"The Great Imposter" is one of the most unusual stories ever put on film. Based on a 1959 book by the same title, it's a true story about a man of many identities and many professions. Ferdinand Waldo Demara Jr. lived from 1921 to 1982. From the time he was a teenager, he lived the lives of some 30 different people. Most of them were "borrowed" IDs from real persons living. And, in most cases, he assumed their careers or credentials which enabled him to pursue another career.
This movie is a fictionalized account of Demara's many IDs and positions before he was 38 years old. Tony Curtis gives a good performance of Demara, who was a physically large man. But Curtis portrays well the character of Demara who was an extrovert with a very upbeat personality. The movie shows many of the real escapades that Demara had -- all that are shown here actually happened. And, there were many more.
This movie is billed as a comedy and drama, but it also ranks as an adventure and maybe even a mystery of sorts. It's not a crime story, but lingers around the edge. Demara is close to a con man, yet he doesn't do anything to rob, steal or gain money from someone else. He doesn't really have victims, but his guises are a type of caper in which he fools an entity or institution in order to get a position.
With all of this, I think Demara's story itself, and this film, also are something of a satire. They get in jabs at the government, education system, institutions and various professions where they build on credentials. Here was a man who had the Ph.Ds. and accolades behind his assumed names, but who hadn't earned those honors and yet could do the job or hold down the position, whatever it was.
This is a fine film and one that everyone should enjoy. The full story about Demara makes great reading. For those who would like just a condensed version of more of his background, I provide the following.
Demara did spend 18 months in a U.S. Navy disciplinary barracks for desertion, but otherwise never was tried or convicted of any crime or wrongdoing. That probably was due to the nature of his forged or faked IDs. He never took on a new position for money, or stole or robbed from anyone. He lived on the money he was paid for the various jobs he had under the various IDs. In several of his assumed IDs, he made significant contributions.
But how could he take on so many diverse careers successfully? He had a photographic memory and could quickly read and easily memorize textbooks. He supposedly had an exceptionally high IQ. Asked later in life why he didn't just use his skills to advance as himself, Demara said that he was just being a rascal. He left school and ran away because it was too slow. He liked the adventure and challenge of each new thing. He was interested in many things. None of it ever was harmful. Much of it was in helpful and in humanitarian fields.
Among the many careers or positions he worked in, most under his fake (assumed) IDs, were several in the medical field, education, and social welfare. Before his Canadian Royal Navy service as a surgeon, he was trained as a Navy corpsman (medic), was a sanitarium orderly, and a psychologist. He was an elementary school teacher, taught at two different colleges, and founded a college that today is Walsh University in Canton, Ohio. He entered and tried Catholic religious orders, including time as a Trappist monk, a Benedictine monk, and a member of the Christian Brothers that run schools.
Demara worked as a counsellor at the Union Rescue Mission in downtown Los Angeles. He received a graduate certificate from Multnomah School of the Bible in Portland, Oregon and for a time was pastor of a Baptist parish in that state. In his last years, he was a visiting chaplain at Good Samaritan Hospital of Orange County in Anaheim California. He befriended many people over his life, including the owners of the hospital. He was allowed to live there and died of heart failure due to diabetes.
Demara served as a prison deputy warden, as a sheriff's deputy, and as a lawyer. Other guises and jobs he had were as a civil engineer, an editor, a cancer researcher and a childcare expert. His is almost a fairy tale story of many escapades.
It's only natural to compare this story and film with that of Frank Abagnale Jr., and the 2002 movie, "Catch Me if You Can." But there is a big difference between the two characters. Abagnale was a true con artist who set out to make millions of dollars, by dishonest means. Demara was a genius who wasn't driven for money but by curiosity, many interests and a sense of adventure that led him to try many fields. As I noted, he was on the edge but he never pursued a scam operation to cheat or steal from, or hurt anyone else.
I don't understand why one might see this film as a bad influence for children. With proper discussion, one can point out the good things Demara tried to do. And then tell children they should try them the right way. Or, does anyone think that there are thousands, hundreds or even dozens of such genius personalities and with such abilities among the young today? If there have been up to the late 20-teens, they haven't gotten very far. Or, there surely would be more than one such story.
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