Tony Mendez, ‘Argo’ spy who smuggled U.S. hostages out of Iran during crisis, dies at 78

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A forgery artist and grasp of disguise for the CIA, Tony Mendez as quickly as transformed a black agent and an Asian diplomat proper right into a pair of white enterprise executives, using masks that gave them an uncanny resemblance to the movie stars Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. On one different occasion, he devised an oversize “jack-in-the-box” – a spring-loaded mannequin – that enabled a CIA provide to sneak out of his car whereas a dummy popped up in his place.

Mendez, a 25-year veteran of the spy firm, was efficiently throughout the enterprise of geopolitical theater. Pulling strategies from magicians, movie make-up artists and even the television current “Mission: Impossible,” he modified one particular person into one different, transforming brokers into characters with backstories, costumes and paperwork that helped them evade detection and steer clear of seize in abroad worldwide areas.

Appropriately for an individual whose career appeared drawn from a Hollywood thriller, his greatest triumph hinged on a bogus sci-fi film, a sham manufacturing office in Los Angeles and a faux location-scouting expedition to Iran. Disguising himself as an Irish filmmaker, Mendez effectively smuggled six State Department staff out of Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage catastrophe, passing them off as a Canadian movie crew in a daring mission that formed the concept of the Oscar-winning movie “Argo” (2012).

Mendez, who was portrayed by actor-director Ben Affleck throughout the film, was 78 when he died Jan. 19 at an assisted-living coronary heart in Frederick, Md. He had Parkinson’s sickness, talked about his partner, fellow CIA veteran Jonna Mendez.

A painter of impressionistic landscapes and out of doorways scenes, Mendez was working as a draftsman when he was recruited by the CIA in 1965, and ran an art work studio after he retired. “I’ve always considered myself to be an artist first,” he as quickly as talked about, wanting once more on his career, “and for 25 years I was a pretty good spy.”

After stints in Laos, India and the Soviet Union, he was serving as a result of the CIA’s chief of disguise when the U.S. Embassy in Tehran was seized by a militant Iranian pupil group on Nov. 4, 1979. The assault received right here months after the Islamic revolution pressured out the nation’s chief, the Western-backed shah, and altered him with the hard-line cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

Sixty-six Americans, along with six CIA officers, have been taken hostage, whereas six completely different U.S. diplomats managed to evade seize and took shelter throughout the homes of two Canadians, ambassador Ken Taylor and embassy official John Sheardown.

In the 444 days that adopted, the hostage catastrophe drew unflagging data safety, crippled Jimmy Carter’s presidency and resulted throughout the deaths of eight service members during a failed rescue mission throughout the Iranian desert. Mendez completed his rescue operation Jan. 28, 1980, nevertheless it took but another yr sooner than the ultimate 52 hostages have been launched, on the day of Ronald Reagan’s inauguration in January 1981.

The thought for the “Canadian caper,” as Mendez’s mission received right here to be recognized, was born out of desperation. A specialist in “exfiltration,” the art work of whisking people out of damage’s methodology, Mendez initially labored on a plan to free the American hostages by exchanging them for a ineffective physique double of the shah, who was being dealt with for many cancers throughout the United States.

That plan was nixed by the White House, primarily based on a Wired journal account by Joshuah Bearman, and when Mendez was promoted to chief of the corporate’s Authentication Branch in December 1979, his efforts shifted to rescuing the six Canadian “houseguests,” as a result of the American diplomats have been euphemistically generally known as. Their very existence was saved hidden from most of the people in an effort to protect them from the Iranians.

While one Canadian minister suggested the diplomats head for the Turkish border, most likely on bicycles, solely a departure by the air appeared viable. Mendez merely wished to decide on a story which will enable the escapees to board a airplane. Schemes centered on lecturers, crop inspectors and oil technicians all appeared flawed. So Mendez decided to “reverse the rules and create a distraction.”

“A cover should be bland, as uninteresting as possible, so the casual observer, or the not-so-casual immigration official, doesn’t probe too deeply,” he wrote in a 1999 memoir, “Master of Disguise.” His decision, the film gambit, was the opposite of bland – an thought so daring, he believed, that Iran would under no circumstances take note of that it could be faux.

