Tony Mendez, the real-life ‘Argo’

Tony Mendez is no longer a spy for the CIA, but the qualities that helped make him one of the best — his wit and unassuming personality — were on full display Oct. 8 at the Writers Guild Theater in Beverly Hills, at an event hosted by 30 Years After, a local Iranian-American Jewish group.

Mendez’s heroic rescue of six Americans hiding in the Canadian ambassador’s residence in Iran during the 1979 revolution there made him famous via the Ben Affleck film “Argo,” which won three Academy Awards at the Oscars this year. 

At the theater, Mendez and his wife, Jonna Goeser, who was also a CIA agent, took the stage to discuss his career. Before the event, Mendez, 72, and Goeser sat down with the Journal to discuss the art of spy craft, their work with the CIA and how they met on assignment in Thailand.

“When you go into enemy territory, you have to have already reckoned with the idea that you are not going to come back,” Mendez said. “Nobody’s going to come looking for you. Part of the game is to not get caught.”

During the interview, the organizers, prepping for the presentation, projected a scene from “Argo,” of enraged Iranian protesters about to storm the embassy gates, into the near-empty theater, interrupting Mendez. 

“[It] still puts me on edge,” he said of the movie.

He said the film was accurate in its portrayal of Tehran at the time he was there as an American spy, and he admitted he still has dreams about the mission “and other operations like it.” Mendez retired from the CIA 23 years ago, in 1990.

Goeser admitted that after she and Mendez saw “Argo” for the first time, at a private screening in Washington, D.C., they both cried.

During the interview, Goeser pointed out that one aspect of the mission the film did not explore was that a file on Mendez himself was in the American embassy when the Iranians stormed it. Six months earlier, shortly after the revolution, Mendez had entered Tehran, scooped up an American who was stranded there, and made it through the Mehrabad International Airport (where Revolutionary Guards were looking for Americans) to safety outside the country.

Still on file at the CIA station inside the embassy was a full guide on how to get past Iranian airport security, complete with a picture of Mendez — perfect information for Iranian counter-intelligence. 

“When they [the Iranians] went in and took over the embassy, it was not clear, of course, whether that file had been burned or shredded or was intact,” Goeser said.

Before the event, Mendez and Goeser signed books (Mendez recently co-authored a book, “Argo,” with Matt Baglio) and took pictures with guests at a VIP reception; then all of the 400 attendees filed into the theater.

Tabby Davoodi, 30 Years After’s executive director, thanked Mendez, noting this would be his first-ever speech to an Iranian-American group.

“Tony, you were there on the ground in January 1980, when a lot of the people in this room were in Iran,” Davoodi said. “A lot of the folks here were either escaping the country or trying to put their lives back together.”

Goeser guided the conversation, frequently pausing midsentence to allow the very witty Mendez to speak, often with dry (and dark) humor.

“There are rumors that the Iranians are going to make their own movie,” Goeser said, setting up Mendez for one of his several one-liners. “They are going to make a movie, and they are going to tell in their movie ‘the truth.’ ”

Mendez responded, without cracking a smile, “I can’t wait to see who plays me.” The audience burst into laughter.

His quiet, reserved nature and quick mind, which served him well on the streets of Tehran, kept the audience hooked to his every word.

Mendez described how he became a master of disguise with the CIA. As a young artist in Denver, he answered a job posting in the Denver Post saying the Navy was looking for artists.

“I sent in my letter and my samples, and before you know it, I was being interviewed by somebody who was clearly not in the U.S. Navy,” said Mendez. “[The CIA was] hiring artists to do false identities.”

Amid occasional breaks to screen scenes from “Argo,” Mendez  went on to describe how he convinced the CIA and White House to set up a fake film studio in Los Angeles that would produce a fake science-fiction thriller named “Argo” to provide his cover story when he went to Iran pretending to be a Canadian filmmaker.

When Mendez came to Los Angeles to set up Studio Six Productions, he worked closely with his friend and makeup artist John Chambers to make their studio and their “film” look entirely legitimate.

They rented office space in what is now the Sunset Gower Studios in Hollywood. In fact, they moved in just as Michael Douglas left following completion of “The China Syndrome.”

Why, Mendez asked rhetorically, did he want to call the fake movie “Argo”? 

