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Mendez CIA rescue story in development for Hollywood film

August 13, 2007|By ANDREW SCHOTZ

KNOXVILLE - The Hollywood actor who has played Batman and an emergency-room doctor might soon portray a retired CIA spy from Washington County.

George Clooney as Tony Mendez? It could happen.

What's more concrete, though, is that Clooney's production company has signed on to make a film about a daring hostage rescue engineered by Mendez nearly 30 years ago.

The movie, called "Escape From Tehran," will show how Mendez helped get six Americans out of Iran in January 1980 by pretending to be part of a movie-making team.

Mendez said stories about him and the rescue have been the subject of movie options before, but never has the process advanced this far.

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Hollywood trade media have reported that Warner Bros. Pictures acquired the rights to a story Wired magazine published in April about the rescue.

Mendez said he agreed to be interviewed for the Wired story in exchange for sharing the movie rights with the writer.

Smoke House, Clooney's production company, will write a "dramedy" script and Clooney could direct and star, Variety magazine has reported.

Clooney and Smoke House partner Grant Heslov wrote "Good Night, and Good Luck," about Edward R. Murrow's battle with U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s.

Smoke House spokesman Stan Rosenfield said Friday that "Escape From Tehran" is "in development," but hasn't reached the "green light" stage, when production could begin.

Mendez said Mark Burnett, who created the "Survivor" reality show, once had an option to make a movie about Mendez, but the deal fizzled. Actor Dean Cain, who played Superman in a TV series, was going to portray him.

After working in secrecy during a 25-year CIA career, Mendez has gotten used to speaking out.

He said he and his wife, Jonna, also retired from the CIA, have been part of or the focus of 22 documentaries.

They've written books and are working on more.

They've consulted for a CBS show called "The Agency" and advised the International Spy Museum in Washington, D.C.

Together, they also create art - paintings and photographs - at Pleasant Valley Studios, their home in southern Washington County.

When the U.S. embassy in Tehran was overrun in 1979, Mendez - who ran the CIA's graphics and identity transformation division - was working on how to free American hostages there.

Then, he was directed to instead help rescue six Americans who had escaped from the embassy and were hiding with Canadian officials.

He said two initial ideas for a cover scheme were pretending that the Americans were nutritionists or school teachers.

Then, Mendez thought up the movie idea. A Hollywood contact told him that six was about the right number for a group scouting a film location.

Mendez helped devise "Studio 6" and the many details that went with it.

He made up a story and trade ads about a planned science fiction movie called "Argo." Hollywood press fell for it and ran stories, helping to create more cover.

As film producer "Kevin Costa Harkins," Mendez went to Tehran, found the six Americans and coached them on their new identities as a Canadian film crew.

Despite tense moments at the airport, the ruse worked and the group flew out of Iran. President Jimmy Carter honored Mendez.

The public didn't know details of the rescue until the CIA asked Mendez in 1997 to talk openly about it as part of a campaign promoting the agency's 50th anniversary.

He has discussed the operation many times since then, including in a book he wrote that was published in 1999.

"Since the CIA asked me to speak out, I find there's value in that - having a full accounting with the public," Mendez said. "Let them judge your performance."

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