Mendez generally known as his buddy John Chambers, a make-up artist who had gained an honorary Oscar for his work on “Planet of the Apes,” gave Spock his pointy ears and had assisted the CIA on outdated assignments. With one different make-up artist, Bob Sidell, who later labored on “E.T.,” they opened a producing office in Los Angeles; created enterprise enjoying playing cards for his or her fictional agency, Studio Six Productions; and developed backstories and career histories for the six escapees.

Mendez and Chambers named their purported science-fiction film enterprise “Argo,” for the raunchy punchline to a knock-knock joke and in a sly nod to the mythological ship that Jason used to retrieve the Golden Fleece. Advertisements in Variety and the Hollywood Reporter promoted the film as a “cosmic conflagration.”

With a Canadian passport in hand, Mendez flew to Tehran on Jan. 25, beneath the title Kevin Costa Harkins. (He chosen an Irish id, he later talked about, in consequence of the Irish are “nonthreatening” and “ubiquitous around the world.”) Supported by a second CIA agent known as Julio, he spent a quantity of days preparing the six diplomats, educating them their new identities – along with as a cameraman and set designer – and preparing them for potential interrogations at the airport.

Before dawn on Jan. 28, they headed to Tehran Mehrabad International Airport for an early Swissair flight to Zurich. After being delayed for an hour in consequence of of a mechanical downside, the flight took off and cleared Iranian airspace, major Mendez to have enjoyable by ordering a bloody mary and delivering a toast: “We’re home free.”

The diplomats returned to a heroes’ welcome throughout the United States, the place Canadian flags have been flown from metropolis halls, and billboards learning “Thank you, Canada” cropped up throughout the nation. Mendez met with Carter throughout the Oval Office and obtained the Intelligence Star, one of the CIA’s highest honors. But his and the CIA’s perform throughout the rescue operation was hid until 1997, when Mendez was honored as one of 50 “trailblazers” who shaped the corporate’s first 50 years.

Antonio Joseph Mendez was born in Eureka, Nevada, on Nov. 15, 1940, to a mixed-heritage family (Italian, Mexican, Welsh) that he later credited with serving to him combine in all around the world. He was 3 when his father died in a copper-mining accident; his mother labored a quantity of jobs.

The family had little money, and Tony contributed by digging up bat guano in caves, loading it onto a toy wagon and selling it to his Mormon neighbors as fertilizer, $1 per gunny sack. He usually dated his covert operations experience to an incident whereby he posed as a lady to attain entrance to a couples-only school dance.

Mendez graduated from highschool in Denver and, unable to cowl tuition, cease the University of Colorado after one yr. He was an illustrator at Martin Marietta, drawing parts for an intercontinental ballistic missile, when he seen a help-wanted advert in a newspaper: “Artists to Work Overseas – U.S. Navy Civilians.” Consumed by wanderlust, he went to interview and was handed a CIA recruitment data.

Mendez retired in 1990 with a rank equal to that of a two-star regular. He wrote a quantity of memoirs along with “The Master of Disguise,” co-authored with Malcolm McConnell. The e guide, along with Bearman’s article in Wired, served as a result of the availability supplies for “Argo,” which gained the Oscar for best picture. (It took some liberties with the knowledge, Mendez talked about, along with together with a chase scene and writing out two of his children.)

Mendez’s first partner, Karen, died of lung most cancers in 1986. In 1991 he married Jonna Hiestand, an educated on clandestine pictures who moreover served as a result of the CIA’s chief of disguise. In addition to his partner of Reston, Va., who confirmed his dying, survivors embrace two children from his first marriage, Amanda Mendez of Smithsburg, Md., and sculptor Toby Mendez of Knoxville, Md.,; a son from his second marriage, Jesse Mendez of Charleston, W.Va.; a quantity of sisters; and two grandchildren. He was predeceased by a son from his first marriage, Ian Mendez.

Makeup, Mendez sometimes talked about, was often one of the higher parts of rising a disguise. Behavioral tics wished to be adjusted, credible backstories invented.

“There are occasions when you’re getting ready to put your name on the hotel ledger,” he knowledgeable The Washington Post in 2000. “You’ve got reservations made for you in [an] alias. You’ve just flown 10 hours. There’s that moment when you put the pen down and you think, ‘Oh, jeez, what’s my name?’ “

“Once you go into the netherworld like that, by yourself,” he added, “it’s like going into another dimension. It’s like being a time traveler. How do you get back?”

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