February 10, 2010 / 11:06 PM / 10 years ago

Charlie Wilson, lawmaker of movie fame, dies at 76

HOUSTON (Reuters) - Former U.S. Representative Charlie Wilson, the swashbuckling Texan chronicled in film for helping secure billions of dollars to fund covert U.S. operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, died on Wednesday of cardiac arrest. He was 76.

Wilson, a Democrat, was portrayed in the 2007 movie “Charlie Wilson’s War” by actor Tom Hanks as a boozy womanizer who found his life’s cause in helping mujahedeen freedom fighters in Afghanistan fight and eventually repel occupying Soviet forces.

On a less flattering side, the movie opens with Wilson in a hot tub in a Las Vegas hotel, flanked by two strippers who are high on cocaine. The U.S. Justice Department in 1980 investigated Wilson for possible drug use, but the probe came up empty.

Wilson served 12 consecutive terms in the House of Representatives, and was known as the “Liberal from Lufkin,” the town in mostly conservative east Texas where he lived.

He had complained of chest pains on Wednesday and was pronounced dead when he arrived at Memorial Health System of East Texas in Lufkin, the hospital said in a statement.

As a long-time member of the House Appropriations Committee, Wilson quietly helped steer billions of dollars to the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency, which distributed the funds to buy Afghan fighters high-tech weapons like Stinger missiles used to shoot down Soviet helicopter gunships.

“I just saw the opportunity to grab the sons o’bitches by the throat,” the fiercely anti-communist Wilson told the Dallas Morning News in a 2007 interview.

After the Soviet withdrawal, Wilson expressed reservations about U.S. lawmakers’ decisions to cut funds to Afghanistan, blamed for creating a void that led to the rising influence of Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, the Islamic militant group accused of the September 11, 2001, terror attacks.

Reporting by Chris Baltimore, editing by Vicki Allen

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