The Odd Hollywood History Behind Ben Affleck's 'Argo'

9:00 AM PST 09/26/2012 by Bill Higgins, Borys Kit
Warner Bros.;Corbis
John Goodman in "Argo," left, and the man he portrays, John Chambers, at the 1969 Oscars.

A kooky sci-fi script, the CIA and ads in The Hollywood Reporter: the real story behind the film is too strange to have been invented.

This story first appeared in the Oct. 5 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine.

The Jan. 17, 1980, issue of The Hollywood Reporter was full of ads promoting that year's Oscar hopefuls -- everything from eventual winners like Kramer vs. Kramer to crazy long shots like George Hamilton courting consideration as best actor for his campy turn in the vampire comedy Love at First Bite. Amid all the hoopla, it was probably easy to overlook one relatively unassuming, full-page, black-and-white display ad announcing a new movie called Argo, described only as "A Cosmic Conflagration … commencing principal photography, March 1980."

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In fact, there never really was a movie called Argo that was ready to go before the cameras -- at least not in 1980. But that aborted movie has now lent its name to a new film directed by and starring Ben Affleck that Warner Bros. is releasing Oct. 12 amid a building wave of enthusiastic awards buzz following its debut screenings at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals. As the 2012 Argo reveals, that trade ad for the 1980 Argo was part of an elaborate -- and daring -- secret CIA mission to rescue six U.S. State Department officials trapped in Iran during the 1979 hostage crisis. Hollywood, The Hollywood Reporter included, merely played along with the ruse unwittingly. In fact, the backstory behind the fake Argo is even more byzantine than depicted in the real Argo. But it all boils down to one line that a movie producer played by Alan Arkin delivers in the new film: "If you want to sell a lie, you get the press to sell it for you."

Affleck's Argo begins with the storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran by Iranian revolutionaries, with the blessing of the Ayatollah Khomeini, on Nov. 4, 1979. Fifty-two Americans were taken hostage, but, unknown to the Iranians, six others escaped and found refuge in the homes of the Canadian Embassy's top officials. But even with newly issued Canadian passports, the six still needed new cover identities if they were to fly safely out of Iran.

Enter Tony Mendez, then 38, a CIA expert in "exfiltration," who came up with an outrageous proposal. The six could pose as members of a Canadian film crew scouting locations in Iran. First, though, he had to set up a Hollywood façade, and so he turned to makeup expert John Chambers, winner of an Honorary Oscar for his work on 1968's Planet of the Apes. The men had collaborated on secret projects in the past that relied on Chambers' expertise to provide disguises for CIA operations.

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Mendez, played by Affleck in the film, remembers Chambers, who died in 2001, fondly. But even though details of their Iranian mission were declassified in 1997 and Mendez has just published a book, Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, he refuses to refer to Chambers by name, insisting he remains bound by confidentiality agreements. Instead, he calls him Jerome Calloway, or simply JC, telling THR: "JC was a larger-than-life person, a man who filled up the room. He was a true patriot and the one genius that I have met in my life. He carried the best of Hollywood characteristics: creativity, ingenuity, a passion for work and a big heart." He's played by John Goodman in the new movie. "By the way," Mendez adds, "Goodman nails it."

As the operation got underway in 1980, Chambers enlisted Robert Sidell, a makeup artist with credits ranging from The Waltons to E.T. The Extra-Terrestrial. Sidell, now 75, didn't know about his colleague's CIA connection but knew something was afoot as soon as he was introduced to Mendez, who asked him to sign a secrecy agreement. "At first, I was floored. Then we got down to business," he says.

If their production was to have any credibility, the newly minted producers needed a real script. As the movie tells it, there was a script called Argo sitting in the slush pile, which was perfect since its sci-fi setting required filming in a desert setting like Iran. The real story is more complicated.

Several years earlier, Barry Ira Geller, a hustling young producer, had optioned Lord of Light, a sci-fi novel by Roger Zelazny published in 1967. It was either 1975 or 1976 -- now 64, Geller can't remember the exact year. The book was set on a faraway planet, and soon Geller was envisioning Lord of Light as the cornerstone for a Disney-like empire, complete with a Science Fiction Land theme park to be built in Aurora, Colo. To illustrate his dream, he turned to comic book artist Jack Kirby, co-creator of X-Men.

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Kirby, according to his onetime assistant, Mark Evanier, wanted to leave behind DC Comics and Marvel to work in Hollywood. "He was eager to do something in movies," he says. But the artist, who died in 1994, had been snookered by a lot of producers who would entice him to work up fancy designs and then not pay him. Geller, Evanier recalls, "seemed to have money. He went to Jack and said, 'I can sell a gazillion-dollar movie based on your designs.' Jack thought he was designing a whole Disneyland."

Armed with a script he wrote and Kirby's Middle Eastern- and Hindu-influenced designs, Geller began raising money. He also sought out Chambers to be part of his team. But Geller's dreams came crashing down to Earth by the end of 1979. As he tells it, one of his colleagues stole $50,000 in some shady land schemes in Aurora that involved the Mafia; soon, the FBI was involved, and Geller was arrested for securities fraud (he was later released). "I had $10 million about to come in," he laments. Then, without his knowledge, he claims, Chambers gave the script and storyboards for Lord of Light to Mendez, who slapped on a new cover page and retitled the project Argo, the name of the ship used by the mythological figure Jason on his quest to find the Golden Fleece.

So, with $10,000 in financing from Mendez, Sidell and Chambers formed a production company called Studio Six (named for the six Americans in hiding) and rented offices at the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. To make it all look authentic, they took out trade ads and began giving interviews. Sidell told THR that "foreign financing" was behind the film. When asked who he was planning to cast, Sidell, as if enjoying an inside joke, said, "We are sworn to secrecy on the names."

Sidell recruited his wife, Andi, to handle the company's three public phone lines, plus one that was solely for incoming CIA calls. That line rang only once during the three weeks they were in the office. And when Andi answered the phone, a voice said: "They're out. It's over." The hostages were free. Argo then simply disappeared. Because initially it remained classified, "We'd say, 'It's not canceled, just postponed,' " says Sidell, who now lives in Las Vegas.

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In adapting a 2007 Wired magazine account of the caper written by Joshuah Bearman and an earlier book by Mendez, Argo screenwriter Chris Terrio didn't hew closely to Geller or Sidell's storyline. Instead, he created a composite, fictional producer he calls Lester Siegel, played by Arkin. He explains, "1980 was just a few years after Star Wars, and I wanted a guy from a different era -- the last of the dinosaurs, a guy who's been around but who is kind of sad. In a way, Argo is Lester's last movie, and it's a movie that's never made, but it's also the most important movie he ever made."

Sidell and Geller can share in reflected glory from the new Argo. But Hollywood dreams die hard. Geller, who now runs a software company, still wants to make a movie based on Lord of Light. He retains the rights and just needs a producer, he says, one "who can see the vision."

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