Barry Seal was a Baton Rouge-born pilot turned drug smuggler turned government informant. He was barrel-chested and brash. He wasn't even six feet tall and weighed 300 pounds.
Basically, Seal looked nothing like Tom Cruise.
Yet, Cruise is playing Seal in the new major motion picture "American Made." Now in theaters, the film takes a lot of creative license with Seal's story. Those who knew and interacted with Seal don't expect anything less.
"I think this movie will be 'Mission: Impossible' with Barry Seal," said television journalist John Camp, who reported extensively on Seal. "I knew when I saw Cruise was playing the role that this would become an adventure movie."
A one-time pilot who ran drugs for a Colombian cartel, Seal was killed in February 1986 outside a Salvation Army halfway house on Airline Highway in Baton Rouge. By the time the Medellín Cartel ordered the hit on Seal, he had turned into a valuable government informant with the power to bring down some of the biggest Colombian drug kingpins.
Camp profiled Seal in 1984 during the television special "Uncle Sam Wants You" for WBRZ-TV. In working on the documentary, Camp said he saw a different side of Seal than others.
"Initially, I thought Seal was a nutcase," Camp said. "He was such a braggart. He went around and told cops who were surveilling him that his good friend John Camp was going to show them a thing or two."
"Sometimes, when you write an investigative type of story, you meet those characters who are like the cowboys. Seal was a similar type of character."
Seal was born in Baton Rouge in 1939. As a teenager, he began flying airplanes.
"In high school, he was a little fat kid who didn't play athletics or anything," Camp said. "Flying airplanes defined him. It made him feel like he was something special."
In 1967, Seal joined Trans World Airlines (TWA) as a flight engineer, then was promoted to command pilot. He was one of the youngest TWA pilots to ever fly a Boeing 707. By the 1970s, Seal started dabbling in illegal activity.
"He got sucked into this sting operation down in Mexico involving explosives," Camp said, noting Seal lost his job shortly after that.
By the mid-’70s, Seal was piloting for the Medellín Cartel, a Colombian cocaine enterprise. He flew shipments of cocaine from South America to the United States, earning as much as $500,000 per flight.
Money, danger, adventure — Seal's life had it all. He made more than $50 million during his drug smuggling days. Overall, he reportedly brought $5 billion worth of drugs into the United States. In between, he spent time in a Honduran prison and had close calls with gangsters.
Prem Burns, the state prosecutor who tried and convicted Seal's murderers, said it was well known that he had a "f*** you" attitude.
"Seal could take a large plane and drop it under the radar in the Gulf where the feds couldn't catch him," Burns said. "He was probably involved in a lot of stuff that we'll never know about."
But Seal's luck would run out. He was indicted in a Florida federal court, tried, convicted and sentenced to 10 years in prison for drug smuggling. After the sentence, Seal and the Drug Enforcement Administration worked out an agreement for him to become an informant, beginning in 1984.
His Louisiana defense attorney, Lewis Unglesby, said Seal had a set of skills the government needed to catch big names in the drug cartel.
"He had all the resources, and he knew how to do all this stuff," Unglesby said. "He was theoretically on probation for a 10-year drug sentence, but he was flying all over the world because the government's letting him."
Not long after the agreement, Louisiana law enforcement officials arrested Seal for carrying a drug shipment into the state. The case was handled in Baton Rouge.
In December 1985, U.S. District Judge Frank Polozola sentenced Seal to live in The Salvation Army halfway house in Baton Rouge. In the probationary period at the halfway house, Seal couldn't have a gun or bodyguards. However, according to Burns, Seal was unwilling to go into a federal witness protection program.
“It was all or nothing,” Burns said. “When people say the government should have done more … you can’t protect someone who doesn’t want to be protected. (Seal’s) philosophy was that nobody would ever come to Baton Rouge, that the Colombians would stick out like sore thumbs here.”
Unglesby called the government's treatment of Seal at that time "a collective failure."
"It was very clear from the powers that supposedly run this country that Seal was in extraordinary grave jeopardy," Unglesby said. "At the same time, they weren't going to do anything about it. Serving as his lawyer was a real test. Going through what I went through with Barry and seeing all the different levels and fabric of the government, it was a real test for my basic Fourth of July idealism."
