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.
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