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Tony Mendez, the former CIA officer who famously supervised the rescue of six American diplomats from Iran in 1980 and authored the memoir upon which the 2012 film Argo was based, has died. He was 78.
Mendez’s book agent, Christy Fletcher, was the first to report the news Saturday on Twitter. “I have very sad news to report,” she wrote. “I was honored to work with Tony Mendez for twenty years and his loving wife Jonna. This is a crushing loss for his family, friends and our world. I will miss him very very much.”
Fletcher attached a family statement to her tweet, which named the cause of death as Parkinson’s disease. “Early this morning, Antonio (Tony) J. Mendez finally succumbed to the Parkinson’s Disease that he had been diagnosed with ten+ years ago. He was surrounded with love from his family and will be sorely missed,” the statement read. “The last thing he and his wife Jonna Mendez did was get their new book to the publisher and he died feeling he had completed writing the stories that he wanted to be told.”
Born in 1940 in Eureka, Nevada, Mendez studied art at the University of Colorado and worked as a professional artist before joining the CIA in 1965. At the Office of Technical Service, Mendez started out forging documents and signatures and creating counterfeit currency before he graduated to larger jobs. During the Vietnam War, for instance, Mendez disguised a black CIA officer and Asian diplomat as two white businessmen (he consulted Hollywood makeup artist John Chambers, of Planet of the Apes fame, for the task).
Mendez’s most famous feat came in 1979, when the then-authentications chief for the agency’s Graphics and Authentication division was tasked with helping to safely transport American diplomats who had escaped the Iranian embassy back home without cluing in the Iranians. To do so, he helped hatch a plan to get agents into the country posing as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science-fiction film,
“Everyone knows that people from Hollywood go where they want to go, never mind the time in history. They forget about the fact that there is politics and danger in the world,” Mendez told the BBC in 2013.
Playing a member of the film crew and managing the operation, Mendez, as well as his team, extricated the escaped Americans from the Canadian embassy and board a plane to Zurich, where they met State Department officials. The mission was only declassified in 1997; in 1980, Mendez received the CIA’s Intelligence Star Award.
After serving in the CIA for 25 years, Mendez authored and co-authored three nonfiction books about his time in the agency: 1999’s Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA, 2003’s Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War and 2012’s Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
Screenwriter Chris Terrio eventually based the Argo film on Mendez’s Master of Disguise, as well as Joshuah Bearman’s 2007 Wired story “How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran.” Argo went on to win best picture, adapted screenplay and editing awards at the 2013 Academy Awards.
According to the family statement, a private burial will be held in Mendez’s family graveyard in Nevada.
I have very sad news to report. I was honored to work with Tony Mendez for twenty years and his loving wife Jonna. This is a crushing loss for his family, friends and our world. I will miss him very very much. Family statement follows #TonyMendez #argo pic.twitter.com/B3akZ6QFsZ
— Christy *Grab Em By the BallotBox* Fletcher (@FletcherChristy) January 19, 2019
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