“He is the most interesting man in the world.” So declared the classic Dos Equis commercials, amusingly showing its carefree guy diving off cliffs, confronting bears, arm-wrestling Latin American tinhorn dictators, charming the ladies (always more than one at once), laughing it up with Buddhist monks.
Cool as he was, the Dos Equis dude was fictional. I actually knew the most interesting man in the world — a non-fictional, real guy. He was Charlie Wiley, a contributor to these pages. He died last week at age 95. And though I don’t have a photo of Charlie grinning with two Buddhist monks, I do have a photo of him grinning with what appears to be a dead ringer for Osama bin Laden.
Yes, Osama bin Laden. The evil one himself. And yet, there he was, in the only photo I’ve ever seen where he (or what seems to be him) is smiling. Charlie could make anyone smile. How did Charlie bump into Osama? Charlie was in Afghanistan in the 1980s helping the Mujahedin fight the Evil Empire — i.e., the USSR.
“I had that one photo taken, had my wife Alice put it up when I got home, and then never looked at the damned thing again for I swear 20 years,” Charlie told me. “You know how you hang up something and then ignore it forever, walking by it every damned day? Well, one day, after 9/11 obviously, a visiting friend walks through our hall, looks at the photo, and nearly has a heart attack. He gasps, ‘Oh, my God, Charlie — it’s you and Osama bin Laden!’ I looked at it and said, ‘I’ll be damned.’” Charlie hastened to add: “Obviously, the guy was an evil son of a bitch, but on that occasion, he was perfectly nice and very friendly. What can I say?”
Charlie Wiley could make even a dastardly creature like the awful Osama smile. Forgot the Dos Equis guy; it was Charlie that you wanted to have a beer with, whether in Pakistan or Peoria.
That memento from Charlie’s tour of duty with the Muj fighting the Sovs in the hills outside Kabul was one of countless wild encounters he had throughout the Cold War. “I started fighting the communists immediately after I returned from Okinawa in World War II and then never stopped until the Berlin Wall came down,” he told my students at Grove City College during one of his nearly 20 visits to our campus, brought in faithfully every spring by our mutual good friend Dr. David Ayers.
Charlie’s scrapes with the commies included infiltrating their ridiculous World Youth Festivals in the 1950s and 1960s, where he went to toe to toe with them from Vienna to Helsinki. He and his pal Herb Romerstein had been confronting communists since their days together on the streets of New York in the 1940s, earning Charlie commendations from the likes of Presidents Nixon and Reagan. They especially appreciated his heroic work honoring Vietnam vets.
Charlie’s most sensational battle with communists was an international incident with Fidel Castro in July-August 1960 when as a reporter for New York’s WOR radio station he was held for eight days in Havana by the Castro regime’s military intelligence. A former childhood actor, Charlie during his interrogation fell into the role of Clark Gable in Comrade X, telling his persecutors, “I’ll tell you what I’m going to do … I’ll starve right here in your G*damned prison until the U.S. Marines are forced to come in and free me and kill every one of you.” Castro’s goons let Charlie free. Or, as the New York Times put it, “He was just plain kicked out.”
Charlie became a prominent voice in conservative media, especially through Reed Irvine’s Accuracy in Media, which sponsored him for nearly 50 years as a speaker around the country, on campuses, and on radio and television. He publicly debated everyone from Alger Hiss to Abbie Hoffman. He cut loose on CNN’s Crossfire, in the pages of National Review, and here at The American Spectator. He spoke hundreds of times per year to audiences around the country for decades. His stamina was amazing.
Charlie seemed to know everyone, whether performing at USO Tours with Bob Hope or engaging the brooding KGB head Vladimir Semichastny. The familiarity with celebrity started for him as a childhood actor. He was in the original 1930s Broadcast cast of Our Town, playing the role of Wally Webb, where he forever thereafter boasted that the three lovely leading ladies who played his sister Emily in the play — Teresa Wright, Dorothy McGuire, and Martha Scott — all became Hollywood stars.
