Former CIA Officer Talks About Being a Real-Life James Bond
Written by Catherine Vonledebur
Former CIA agent Tony Mendez spent a week writing Argo with Hollywood screenwriter Chris Terrio.
Shortly after the script was written a shiny new yellow pick-up truck pulled up along the rocky road to his house in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Western Maryland, DC delivering a bottle of Cristal champagne and a handwritten note from George Clooney.
Tony’s second wife Jonna, also a retired CIA intelligence officer, reads out the note she has lovingly stored on her phone.
It reads: “Tony. It’s George I hope you like this as much as I do. I love the story and think it’ll make a hell of a movie.Hope to see you soon, Best George”.
In 1979, the US embassy in Tehran was seized and 52 embassy workers held hostage. Six Americans had escaped from the back door and taken refuge in the home of the Canadian ambassador.
But they were at risk of being discovered.
Back at CIA headquarters, an operation to rescue the six Americans was handled by Tony, the agency’s top “exfil” guy – an expert in exfiltration, or getting Americans out of enemy territory.
As a former CIA Chief of Disguise his speciality was using “identity transformation” to get people out of sticky situations.
He had once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat, using masks to disguise them as Victor Mature and Rex Harrison.
Tony came up with the idea of a cover story disguising the embassy officials as a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a fake Hollywood sci-fi epic called Argo to help them escape.
They created a screen play, printed business cards, and rented staff to spirit away the hostages.
“The State Department were talking about making the hostages nutritionists or teachers but when Tony was flying back from Ottowa he told his good friend John Chambers (played by John Goodman in the film) ‘John, I am thinking of a location, scouting party’. My favourite part of the film is when John tells him how to put that together,” explains Jonna.
“Tony had an enormous amount of Hollywood contacts. He was a former Chief of Disguise at the CIA – he worked with make-up artists, hair goods and costuming. Hollywood was a natural choice and they were restyled for the operation. One reason it worked was because it was so outrageous, it could not possibly be an intelligence operation.”
Tony admits: “Pulling it off was a tough thing to do. I’ve been accused by some people of being a ham. We had to pull-out the stops. There were some high level security officers who we had to convince.
“We did 150 enfiltrations – many in the Cold War. Not everyone was that high profile or exciting, but all were successful.
“It was intriguing every day. I was the real James Bond.”
The idea for the 2012 film originally came from Chapter nine of Tony’s memoir The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA and a feature in Wired magazine, How the CIA Used a Fake Sci-Fi Flick to Rescue Americans From Tehran, by Joshuah Bearman.
“The Wired’s Great Escape piece was written with a storyboard like a Hollywood pitch and came out before Master of Disguise was published,” says Jonna.
“Tony and I were in bed one night when we had a phone call saying George Clooney and Warner Brothers wanted to produce the film. The same night we had a phone call saying Brad Pitt and Paramount wanted to buy the film rights. We say Hollywood is every bit as good at espionage as the CIA.
“George and Warner Brothers bought it and we were thrilled. For a good movie you need a constellation of stars – a scripts, a studio and stars to play in it. We had all of those.
“It took six years from that initial phone call to the premiere.
“George Clooney was supposed to play Tony but he got stuck in post-production on The Ides of March. Warner Brothers had Ben Affleck going through scripts. He read Argo and said: ‘we want this’. George said ‘fine’ and Ben played Tony.
“Our literary agent in New York told us ‘you will just never know how unique making Argo was’. It was the smoothest, most pleasant and kindest experience – she said ‘that’s not how it works’.”
Jonna and Tony were on set during the making of the film but had no idea that Ben’s co-star Brian Cranston, who plays wily CIA agent Jack O’Donnell, was Walter White in Emmy-winning TV hit Breaking Bad.
Jonna says: “Brian Cranston was just amazing but we didn’t know who he was. We had never seen Breaking Bad or Malcolm in the Middle. On the movie set we went to sit in a trailer and this man came in and started telling jokes. He was just so funny. That was Brian. I think he enjoyed the fact we didn’t know who he was.
“We sat and watched the whole box set (of Breaking Bad) in bed with popcorn. I thought it was award-winning from beginning to end.”
The film was dedicated to Tony’s son Ian – one of three children with his first wife Karen – who died of colon cancer in 2010 aged 44.
“We didn’t know Ben had dedicated the film to Ian. He had not long had a son himself,” says Jonna.
“He’s a great guy, amazingly articulate, funny and he studied Middle Eastern affairs in college.
“Tony told Ben he wasn’t good looking enough to play him – and Ben is very good-looking.
“When asked if he had underplayed Tony, Ben said: ‘He’s taciturn – you cannot underplay that’.”
Tony says he had always wanted to be a spy, growing up in the tiny town of Eureka, Nevada.
“‘The loneliest spot on the loneliest road in America’ – that’s what national Geographic wrote about Eureka,” he says.
“My interest was always espionage. We were in a small town but we had a movie theatre. I have always been interested in movies making things happen, fantasy becomes reality.”
Jonna spent 27 years in the CIA and worked with Tony for 10 years.
“I started off working on very small cameras you could get in pens or lipsticks and ended up Chief of Disguise. We were Mr and Mrs Disguise,” she says.
“The CIA gave you the opportunity, every once in a while, where you could impact something that was going to happen or you could change something. On the flip side no-one would ever know.”
She said the job had not made them paranoid, but “observant”. They have received threats.
“That keeps you alert,” she adds.
Of late 73-year-old Tony’s health has slowed him down. He likes to paint. Before he joined the CIA he was a graphic illustrator.
“That’s what we do. Tony is an artist, his son Toby is a sculptor and I am the photographer,” says Jonna.
The couple, who have a 21-year-old musician son, Jesse, have been on the road since April 20. They have been on a luxury Mediterranean cruise promoting Tony’s latest book Argo: How the CIA and Hollywood Pulled off the Most Audacious Rescue in History.
The couple are now in Coventry appearing at the University of Warwick’s second BookFest this weekend.
Also on at the festival will be a debate between intelligence specialists and Guardian journalists on whether whistleblower Edward Snowden was a traitor or a hero to leak US Government secrets.
“It’s hot news. You would have to be blind and dumb, not to know he is a traitor,” says Tony.
On Friday Tony is taking part in a Q&A session at a special screening of Argo.
Fifteen members of the public will also have the chance to attend Dinner with a Spy, a private dining experience with Tony.
On Sunday in The Real Argo – 6.45pm until 8pm – Tony will be reflecting on his extraordinary CIA work and dramatic events portrayed in the film.
After BookFest 2014 Tony and Jonna are going to London to meet the former Director General of MI5 and novelist, Stella Rimington. “Judi Dench’s character in James Bond was modelled on her. I wish Judi Dench would play me in a film,” laughs Jonna.
For information on how to book Tony Mendez for your next event, visit PremiereSpeakers.com/Tony_Mendez.
Source: Birmingham Post