Pity the fool who tries to swipe Mr. T's beautiful jewelry, but Bill Mason -- one of the most successful cat burglars of all time and author of Confessions of a Master Jewel Thief (Villard, $24.95) -- would've pulled off the job in the '80s if it wasn't for his wife. ''I was gonna get him in a motel, wait till he was asleep and walk off with the stuff,'' says Mason, 63. ''But Francine figured out what I was up to and told me I was crazy, so I stopped.''
Other near-miss targets in his 30-year career in crime include Bob Hope, Margaux Hemingway, and Elizabeth Taylor. But he successfully robbed an unlucky Phyllis Diller (twice!), stole -- and returned -- a Johnny Weissmuller Olympic gold medal (''the guy worked so hard for it, and I felt bad''), and snatched Robert Goulet's Seiko (Mason wore it for over 30 years until he lost it in a rafting spill last year).
Despite countless heists and five years on the run, Mason only served about three years in jail. He can tell all now because -- score! -- the statute of limitations on his last job has expired. Yes, he is retired. ''I don't think about it too much,'' says Mason, now living in Manhattan. ''Once in a while, I walk down Madison Avenue, see a jewelry store with $30 million in the front window, and I think, 'There's gotta be a way to do this,''' he admits. ''But I guess I'll always think like that.''