To get his probationary deal, Seal provided information to help get drug kingpin Jorge Ochoa-Vásquez, who was in Spain, extradited to be tried in the United States.
"Seal could have brought down the biggest cocaine cartel in the world," Camp said.
Unglesby said that after the United States won the right to extradite Ochoa, the contract for assassinating Seal went to “maximum implementation.”
On Feb. 19, 1986, Seal was shot with a Mac 10 machine gun outside his halfway house. One suspect was apprehended while hiding in another halfway house down the road. A second suspect was caught trying to flee when the cab he was in struck a deer in Meridian, Mississippi.
The investigation into the brazen slaying led to a federal indictment against Ochoa, Pablo Escobar and another drug lord, who were accused of conspiring to have Seal killed. Without Seal to testify, Spain would not extradite Ochoa to the United States. Escobar was gunned down by authorities during a manhunt in Colombia, and the other defendant also was shot to death, reportedly as part of a power struggle among cocaine smugglers.
Three Colombian nationals accused of carrying out the order to kill Seal were prosecuted in a high-profile case that started in Baton Rouge, then was moved to Lake Charles, where “black ninja” snipers were placed on the rooftops of adjacent buildings for added security. During the trial, a witness testified that Escobar and another drug trafficker offered $500,000 to have Seal killed and $1 million to have him brought back alive to Colombia.
"My stomach went through my toes when that happened," Camp said of Seal's murder. "My big regret with 'Uncle Sam Wants You' is that I think it certainly contributed to Seal's death, not only with the contract that was put out on him but with Judge Polozola's reaction. Barry's arrogance pissed off Polozola."
Most of these true-life stories won't be included in "American Made." Early reviews have called it a darker "Top Gun"-like movie with Cruise retreating to his iconic Maverick character; only this time, Cruise plays it with a hick accent.
Director Doug Liman was attracted to the film because his father, Arthur Liman, served as chief counsel to the Senate committee investigating the Reagan Administration's Iran-Contra scandal, which Seal was also allegedly involved in.
"It was a story I already knew," the director said in an interview with The Associated Press. "I just didn't know it from the point of the view of the people on the ground doing the mission."
In the interview, Liman said the film is a celebration of America that has more in common with "Risky Business," where Cruise was a high school student who started a brothel, than any other Cruise film.
"We are this land of opportunity and opportunists," Liman said. "And the same drive that Barry had when he's flying these missions for the CIA, which is like, 'I know how to get around law enforcement because the CIA is helping me, but I've got an empty airplane on the way back ...' How is that any different than Henry Ford or Mark Zuckerberg?"
In an interview with People Magazine, Cruise told reporters that he didn't agree with the majority of Seal's actions, "but you can't help but be utterly fascinated by (his life story)."
"Seal reminds me of one of Mark Twain's characters," Cruise added. "It's not every day you get to play a character who is a devoted husband and father and a drug runner, a CIA operative working for the DEA."
Unglesby agrees that Seal was fearless but did terrible things throughout his life.
"When he decided that he wanted to change sides, he worked extremely hard to rectify as many of his sins as he could," Unglesby said. "He was a gregarious character. There isn't another Barry."
"I don't know what's in this movie. I have a feeling that you'll get a story that's kind of true. The people who worked on it have some things to work with, then they expand on it to meet the imagination."
Camp can't imagine the film will be too true, either.
"Cruise playing Barry ... that's like me playing Tom Cruise," Camp said, laughing. "If there is a hereafter, Barry is jumping and dancing with joy that Cruise is playing this part. This is something Barry always wanted — attention."
Physically, Burns said Seal and Cruise aren't alike at all, but she does want to see how the film turns out.
"Seal was a big guy, and he wasn't particularly attractive," she said. "I am anxious to see what they do in the movie. I want to see how much is fact and how much is fiction."
There is one thing Camp said "American Made" did capture. He could tell when he saw the trailer.
"They have Barry's smile down," he said. "They certainly caught that."