Elizabeth Banks, Leonardo DiCaprio, ...
Credit: Catch Me If You Can: Andrew Cooper

Who?s running this tricky, sting-style game of three-card-monte-esque intrigue? Watch the cards closely as we shuffle: All through the 1990s, one studio after another (Disney?s Hollywood, Sony?s TriStar) considered filming the story of con artist Frank Abagnale Jr. While still a teenager in the mid-?60s, Abagnale passed millions in bad checks and impersonated a pilot, a physician, and a professor, among other ruses, before his capture.

Interest in the story heated up after DreamWorks got a script by Nathanson, which sparked DiCaprio?s interest in playing Abagnale. Trade reports posited that Gore Verbinski (”The Mexican”) or David Fincher (”Panic Room”) would direct. Possibly James Gandolfini would costar as a composite character: a bespectacled FBI agent who brings Abagnale to justice.

But watch your bets, folks! DiCaprio?s commitment to ”Gangs of New York” dragged on and on, then the threat of a writers? strike scuttled everything. By May 2001, it was on again, with Lasse Hallström close to signing to direct DiCaprio. But Spielberg, who?d monitored development with his DreamWorks-executive hat on, decided to put his director?s beret on instead. ”I gave no indication I was interested until Lasse Hallström fell out,” says Spielberg. ”He had a contract with Miramax and wasn?t able to get out of it.”

Still undecided, Spielberg took the script with him to his summer home in the Hamptons. His wife, Kate Capshaw, had high school friends visiting from Missouri, and Spielberg pressed their teenage daughters into service, asking them to read the ”Catch Me script” aloud outside ”under an umbrella at a table.” Says Spielberg, ”I wasn?t exactly hearing the performances I was seeking, but the story read so well, I forgot women were reading men?s parts. I called up [producer] Walter Parkes and said, ‘I?ll do it.”’

Meantime, Hanks made his own move to reunite with Spielberg. He read the script, asked if the agent role had been cast yet?it hadn?t?and quickly clinched the part. ”First time I spoke to Leo,” says Hanks, ”I said, ‘I?m sorry — I hope you don?t mind me horning in on your movie. But it?s just so good.”’

THE LOWDOWN The cat-and-mouse game will unfold both on and off screen, as Hanks and DiCaprio compete with themselves (in ”Gangs” and ”Road to Perdition”) and each other for acting honors.

Catch Me if You Can
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