Related to the stardom, I often asked Charlie the typical questions, whether he met this or that famous figure. Once I asked him about Humphrey Bogart and the communist movement, given that I had long profile of Bogey’s bad left-wing politics in my 2010 book, Dupes, including whether Bogart had been a communist at one point in the 1930s. Charlie laughed and said, “You’re going to think I’m bullsh**ting you, but I actually knew Bogart. I used to hang with him backstage when he dated one of the girls I did a production with.”
That was no B.S., and I didn’t expect that it was, knowing I was speaking to the real Most Interesting Man in the World. It had been 1934 when Charlie the precocious kid was rehearsing the 1935 award-winning, stage hit Old Maid. The female lead in that play was Bogey’s ex-wife, Helen Menken. Yep, Charlie was there.
Charlie did it all. He could’ve gone to Hollywood and made a million, but instead he went to war — trying to get in the day after Pearl Harbor, until the recruiter figured out he was only 15 years old. But he eventually got to the Pacific. When he came home, he took on the next enemy: Soviet communism. The Cold War became his ultimate call.
From my vantage, Charlie was at his best when talking to students and my own kids, or really, to anyone young. Young people were enthralled by him, riveted by his tremendous storytelling abilities, informing them, entertaining them, and having them laughing out loud at the kind of grandfather everyone wanted. The persona grew as he grew older and they grew younger. During his last few trips to Grove City College, he wore an eyepatch due to one eye having gone “damned near completely blind.” It merely enhanced the persona. Inevitably as he gabbed on, a listener would turn to me and whisper, “Where in the world did you find this guy?”
Our most unforgettable moments with him were the annual dinners that he and Dave Ayers and two or three very fortunate invited others had the pleasure of sharing every spring when he came to Grove City. We always closed down the place, never tiring of hearing Charlie reminisce and share his hard-won wisdom. When the evening was over, I found myself shaking my head on my way back to the car, muttering: “What an amazing life, the guy should write a book, someone should write a book, how do you retell this life and these stories, how, how, how?”
Well, you don’t. It’s impossible to adequately capture. It’s also impossible to convey his inspiring confidence and courage and attitude. He was a cheerful warrior. Dave Ayers and I sometimes say to one another when in a bind, “What would Charlie do?” He would fight back, smartly, prudently, but with humor, with panache. But he would fight back.
I always knew that someday I would be writing a tribute at his death, and so regretted the impossible task.
The last time that I talked to Charlie was a drive to Alexandria, Virginia, to visit The American Spectator in October. He was hoping to place a piece on the subject of the World Series, remembering his days as a kid in New York attending Giants and Brooklyn Dodgers games. I dictated to him the name of our fabulous Ellie Gardey. He emailed his article to her. He was thrilled that she liked it. At the spry age of 95, Charlie Wiley felt he had found a new home, a new outlet for his pieces about the good old days. He quickly published three pieces after that, including his Pearl Harbor remembrance, and he had more to come. He was grateful to Ellie and the Spectator. He would have kept sending them, but alas, all good things eventually come to an end.
Still incredibly sharp of mind, his 90-something frame was inevitably slowing. “How are you feeling, Charlie?” I would ask him by phone. “Well, hell,” he would respond, “I’m doing pretty good for a guy who’s 90-something years old, I guess.”
Charlie often wondered how much longer he had in this world. Dave Ayers and I were hoping to bring him back to Grove City College just once more. COVID derailed those plans, but I swear, we were game for trying again if Charlie felt up to it. Yep, age 96, bring it on. Charlie would have. Unfortunately, it was not meant to be.
Last Thursday evening, I received from Dave Ayers the email I long dreaded, informing me that our old buddy passed away. Charlie died in his sleep, a peaceful death that he richly deserved. Now he entertains the angels. They’re smiling and laughing. He will be missed. But as to the life he lived, Charlie Wiley missed nothing.