Tony Mendez, the Central Intelligence Agency veteran known for helping rescue a number of American embassy workers from the clutches of the Iranian Revolution in the late 1970s, has died at the age of 78.
The unfortunate news was confirmed by Mendez's literary agent, Christy Fletcher, on Twitter today.
“Early this morning, Antonio (Tony) J. Mendez finally succumbed to the Parkinson’s Disease that he had been diagnosed with ten+ years ago,” Fletcher wrote. “He was surrounded with love from his family and will be sorely missed. 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.”
With great help from the Canadian government, Mendez and a Hollywood makeup artist, John Chambers, publicized a phony sci-fi movie (based on Roger Zelazny's 1967 novel, Lord of Light) in order to pass off the Americans trapped in Iran as a production/location scouting crew and smuggle them out of the country.
Ads were even taken out in well-known Tinseltown trades like Variety, and a production office was established to keep the ruse as real as possible. This worked a little too well, and once the office was closed, nearly 30 screenplays had come through the door, including one from Steven Spielberg, who had also been bamboozled by the front.
"There was no plan B for the operation. Usually there is an escape plan, but there would be no car sitting outside with the engine running," Mendez told the BBC in 2013.
This clandestine rescue mission (sometimes called the "Canadian Caper") was dramatized in Argo, the 2012 thriller film from director Ben Affleck and producer George Clooney, which took home a Best Picture Oscar in 2013, despite a number of glaring historical inaccuracies. Mendez was portrayed by Affleck, who took home Best Director from the Golden Globes.
Born in Eureka, Nevada, in 1940, Mendez began his professional career as an artist before he was recruited by the CIA. His new job as a real-life spy took him on missions all over the world, often requiring him to create false documentation and in-field disguises. All of this eventually nabbed him the Intelligence Star in 1980.
Upon retiring in 1990, Tony became a full-time artist, writing books about his colorful espionage career and serving on the board of the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.
Mendez is survived by his two sons and wife, Joanna, herself a former CIA operative.