By KAREN GARDNER
The Frederick News-Post
KNOXVILLE, Md. - When the CIA needed a cover story to extract six Americans from Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, Tony Mendez devised a scheme that involved a crew scouting for a movie called "Argo." The guise extended to advertisements for the fake production.
"Argo" is back. This time it's a real Hollywood production that reveals Mendez's role in the secret operation.
Today, the Mendez homestead nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountain foothills of Western Maryland seems far removed from the life of a spy. It seems even farther removed from Hollywood.
But Hollywood has come knocking at the door of Antonio J. Mendez. The one-time chief of disguise for the CIA is the subject of the new film. And if that's not flattering enough, he's being portrayed by Ben Affleck.
"He's only a foot taller than I am," Mendez said while relaxing at his home recently.
"Argo" focuses on Mendez's role in the rescue of six Americans who sought shelter at the Canadian Embassy during the 1979-80 Iran hostage crisis. Although 52 other Americans were held hostage for another year, the rescue of the six gave Americans hope during a dark period in the nation's history.
Mendez, now 70, was a key figure in the rescue. It was his idea to disguise himself, another agent and the six Americans in hiding as Canadians and Europeans scouting locations for a Hollywood movie.
There were a few tense moments, but the operation went smoothly.
A May 2007 article in Wired magazine detailing Mendez's role in the rescue caught moviemakers' attention. Mendez first wrote about the rescue in a chapter of his book "The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA," which was published in 1999 with co-author Malcolm McConnell.
Mendez is a consultant to the director. The movie has taken liberty with the facts.
"They reserved the right to change things," Mendez said.
For example, there is a chase scene that never happened. In the same way that the fictional Scarlett O'Hara had three children in the novel "Gone With the Wind" but only one in the movie, Mendez said, "They wrote two of my children out."
Mendez asked the scriptwriters to retain his son Ian, who died of cancer in 2010 at age 44. The movie also has Mendez and his family living in a Georgetown apartment.
Mendez had been in the CIA for 15 years when dozens of Americans were taken hostage by Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Revolutionary Guards had overthrown the Shah of Iran in favor of a more fundamentally religious regime.
Mendez always had a unique way of solving problems, said his wife, Jonna Mendez. Mendez's first wife, Karen, died of cancer in 1986. Tony and Jonna Mendez both worked for the CIA and married after Tony Mendez retired in 1990.
"When he was at CIA, he had a bunch of blue-collar guys working for him," Jonna Mendez said. "He bought a pinball machine with government funds. If there was a problem, at lunch the guys would play pinball and work it out."
Tony Mendez was hired as a CIA agent in 1965. He spent 25 years working undercover, devising elaborate disguises and making false documents.
He had been to Iran in April 1979 and helped bring out one of the CIA's Iranian agents after the overthrow of the Shah. The U.S. Embassy was seized on Nov. 4, 1979, with 66 hostages taken. Thirteen were released shortly after; one was released in mid-1980.
Several weeks after the embassy was overtaken, six Americans from the embassy were still missing. Unknown to the Iranians, they had sought shelter at the Canadian Embassy.
"One reporter figured out that six were missing," Mendez said. It became important to get them out of hiding before the Iranians came looking for them.
The Canadians agreed to issue the six Americans Canadian passports. That represented an enormous diplomatic breakthrough, because the Canadians had always been reluctant to issue fake passports for Americans, even with the CIA behind the request.
But that was only the beginning.
"It became a question of who were these people, and what were they doing there (in Iran)," Mendez said. The CIA had to come up with a cover story for them, and get them out as quickly as possible.
"I had this notion of a Hollywood film-scouting party," he said. "People from Hollywood are eccentric, and they wouldn't care what was going on." Mendez also knew that Hollywood resonated with people everywhere, even Iranian revolutionaries.