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Oscar buzz for 'Argo' has Mendez caught up in promotional whirlwind

Film based on former CIA operative's exploits was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture

January 10, 2013|By DON AINES | dona@herald-mail.com
  • Antonio Mendez, center, signs copies of his latest book Argo, a companion to the movie of the same name starring Ben Affleck, who portrays Mendez in the film. The Mendez family art studio, Pleasant Valley Studios, hosted a Fall Art Show Saturday in Knoxville. The show continues on Sunday.
By Colleen McGrath/Staff Photographer

Antonio Mendez has been busy recently with a recent appearance with Ben Affleck on “Good Morning America,” a Fox News crew coming to his home in southern Washington County and a soon to be published feature article in The Washington Post.

That sounds exciting, but it pales next to the reason for which he is now drawing the media’s attention — one of his exploits during a 25-year career with the Central Intelligence Agency.

The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences announced its Academy Award nominees Thursday and seven nominations — including Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay — went to “Argo,” based largely the retired agent’s role in the rescue of six U.S. embassy officials from Iran in the wake of the 1979 hostage crisis.

Ironically, Mendez spent a quarter century with the CIA trying not to get noticed by the nation’s enemies, but used the cover of a phony movie production with the working title “Argo” to get those Americans out of the Canadian ambassador’s home in Tehran and out of that country.

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Mendez said he worked with Affleck, who starred, directed and co-produced the film, and screenwriter Chris Terrio in making “Argo” — the real movie, not the phantom film — during production, and in promoting the movie since its 2012 release. That has picked up again as the awards season started cranking up, he said.

“Warner Brothers has a cadre of marketing people that make the world go round,” Mendez said Thursday of the studio that released the movie.

For him, promoting the film’s Oscar chances has included making the rounds to meet voting members of the academy, something people associated with other nominated films are also doing, he said.

“You’re schmoozing each other a lot,” Mendez said.

“We were just talking about the movie, the book and the buzz,” Mendez said of his appearance with Affleck earlier this week on “Good Morning America.” A crew from Fox News was scheduled to be at his home Thursday, he said.

“He’s not good-looking enough,” Mendez told “GMA” host George Stephanopoulos when asked how Affleck did playing him.

In addition to Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay, “Argo” received Oscar nods for Alan Arkin as Best Supporting Actor, William Goldenberg for Film Editing, and Alexandre Desplat for Original Score, as well as nominations in the Sound Editing and Sound Mixing categories.

The 85th Academy Awards will be handed out Feb. 24.

“I helped him. It was a joy to work with him ... and it’s his first big break,” Mendez said of Terrio.

“People were shocked Ben didn’t get the directing” nomination, Mendez said of Affleck, who shared a screenwriting Oscar early in his career with Matt Damon for “Good Will Hunting.”

“People thought he was a shoo-in,” he said.

“Argo” has already picked up a number of awards from the American Film Institute and film festivals. The experience has allowed Mendez to attend premieres, festivals and other events and rub elbows with some of the film industry’s elite.

One time, he found himself sharing the stage with Daniel Craig, the latest actor to play James Bond.

“Some people said, ‘There’s the real James Bond meeting the phony James Bond,’” Mendez joked.

Unlike Bond, Mendez rarely carried a weapon during his spying career, unless in an actual war zone.

“Stealing secrets from someone, you don’t want to use a gun, you want to use guile,” the retired spy said.
Mendez said he first wrote about the “Argo” operation in a chapter of his first book, “The Master of Disguise,” and later fleshed it out into a full book with co-author Matt Baglio, “Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled Off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.”

Iranian militants stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking more than 50 embassy personnel hostage, but six managed to elude the militants and took refuge in the Canadian ambassador’s home. Mendez hatched the plan to set up a phony film studio producing a science-fiction fantasy, “Argo,” and traveled to Iran posing as a producer.

Mendez provided false passports and identities for the six and eventually smuggled them out of the country, he said.

The operation was right up Mendez’s alley.

“I was hired as an artist who made false documents and disguises,” Mendez said of his beginnings with the Central Intelligence Agency. “What I went on to do was build up a world class disguise capability” for the agency, he said.

Smuggling people out of hostile countries was something that Mendez participated in scores of times during his career with the CIA from 1965 to 1990.

“Quite a few,” he said when asked if any of his covert operations are still classified.

These days, life is quieter for Mendez, though he is still in the art business. The Mendez family owns Pleasant Valley Studios in Knoxville, Md.

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