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Former CIA operative at the heart of the film 'Argo' dies at age 78

Former CIA operative at the heart of the film 'Argo' dies at age 78
Antonio "Tony" Mendez, former CIA technical operations officer, attends the 2012 "Argo" premiere in Washington. (Cliff Owen / Associated Press)

A former CIA technical operations officer who helped rescue six U.S. diplomats from Iran in 1980 and was portrayed by Ben Affleck in the Academy Award-winning film "Argo," has died. He was 78.

A family statement and his literary agent confirmed that Antonio "Tony" Mendez died Saturday at an assisted-living center in Frederick, Md. He had suffered from Parkinson's disease, according to the statement.

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Specializing in covert operations, Mendez helped devise the plan under which six diplomats who were in hiding were disguised as a Canadian film crew so they could board a flight and escape the country amid the Iran hostage crisis.

The daring plot — for years a side note to the 52 people held hostage for 444 days — captured the public's attention in "Argo," which won the 2013 Oscar for best picture.

Mendez, who joined the CIA after being recruited in 1965, spent his 25-year career working undercover in Cold War battlegrounds, including the Soviet Union. Working as a "chief of disguise," Mendez and his workers helped secret agents remain secret through disguises and false documents, according to his book "The Master of Disguise: My Secret Life in the CIA."

"Tony Mendez was a true American hero. He was a man of extraordinary grace, decency, humility and kindness," Affleck tweeted Saturday. "He never sought the spotlight for his actions, he merely sought to serve his country. I'm so proud to have worked for him and to have told one of his stories."

The "Argo" screenplay, based on a Mendez memoir and also an Oscar winner, was liberally embellished for the big screen. The six Americans' passage through the Tehran airport and onto a plane was uneventful, Mendez wrote. But the movie portrayed a white-knuckle takeoff at the Tehran airport, with Iranian assault teams racing behind the jet down the runway.

Victor Garber, left, as Ken Taylor and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in the movie "Argo."
Victor Garber, left, as Ken Taylor and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in the movie "Argo." (Keith Bernstein / Warner Bros.)

Born in Eureka, Nev., Mendez moved to Colorado when he was 14, attended the University of Colorado and worked for Martin Marietta on the Titan intercontinental missile, according to online biographical information. He was recruited for the CIA in Denver through a blind ad.

His wife, Jonna, is also a former chief of disguise in the CIA's Office of Technical Services. The two wrote the book “Spy Dust” about their agency work in Moscow in the final days of the Cold War and their romance, which led to their marriage after he retired in 1990. Mendez was also an accomplished painter.

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