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Four lawyers claim 'A Few Good Men' hero based on them

By William Glaberson

New York Times News Service

Published: Thursday, Sept. 15 2011 10:03 p.m. MDT

In the movies, there have been quite a few handsome and noble defense lawyers. And one of the best known in recent memory may be the military lawyer played by Tom Cruise in "A Few Good Men," the 1992 courtroom drama about a hazing gone awry at the Guantanamo naval base in Cuba.

So it has been quite a distinction for a Connecticut lawyer named Walter C. Bansley III to claim — with some basis — that he "was the actual military lawyer played by Tom Cruise," as he did on his website (until he was asked about it this week).

Hollywood's true-ish stories have a way of bringing out those claiming to be inspiration, especially when there are well-fitting uniforms involved. "A Few Good Men," written by Aaron Sorkin, has fostered a particularly stubborn if little-noticed puzzle among a handful of lawyers over who inspired the main character, named Lt. Daniel Kaffee, who challenged Col. Nathan R. Jessep, played by Jack Nicholson, with his oft-quoted "I want the truth" demand.

In all, four former military lawyers around the country have said Cruise was playing a character based entirely or partly on them. Beside Bansley, three others say the character was a composite constructed from the work of those three. They can be far from humble about this.

"My opinion is that the Tom Cruise character is largely based on me," said one of the three, Chris Johnson, who practices in California.

Now, after being asked about the lawyers in question, Sorkin has finally revealed the answer.

But first, some background.

Sorkin got the idea for the play and movie from his sister, a young military lawyer in the 1980s who represented a Marine in a court-martial at Guantanamo over a hazing incident, he has said in interviews.

Each of the four men who believe Tom Cruise brought them to life on film played a role in that case. (The script calls the Cruise character "almost impossible not to like.") Ten Marines faced assault charges, and each had a military lawyer.

Several of the lawyers had good hair, including David C. Iglesias, a Navy lawyer at the time. He later became nationally known as the U.S. attorney in New Mexico who said he was fired for political reasons along with six other U.S. attorneys in 2006 by the administration of President George W. Bush.

Seven of the 10 Marines originally charged did not go to trial, including Sorkin's sister's client. But Iglesias, Johnson and Donald Marcari, a Virginia lawyer, represented three Marines who claimed in trials that the hazing had been indirectly ordered by officers.

"The Cruise character is a composite of the three of us," Iglesias said in an interview. His version, simplified by various interviewers, has appeared several times before. A Washington Post article in 2007 said that the "strong-jawed" Iglesias was "said" to have inspired the "dreamy" Kaffee.

Simplification played out elsewhere as well. Marcari declared on his Virginia-North Carolina law firm's website that "his exploits as a young defense attorney with the U.S. Navy Judge Advocate General's Corps became the basis for the motion picture 'A Few Good Men.'"

"It's been great for my career," he said in an interview.

The four men recently described how they became convinced that the Kaffee character was based at least in part on them. None said he had ever spoken with Sorkin. Johnson mentioned that he used to wear mismatched socks and noted that the movie hints Kaffee did, too. Marcari said he noticed that Kaffee played softball and he did, too, when he was in the military.

In Connecticut, Bansley recalled that he had been a senior Marine lawyer and had reviewed the charges in a hearing in the real case. Later, he represented one of the officers whom the young Marines blamed for indirectly ordering the hazing.

Bansley said that when the movie was being made he was called by studio people and reviewed scripts. He said he was told by a producer that the movie "was about me."

He noted that news organizations had described him as the inspiration for the Tom Cruise character. The New York Times, in an article in the Connecticut section in 1992, said flatly, "The actor Tom Cruise is playing Major Bansley in the film."

The conflicting accounts began to attract attention recently because Bansley has a role in a highly publicized Connecticut triple-murder trial beginning Monday. The case, the second death-penalty trial stemming from the home-invasion murders of a woman and her two daughters in Cheshire in 2007, has drawn such intense attention that many of the legal players have found themselves in an unusual spotlight. Bansley is one of the lawyers on the defense team of a burglar with a troubled past named Joshua Komisarjevsky.

A few months ago, a Connecticut defense lawyer and blogger named Norman Pattis did an Internet search on "A Few Good Men." He had heard for years, he said recently, that Bansley was the real Kaffee. "I saw there was another guy claiming he was Tom Cruise," he said. "And then another. That was jaw-dropping to me."

He wrote a blog post: "Will the Real Tom Cruise Please Rise?" One thing led to another. Some Connecticut lawyers started to talk.

Bansley was asked about the other lawyers' claims in recent days. "If they want to say that," he said, "they probably have as good a claim as I do." His law office changed its website. It now says he "is reported to be the actual military lawyer portrayed by actor Tom Cruise."

Sorkin would not agree to an interview. His spokeswoman, Joy Fehily, did, however, relay his response in an email. She said he had never before answered questions about who inspired the Tom Cruise character.

His reply was blunt:

"The character of Dan Kaffee in 'A Few Good Men' is entirely fictional and was not inspired by any particular individual."

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