with IGN, Steven Spielberg joked that the con man could have pulled it off if he wanted to. "That's one thing he could do today," Spielberg said while reflecting on his time with the real Frank Abagnale Jr. "He could walk right past the [Universal Studios] guard, convince the guard of anything. And he wanted to."

Long before "Catch Me If You Can" or his blockbusters like "E.T." and "Jurassic Park," Spielberg was just a kid with a film camera who wanted to make movies. He spent much of his youth preparing for a career in the film industry. Spielberg said:

"I was 15, or 16. I was in high school. I was spending a summer in California with my second cousins. And I wanted to be a director really bad. I was making a lot of 8mm home movies, since I was 12, making little dramas and comedies with the neighborhood kids."

But it was a studio tour during that summer in California that changed Spielberg's life forever. It's the summer he became a studio executive ... sort of.

Spielberg's only scam paid off big time

While on a Universal Studios tour, a teenage Steven Spielberg hatched a plan to get back onto the lot, only this time as more than a tourist. The following day Spielberg toured the studio again in a coat and tie, jumping off the bus mid-tour. He was "pulling a Frank Abagnale," something Spielberg called the only scam of his entire life.

After befriending a studio librarian, he got the lay of the land, only to return to the studio even more prepared. Spielberg described the con:

"So the next day, having observed how people dressed in those days, I dressed like them, carried a briefcase, and walked past the same guard, Scotty, who had been there for like a long time, because he's the oldest. He waved me in."

Spielberg found an empty office, put his name on the office directory, and became an unofficial "employee" of the studio. He spent the next three months learning about the film industry by watching the professionals work. And even though the scam never materialized into a job that summer, it certainly made a lasting impression on the teenager. Spielberg would become one of the most recognizable names in Hollywood and one of the filmmakers responsible for the blockbuster era of cinema.

When Spielberg completed his first 35mm short film, "Amblin,'" in 1968, the only studio that offered him a deal? You guessed it: Universal Studios. It is a partnership that still exists today. "Somehow, ironically, or because I don't think it was manifest destiny, I wound up back at the place where I first broke into," Spielberg joked. "I'm still there. All these years later I'm still working at Universal." That's a payoff even Frank Abagnale would be jealous of.