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World Class Con Man

There are run-of-the-mill con jobs and then there are the world class, solid gold variety. Back in 1972, when 60 Minutes had been on the air for just four years, one of the biggest news stories of the day was the search for the reclusive billionaire Howard Hughes, who several years before had virtually disappeared. Journalists around the world were hunting for him and 60 Minutes was no exception.

60 Minutes Executive Producer Don Hewitt remembers, "You've got to realize Howard Hughes at that time was one of the mysteries of America. Where is Howard Hughes? Howard Hughes, this billionaire, this adventurer, and maybe the most glamorous man in America, and all of sudden he disappeared."

Enter Clifford Irving. Irving claimed that he had written, with the help of the eccentric billionaire, the autobiography of Howard Hughes. McGraw -ill and Life magazine were about to publish it. But there were questions about the book's authenticity. So, Clifford Irving came on 60 Minutes to defend his book.

Irving claimed the book was not a fake. When 60 Minute's Mike Wallace asked Clifford what Hughes looked like, Clifford described Hughes as a man almost six-foot-three inches tall, weighing less than 140 pounds. He claimed that on occasion Hughes wore false beards and mustaches and wigs. He compared Hughes' actions with "Â…a James Bond setup that's out of the worst possible detective novel you could ever read."

Less than two months after the interview, Irving admitted that his book was a hoax. Time magazine dubbed him "Con Man Of the Year." And 60 Minutes too gave him an award worthy of his performance, nominating Irving as "best actor of the year in a starring role."

Irving had to pay back a $765,000 advance to his publisher. He also was convicted of fraud and served 14 months in federal prison.

Now, Mike Wallace has interviewed Irving again.

Wallace: "We meet again. How many years?"

Irving: "27. Long time, Mike."

Wallace said, "You know something, I couldn't figure out for the life of me whether you were telling the truth or notÂ…Aren't you ashamed that you lied to me so blatantly?"

"I was lying to everybody. You were not different from anyone else. I was on a train of lies. I couldn't jump off," said Irving.

During the 1972 interview, Irving told the story about a Richard Suskind who he said was his researcher, "Â…and Hughes said, I suppose you know who I am. Suskind said, yes, I do, Mr. Hughes. He started to stick out his hand, then withdrew it instantly because Hughes is not very keen on shaking hands. Hughes reached into his pocket and pulled out a bag. We still disagree. I say it was a cellophane bag. Suskind says it was a paper bag. And he said to Dick Suskind, 'Have a prune.' And Suskind took a prune and said, 'This is an organic prune, isn't i?' Hughes said, 'Yes, yes. How did you know?' He said, 'This is the only kind I eat, though. All the rest are poison.' And then they were off and running on a discussion of organic foods and vitamins and whatnot, while I stood there like a dummy."

Irving now says he was well-rehearsed, "I had told the story many times before, the prune story--all the stories."

He said he told the stories to McGraw-Hill executives and Time-Life executives, and had taken them in, too.

"I was filled with the success of my fairy tale," said Irving.

Irving explained what it was like to be found out: "It was deflating, shaming. It was awful. And I retreated intoÂ…well, I retreated to federal prison."

Today, at 68, Clifford Irving divides his time between Mexico and New Mexico. He is the author of more than a dozen books--most of them fiction.

Irving said, "They're good books. They've all been published."

All have been published but one. And now, the famed Autobiography of Howard Hughes, the book that almost ended Irving's career, is being sold over the Internet through terrificbooks.com.

Irving said, "I convinced myself that I knew him intimately. You wondered how I could lie so fluently to you. That's because at some level, I believed everything I was telling you. I believed we met. I believed the prune story. I believed I knew his life better than any biographerÂ…because I had imagined it."

Site produced by Dorothy Gannon. Segment produced by Barbara Dury;