White Collar: Is the Show Inspired by a Real Con Artist?

Jeff Eastin’s brainchild ‘White Collar’ is like the swanky cocktail of crime drama show with a dash of comedy, garnished with charismatic characters and mind-bending heists. Starring Matt Bomer and Tim DeKay in the lead, it follows the adventures of FBI agent Peter Burke (Tim DeKay) and beguiling con artist Neal Caffrey (Matt Bomer). While in jail, Neal makes a deal to serve as an advisor for the FBI’s White Collar Crime Division after being captured by Peter. Together, they investigate and solve a wide range of complicated financial offenses and art thefts as Neal investigates his murky past for answers.

‘White Collar’ has garnered accolades for its razor-sharp writing, led by charismatic protagonists, and the magnetic dance between Neal and Peter. Matt Bomer’s rendition of Neal Caffrey, dripping with charm and charisma, stands as a tour de force performance. Likewise, Tim DeKay injects his character, Peter Burke, with an uncompromising moral compass that anchors the series. If the show’s depiction of financial crime and the FBI’s White Collar Division makes you wonder if ‘White Collar’ is rooted in a true story, let us lay down the facts.

White Collar Loosely Based on Con-Artist Frank Abagnale Jr.

‘White Collar’ is not based on a true story. This highly successful series springs from the imaginative mind of Jeff Eastin, who has also earned critical acclaim for another hit series, ‘Graceland.’ Jeff Eastin also served as the show’s executive producer alongside Jeff King, Mark Goffman, and Nick Thiel. Even though any true event does not directly inspire the series, the show’s protagonist, Neal Caffrey, is loosely based on a real-life character, Frank Abagnale Jr., a real-life Houdini of con artists and check forgers. After his time in the slammer, he transformed into a security expert and guest lecturer.     

Hollywood even gave his life story the silver screen treatment in the 2002 movie, ‘Catch Me If You Can,’ directed by Steven Spielberg, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. When asked about the motivations behind creating the show, Jeff Eastin revealed during an interview that before the writer’s strike hit, he had just wrapped up his work on a show called ‘Hawaii,’ which unfortunately met the NBC chopping block after a nearly full season run. After that, he started working on ‘Redemption,’ a show inspired by the gritty world of ‘The Shield.’

It revolved around a character bearing an uncanny resemblance to the morally ambiguous Vic Mackey, a cop clouded by accusations of offing his partner, only to find himself behind bars. Later, the District Attorney grants him a temporary get-out-of-jail card to help crack a particularly knotty case, complete with a tracking anklet and a partnership with a detective. Jeff was smitten with this idea, but alas, he had to put it on the back burner when he stumbled upon similarities with another show in the works.

Jeff continues, “When Burn Notice came out, Matt Nix was looking for a second in command, and he had read a script of mine, so we had a sit-down and talked, and he seriously considered whether I was going to come on and be his second in command for Burn Notice. It didn’t work out. Nix decided to go a different way, but we’re still really good friends. But, within that meeting, USA had asked me, “Hey, do you have anything?” and I actually pulled out the Redemption idea that I had and said, “What if we run that through the USA Network blue sky filter?” and that’s what I did. So, my dirty cop, who may have killed his partner, became Neal Caffrey, a charming con man. And, the detective whose custody he’s released into became Peter. That was really the origin of the project.”

Jeff also revealed his biggest challenge while working on the ‘White Collar.’ Jeff stated, “The biggest challenge was probably finding that chemistry and making it right. After that, the other challenges have been on a smaller scale, but they’re there. There was a big debate for a long time about whether we were going to go to Toronto. The original script was set in San Diego, and it’s hard for me now to imagine the show out of New York. There were debates that raged for months about where the show would be shot, and finally, at the end of the day, we settled on New York.

He added, “Things like that were huge challenges. In terms of the structure of the show, that really wasn’t too bad. Once we pushed it in the pilot, we realized how important the relationship between Neal and Peter is and found that counterpart in real life with Tim and Matt. That’s been fairly easy.” ‘White Collar’ cultivated an ardent and devoted fan following throughout its six-season journey. The audience became utterly engrossed in the series, yearning to savor every morsel of Neal and Peter’s captivating bromance, seasoned with the thrill of chasing down elusive criminals. Much of the show’s essence revolves around the cat-and-mouse chase between Peter and Neal.

Neal, armed with his razor-sharp wit, undeniable charm, and a wealth of criminal expertise, perpetually dances one step ahead of Peter’s relentless pursuit. Things change, and Peter extends a one-of-a-kind proposition to Neal: an opportunity to become a consultant to the FBI. In this role, Neal can employ his criminal acumen to help crack the uncrackable cases of white-collar crime. In return, he receives a taste of freedom, avoiding the cold steel bars of a prison cell. This unique partnership between Peter and Neal forms the bedrock of the show and the reason for its success. 

While talking about each other roles in the movie, Tim Dekay (Peter Burke) commented, “Neal is the smartest individual Peter has met, and he’s one of the most devoted. Peter sees something in Neal that he respects and adores, for lack of a better word. He sees a strong devotion in Neal.” On the flip side, Matt Bomer (Neil Caffrey) stated, “Neal would say that Peter is incredibly intelligent, dedicated, devoted, a family man. He has the white picket fence existence that Neal completely admires and respects and wishes that he could have but doesn’t really, ultimately, believe that he can. And he’s funny and puts up with Neal’s bull.” 

Beyond the dynamic duo of Peter and Neal, ‘White Collar’ boasts another unforgettable gem in the form of Mozzie. Mozzie (Willie Garson) stands as the show’s delightful wellspring of comic relief. With his arsenal of clever one-liners, conspiracy theories, and eccentric insights, Mozzie masterfully sprinkles humor, even in the most hair-raising scenarios. His offbeat charm adds levity to the show’s intense moments, making him a cherished contributor to the series’ cast. Tim DeKay, when asked about Mozzie, said that despite the confrontational nature of their contacts, Peter nevertheless thanks Mozzie for his help. 

Despite Mozzie’s paranoia, Peter always puts his confidence in him. Their peaceable partnership allows them a lot of leeway. Tim continued, “I just love the relationship of Peter and Mozzie. He’s this nuisance, but we need him every so often, and he’s good to go to. He’s also one of those guys who goes above and beyond every so often, and Peter hates to say it, but he says thank you to him. Even though Mozzie is a conspiracy theorist, and there is a combative element between Mozzie and Peter, Peter would not trust him. There isn’t that element of violence, and because that element is not there, it gives that relationship great flexibility.”

He added, “Peter’s never worrying, ‘Oh, Mozzie might draw a gun on somebody.” That’s just not there. And because of that, you’ve got much more leeway in the relationship.'” In light of the points discussed above, it’s clear that ‘White Collar’ is a work of fiction and not based on a true story. Nevertheless, its main character does take some inspiration from the real-life con artist turned security expert, Frank Abagnale. The show offers a buffet of cases, from art thefts in high society to financial scams. Neal’s heists, though, are the real showstoppers, adding a thrilling twist to each episode.

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