Tony Mendez, The 'Argo' Spy Who Rescued Americans In Iran, Dies At 78

Jan 19, 2019
Originally published on January 22, 2019 6:28 pm

Tony Mendez became a legend inside the CIA with his daring 1980 rescue of six American diplomats who were given shelter by the Canadian Embassy in Tehran after the U.S. Embassy had been stormed by Iranian revolutionaries.

But the "Canadian Caper" remained classified for nearly two decades, and Mendez didn't receive full acclaim until the Oscar-winning movie Argo, came out in 2012, with Ben Affleck portraying him.

Mendez, who was 78 and had Parkinson's disease, died Saturday at an assisted living facility in Frederick, Md., outside Washington, according to the International Spy Museum, where Mendez was a founding board member.

"He was a legendary intelligence officer," said the museum's Executive Director Chris Costa.

Many former CIA colleagues praised his work, including Mike Morell, the former CIA deputy chief, in this tweet:

During his quarter-century at the spy agency, Mendez served in multiple foreign posts, spending much of his time in Asia.

He was a specialist in "exfiltration," the art of quietly slipping people out of a country where they are endangered. For this reason, he was selected to travel secretly to Iran in January 1980.

In the previous year, the U.S.-backed shah of Iran fled the country amid mounting turmoil in the streets, and the cleric Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini took power. Iranian revolutionaries then stormed the U.S. Embassy on Nov. 4, 1979, taking all the Americans there hostage.

But six additional American diplomats made their way to the Canadian Embassy, where they were given shelter.

Mendez slipped into Iran and met up with the six. Armed with Canadian passports and false identities, the six diplomats posed as a Canadian film crew doing location scouts for a sci-fi movie. They were able to get past Iran security officers at Tehran's Mehrabad International Airport and board a Swissair flight to Zurich on Jan. 28, 1980.

Jonna Mendez, the former chief of disguise at the CIA, explains how to hide one's identity.
YouTube

While the escape was filled with tension, Hollywood took liberties with the story.

Mendez actually carried out the operation with another CIA officer, who does not exist in the film. In real life, that man has lost touch with all his former colleagues, and his whereabouts are unknown, Mendez's wife, Jonna Mendez, told NPR in an interview last month.

The movie also shows Iranian authorities chasing the plane down the runway as it is lifting off. In reality, the plane sat on the tarmac for an hour while a mechanical repairs were made. The Iranians never knew who was on the plane.

When the flight cleared Iranian air space, Mendez celebrated by ordering a Bloody Mary and toasting the diplomats: "We're home free."

When Mendez returned to the U.S., President Carter gave Mendez the Intelligence Star, one of the CIA's highest honors. But it was all done secretly, and the CIA role in the operation was not revealed until 1997.

The 52 American hostages at the U.S. Embassy were held for 444 days and not released until January 1981.

Mendez's legacy extends well beyond his exploits in Iran.

Mendez was gifted at disguise and worked with Hollywood makeup artists and magicians to bring their techniques to the CIA. He entitled his 1999 memoir The Master of Disguise.

"Not a lot of people are aware that our disguise program was informed by some of the special effects people in L.A.," Jonna Mendez told NPR.

Like her husband, Jonna Mendez also had a long career with the CIA and both served, at different times, as the agency's chief of disguise.

"Tony also wanted to know how the magicians did a lot of the things that they do, because he thought that we might like to emulate them," she said.

Tony Mendez had Spanish and British ancestry and could blend in almost anywhere, she said.

"He could be Pakistani, he could be Mexican, he could be from a lot of different countries," she said. "It was incredible to work with my husband."

The couple has written a book about their work in the Soviet Union, Moscow Rules, which is set to be published in May.

Greg Myre is a national security correspondent. Follow him @gregmyre1.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Tony Mendez was a legend inside the CIA because of the role he played in rescuing American diplomats trapped inside revolutionary Iran in 1980. He became widely known to the rest of us outside the agency in 2012, which is when he was portrayed in the Oscar-winning film "Argo," which is about the rescue. Tony Mendez died over the weekend. He was 78, and NPR's Greg Myre has this remembrance.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: In the movie version of his life, Tony Mendez is played by Ben Affleck, who insists he knows best how to save the six Americans in Iran's capital, Tehran.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGO")

BEN AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) The only way out of that city is the airport. You build new cover identities for them. You send in a Moses. He takes them out on a commercial flight.

MYRE: The Americans secretly took refuge in the Canadian Embassy after Iranian revolutionaries stormed the U.S. Embassy in 1979, taking more than 50 hostages who were held for more than a year. The CIA called on Mendez because he had a specialty - exfiltration. He could slip into hostile countries and bring people out safely. As the Ben Affleck character explains to those being rescued, they also need to know their cover story.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "ARGO")

AFFLECK: (As Tony Mendez) Look, they're going to try to break you - OK? - by trying to get you agitated. You have to know your resume back to front.

MYRE: In Tehran, Mendez and the six Americans posed as a Canadian film crew. Armed with false passports, they talked their way past suspicious guards and made it out on a Swissair flight. In an interview with the International Spy Museum, Mendez described watching his real-life drama on the big screen.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

TONY MENDEZ: I was sitting there in my seat and thinking, gee whiz. I've done that before, and this is exactly how it feels.

MYRE: During a 25-year CIA career, Mendez served as the agency's chief of disguise. He worked closely with Hollywood makeup artists to bring their techniques to spycraft.

JONNA MENDEZ: Now, a lot of people are aware that our disguise program was informed by some of the special effects people in LA.

MYRE: That's Mendez's wife, Jonna. She had a long CIA career as well and also served as chief of disguise. In an interview with NPR last month, Jonna Mendez said her husband, who was of Spanish and British ancestry, was a natural spy.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

J MENDEZ: Tony had one of these demeanors and one of these looks that he fit in almost everywhere. He could be Pakistani. He could be Mexican. He had a great look.

MYRE: Mendez was long retired when the "Argo" movie came out. And in this interview with "The Today Show," he had a droll take on his late-in-life fame.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "THE TODAY SHOW")

T MENDEZ: Mostly movies about the CIA, they have their CIA guy, a deranged assassin. What we're hoping is we're going to start a new trend and make the CIA guys lovable.

MYRE: Tony and Jonna Mendez wrote several books about their clandestine work. A joint effort completed shortly before Tony Mendez died Saturday of complications from Parkinson's disease recounts their work in the Soviet Union. It's called "Moscow Rules," and it will be published in May.

Greg Myre, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF APHEX TWIN'S "JYNWYTHEK YLOW") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.