Tony Mendez, former CIA officer and inspiration for ‘Argo’, dies at 78

Antonio "Tony" Mendez, former CIA technical operations officer, poses for photographers at the premiere of the film Argo in Washington, Wednesday, Oct. 10, 2012. AP Photo/Cliff Owen

Tony Mendez, the former CIA technical operations officer who orchestrated the 1980 rescue of six American diplomats from Iran and who was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award-winning film Argo, has died. He was 78.

Mendez’s book agent, Christy Fletcher, announced the news on Twitter Saturday morning.

“Early this morning, Antonio (Tony) J. Mendez finally succumbed to the Parkinson’s Disease that he had been diagnosed with ten+ years ago,” the statement reads. “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.”

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The message states Mendez will be buried in a private ceremony at the family graveyard in Nevada.

Born on Nov. 15 1940, Mendez began his career as an artist after studying art at the University of Colorado. He was hired by the CIA after answering a blind advertisement for a graphic artist in 1965 and became an espionage artist for the technical services division.

After working in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and South Asia, Mendez was sent to Iran to manage what became known as the “Canadian Caper,” in which he created the plan to pass off six American diplomats as a Canadian film crew to get them out of the country.

Mendez had the plan of creating a fake science fiction movie called “Argo” that would be filmed in Tehran. Canada agreed to give passports to the six Americans.

Mendez went to Tehran pretending to scout for locations for the movie, and was able to sneak the Americans through immigration at the airport to escape.

Argo, loosely adapted for film and directed by Ben Affleck, won three Oscars at the 2013 Academy Awards, including best picture, best adapted screenplay, and best film editing. It was nominated for four more, including best performance by an actor in a supporting role for Alan Arkin, best original score, best sound mixing, and best sound editing. It also won Affleck the best director Golden Globe and the best motion picture – drama Globe.

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Ben Affleck gave his condolences on Twitter, saying he was a “true American hero.”

“He was a man of extraordinary grace, decency, humility and kindness,” he wrote.


Mendez is the author of three memoirs, including Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA; Spy Dust: Two Masters of Disguise Reveal the Tools and Operations that Helped Win the Cold War with his wife Jonna, who is a 27-year veteran of the CIA; and Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History, upon which Argo is based.

Mendez ran an art studio after he retired from the CIA.

“I’ve always considered myself to be an artist first,” he once said. “And for 25 years I was a pretty good spy.”

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