WASHINGTON—Charlie Wilson, a Texas congressman known for his foreign exploits, love of beautiful women, fun-loving lifestyle and serious legislating, always seemed to be a creation of Hollywood.
Now, he is.
The former Democratic lawmaker, who retired in 1996, is the main character in "Charlie Wilson's War," a movie starring Oscar winners Tom Hanks as Wilson, Julia Roberts as a connected Houston socialite and Philip Seymour Hoffman as a shadowy CIA agent. The film, directed by Mike Nichols, is nearly wrapped up for release on Christmas Day.
"It's just unworldly," Wilson said of watching Hanks play him.
The movie, based on the 2003 best-selling book by the late CBS "60 Minutes" producer George Crile, details Wilson's exploits supporting the mujahedeen in Afghanistan against the Soviet occupation during the 1980s. Wilson, then in Congress, secretly secured funds to arm the Afghans and, in a move that would have made State Department officials hyperventilate had they known, sneaked across the Pakistani border to deliver arms and fight the Soviets. Once, the man known as "Good-Time Charlie" even took along a girlfriend who was a former Miss World contestant.
Different women in Wilson's world are at center stage in the movie. One is Texas socialite Joanne Herring, played by Roberts, who channeled Wilson's anti-Soviet energy.
But the audacity of Wilson taking his own belly dancer to Egypt to perform for the minister of defense stands out.
That belly dancer, Carol Shannon, beguiled Wilson when he first saw her dance at a Fort Worth, Texas, hotel.
"You don't expect to find really professional belly dancing in Fort Worth," said Wilson, who recalled attending a political function and going to a happy hour where Shannon was entertaining.
Wilson, something of a connoisseur of belly dancing, said, "I was stunned that she was so good." Wilson and Shannon, both divorced, soon started a yearlong romance that took her to Egypt, Israel, Pakistan and the Khyber Pass.
Shannon's dancing in Egypt helped win over the defense minister, who sold Wilson the arms he sought.
But filling Shannon's small but colorful role in the movie has been a problem.
Nichols, according to Wilson and Shannon, wasn't happy with the dancing scenes shot with Prince's ex-wife, Mayte Garcia, as Shannon, so he's looking to re-shoot with another actress.
"That's a big scene in the movie," said Wilson, who visited the movie sets in Morocco and California over the past year. He said the problem has been finding a dancer as "exciting" as Shannon.
"Carol was spectacular," he said.
Latin singing diva Shakira, known for her swiveling hips, was considered but couldn't work it into her schedule, Wilson said. Nichols told Shannon that another prospect is Fergie, the pop star, who has a background as a television and movie actress.
"I told Mike he needs to see me dance," said Shannon, who now works as a flight attendant for Southwest Airlines but still performs occasionally. She and a daughter, Shelley Leo, visited a California set last year and met Hanks and Nichols.
Shannon, 66, hopes to teach her moves to whoever gets the role.
"I would love to be able to work with the woman who is going to play me. I feel every woman has a little belly dancer inside of her," Shannon said during a layover in Tampa, Fla. "It lets you get your free spirit out."
As for Wilson, 73, he and his wife, Barbara, were married in 1999 after Wilson's self-described "longest midlife crisis in history."
On the movie sets, Wilson wasn't a paid consultant and doesn't have a financial piece of the film. But he was given "a chair," as he puts it, and would sometimes interject "when they didn't get something quite right." And "sometimes they appreciated it and sometimes they didn't," he said.
Producer Gary Goetzman said via BlackBerry from another set that "Charlie is the favorite guest at any party he attends."
Wilson and the book's author, Crile, who died last year, sold the movie rights for about $1 million. But Wilson said that after paying taxes and giving a third of the money to rogue CIA agent, Gust Avrakotos, who became Wilson's clandestine ally in arming and financing rebels in Afghanistan, he didn't make much money.
That will change, he predicted.
"After the movie, there'll be a year or two of pretty lucrative speechmaking," said Wilson, who worked as a lobbyist for several years after leaving Congress.
Wilson, a Naval Academy graduate and a fierce anti-communist, has no regrets about his actions supporting the mujahedeen—only that the U.S. abandoned Afghanistan after the Soviets left.
"We should never have left like we did," said Wilson, sitting in the National Press Club's Truman Lounge. "The Taliban doesn't represent the majority of the Afghan people.
"We have a very good chance now to get it done right. We need to have a government that is not a haven for terrorists."
The tall, straight-backed Wilson finally shows signs of aging after years of an image as an almost iconic Marlboro Man. He's enjoying seeing his younger, cowboy boot-wearing self in Hanks, who he thinks has got him down.
"Tom is just a wonderful guy," he said, "completely comfortable and fun to be around."
To some of the people portrayed in the book and movie, the lanky East Texan with the maverick ways is the hero of this real-life story, which helped end the Cold War and reshape the world.
Pakistan's president at the time, Gen. Zia ul-Haq, who allowed CIA-obtained arms to flow secretly through his country during the conflict, once praised Wilson's role in the defeat of the Soviets by saying: "Charlie did it."
A CAST OF CHARACTERS
Elected U.S. representative from Lufkin, Texas, in 1972, retired in 1996 and became a lobbyist; now does public speaking. Made headlines with ethics controversies stemming from his penchant for taking beauty queens on government-paid trips. Used his position on the House Select Committee on Intelligence to authorize hundreds of millions of dollars to help liberate Afghanistan from invading Soviets.
Played by: Tom Hanks
Houston socialite who says she's a descendant of George Washington's sister and had a great-uncle who died at the Alamo. Hosted Houston TV talk show. While married to Houston oilman Bob Herring, was known for lavish entertaining of kings and foreign leaders. A believer in the Afghans' potential to repel the Soviets. Had a romance with Wilson and helped get him committed to the cause.
Played by: Julia Roberts
Rogue CIA agent who became Wilson's clandestine ally in arming and financing rebels in Afghanistan. The son of Greek immigrants and from a steel town in Pennsylvania, he didn't fit in with CIA agents who had more elite roots. Rose in stature in the CIA and was assigned to difficult and sensitive missions. Died in 2005.
Played by: Philip Seymour Hoffman
Fort Worth belly dancer who first caught Wilson's eye in a happy-hour performance. Wound up traveling the world with him and performed for an Egyptian defense minister on a trip that helped secure weapons for the fight against the Soviets. Now has a house in Waco, Texas, and works as Chicago-based flight attendant for Southwest Airlines.
Played by: Mayte Garcia (Scene may be re-shot with another actress)