In 2006, the film director Mike Nichols hired me to be the Afghanistan consultant on the movie he was about to make called "Charlie Wilson's War," based on the book of the same title by former “60 Minutes” producer George Crile. It is the story of Texas Congressman Charlie Wilson, a conservative Democrat, womanizer and alcoholic who was chairman of a House Subcommittee on Appropriations. The book also details his relationship with a renegade CIA agent named Gust Avrakotos, who teamed up, according to Crile, in the 1980s to supply secretly millions of dollars of weapons to the Mujahedeen, the Afghans then fighting the Soviet Union in what became the Afghan Soviet War.
It was called the largest covert operation in CIA history. The Taliban today are in many ways the sons and grandsons of the Mujahedeen. I had covered the Afghan-Soviet war as a young newspaper reporter living in Afghanistan.
The movie starred Tom Hanks, who played Congressman Wilson, Julia Roberts, who played Joanne Herring, a Texas socialite, political activist, business woman and former talk show host, with whom he was involved, and the man who played Avrakotos was Philip Seymour Hoffman, who passed away Sunday at the age of 46.
In June, I went out to Hollywood to work on the movie. One day I was asked to go to the costume department, in a different part of the city, to teach Hoffman how to tie a turban. He rushed into the room, a somewhat chubby, energetic, blond-haired man in his late 30s, sweating slightly, in jeans, and wearing a large, bright Hawaiian shirt, smiling and carrying a paperback copy of Charlie Wilson's War.
"You're a journalist, right?" he asked smiling and we shook hands. I said yes and we sat down and talked about the book, and Avrakotos. He leaned forward listening intently, nodding, anxious to learn and know about Afghanistan. I showed him how to tie a turban, and he paid close attention. It was a warm, friendly, sunny time.
Five months later we were in the Atlas Mountains, which were a substitute in the film for Afghanistan, south of Marrakech in Morocco. There was an Afghan refugee camp, hundreds of extras playing Afghans, camels, cameras and crew around. They were shooting a scene where Hanks and Roberts were talking to one another. I was standing a few feet away and I watched Hoffman, his hair dyed black and combed back, with a thick dark moustache, wearing a dark leather jacket, still pudgy, walk up to them, stop and slowly turn his head. He was standing right next to me. I felt darkness all around me something sinister and dangerous about the man next to me. "This is a real actor," I said to myself.