Car dealer Corky Harmon of Orange laughed when he got a photograph from his congressman nearly 26 years ago. “Hold on to this, it will be worth a lot of money someday,” the letter with the picture said.

And there in the 8 by 10-inch glossy is Harmon and U.S. Rep. Charles Wilson. Harmon took the comment as a joke. Now, it’s not a joke. No one dreamed Wilson would become internationally famous and portrayed in a movie by Tom Hanks.

Harmon and others in Orange County who knew Wilson through his 24 years of representing Texas Second Congressional District, including Orange, have enjoyed watching the movie “Charlie Wilson’s War.”

“I though (the movie) was great,” said Betty Harmon, wife of Corky and the longtime president of the Greater Orange Area Chamber of Commerce.

Lawyer Lynwood Sanders, Orange County campaign manager for Wilson during his 12 elections for Congress, also enjoyed the movie.

The movie also stars Julia Roberts and Phillip Seymour Hoffman, and was directed by Mike Nichols. The screenplay, from George Crile’s book with the same title, was written by Aaron Sorkin, creator of “The West Wing” television series. The book and movie are about Wilson as a drinking, playboy Congressman who, with a rogue CIA agent, pushed the funding of a covert war to run the Soviet Union out of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

The interest in the movie has also spawned a two-hour documentary on The History Channel, “The True Story of Charlie Wilson’s War.”

“As incredible as anything in the pages of Tom Clancy or John le Carré, this is a gripping story of international intrigue, booze, drugs, sex, high society and arms deals. It is the true story of Texas congressman Charlie Wilson’s and CIA operative Gust Avrakotos’s covert dealings in Afghanistan, and how they armed the Afghan Mujahideen in what became the CIA’s largest and most successful campaign in history. Their goal was to turn Afghanistan into the Soviet Union’s Vietnam. The effort would blow back to haunt America into the next century,” reads The History Channel’s description of the special, which aired several times last month.

The History Channel show includes information about beauty queen and Playboy magazine cover girl Liz Wickersham, who was born and raised in Orange. A story of her and Wilson begins Chapter 1 of the book, but she was left out of the movie.
The documentary also shows photographs of a woman said to be Wickersham, but people in Orange who know her realized the pictures were of someone else. Sorkin, interviewed for the documentary, talks about how smart Wickersham was when she appeared before a grand jury in the mid-1980s investigating allegations of Wilson using drugs.

Also in the documentary, a political featuring Donna Peterson of Orange was used. Peterson ran as a Republican against Wilson in 1990 and 1992.
At this time, the documentary is not scheduled again for The History Channel, but a DVD of it can be bought for $14.96.

The Tom Hanks movie is continuing to show at theaters in Beaumont and Port Arthur and is surprising box office predictors with its draw.

Sanders said he is surprised that Wilson, who he has known since the mid-1960s, has become so famous. But he has always know Wilson had a special charm.

Payton Walters was Wilson’s main liaison in East Texas for years. When Walters and Wilson visited Orange, they always stopped by Sanders’ law office. Sanders recalls Walters once talking about visiting Wilson in Washington, D.C.
“You wouldn’t believe it. Everywhere he walked, the grass died,” Sanders quoted Walters as saying.

“That’s the kind of aura Charlie had,” Sanders said.

One of Sanders’ favorite photographs of Wilson is when the tall, thin Congressman rode “Old Democrat” the jackass in downtown Orange during a Fourth of July parade. Wilson’s feet almost touched the ground as he rode the donkey.
Sanders liked Hanks’ portrayal of Wilson. “He even looked like Charlie. He even dressed like Charlie,” he said about Hanks.

When Wilson visited Sanders, he liked to sip Chivas Regal or a single malt scotch. Wilson also liked to eat at Esther’s Seafood by the Rainbow Bridge. Sanders said they would eat downstairs, away from the crowds, to talk politics.

“We’ve had some good times,” he said about Wilson.

Betty Harmon said Wilson had the reputation for partying, but he worked hard to support Orange County and his district.

“He was Charlie and he didn’t make any apologies for being Charlie,” she said.
She credits Wilson for working more than 20 years to get money to build the Texas 87 overpass across the railroad tracks. After seeing the movie, “now I understand why it took us 27 years to get the overpass,” she joked.

She also said Wilson revived the local shipbuilding industry by getting defense contracts for Orange Shipbuilding.

“He was a dedicated man in whatever he did,” Harmon said.