“Because that was a punch line in a knock-knock joke that we used to tell when times were getting a little tight,” Mendez said, prepping the audience for the movie’s most memorable line.

“Knock, knock. 

“Who’s there?”


“Argo who? 

“Argo ef yourself, Khomeini,” he concluded, keeping it rated PG.

Goeser added that, at the CIA, when people wanted to express a certain emotion, they just said, “Argo.” 

“Everybody knew what you meant,” she said, smiling.

During audience questions, many people asked for the couple’s opinions on today’s tensions surrounding the Iranian regime’s hostile relationship with the West.

Mendez offered few thoughts, and Goeser said her advice to the American government is to “be very, very careful” when dealing with the Iranian government.

One of the final questioners asked Mendez if he had an alcoholic beverage when the plane on which he and the six Americans were on left Iranian airspace.

“Jonna and I never do wheels-up without a Bloody Mary,” he replied. 

And that’s what he and the ex-hostages ordered on the Swissair flight as it left Iranian airspace.

Alan Arkin relishes his role as a team player

Alan Arkin is not an actor who seeks individual glory. But that hasn’t prevented the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences from singling him out several times. This year, Arkin has again been nominated for an Oscar, this time as best supporting actor for his work in the critically acclaimed “Argo.” It is the 78-year-old actor’s fourth Oscar nod; his first was for his feature-film acting debut, starring in the 1966 Cold War comedy “The Russians Are Coming, the Russians Are Coming.”  Arkin won his only Oscar for his supporting role in the 2006 film “Little Miss Sunshine,” which also won the Screen Actors Guild award for Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture. This year, the cast of “Argo” received that same award, which was particularly rewarding for him, as it is his work as part of an ensemble that the actor finds most satisfying.

Currently on location in New Orleans filming “Grudge Match,” alongside Robert De Niro and Sylvester Stallone, Arkin spoke by phone about his role in “Argo” as well as the importance of being able to gel well with his fellow cast members when selecting a project.

“If I’m going to be working closely with an actor, it’s very important that it’s somebody that I can be congenial with, that I can have a rapport with and not feel like that if my character has to touch them that they’re going to be antsy about it,” Arkin said. “Or if I can jump on their lines, or they can jump on my lines, yes, it’s very important to me. Maybe ultimately the most important thing about a project to me is how comfortable and flexible I can be with the people I’m working with.”

Arkin said he finds the idea of a solo performance being singled out as “the best,” and competition in general, unappealing. “The winning and the losing is all isolating and it’s nonsense,” he said. “I don’t know who’s got the right to say this is better than that. You can say that in a horse race. You can look at a horse and say, ‘This horse came in first, and this one came in second,’ but I don’t know how you have a right to do that with performances. One person’s meat is another person’s fish.”

Arkin’s long and diverse career began in the 1950s, not as an actor at first, but as a musician. Although he became intrigued with acting when he was only 5, it was music legends such as Woody Guthrie and Paul Robeson who influenced his musical ambitions. Arkin’s parents, David and Beatrice, who were of Russian and German decent, often hosted famous figures from the folk music world at their home, which inspired Arkin to form a calypso combo called the Tarriers in the mid-’50s.

A few years later, Arkin moved to Chicago and joined the famous Second City troupe, where he honed his skills in improvisation and comedy.  Although he has received critical acclaim for his dramatic roles in films such as “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter” and “Wait Until Dark,” the consummate character actor is often most attracted to films with a comedic disposition. “My favorite films are serious comedies,” Arkin said. “If I had to pick one genre, it would be comedies with something serious to say, like “The Russians Are Coming” and “Little Miss Sunshine.” But the older I get, the more I like to work in comedy.”

 “Argo” would fit in to that category, although it was much more than the film’s comedic element that appealed to him. “Everything worked,” Arkin said. “The character, the script, the director, and it was a story that worked. It was the entire package. It was exciting and interesting. My favorite thing about a project is when everything works together, and you can’t pull it apart.”

“Argo” is based on the actual events and people surrounding the CIA’s rescue of six American embassy workers from Iran during the midst of that country’s 1979 revolution, by having them pose as a production crew scouting locations for a phony Canadian film project.

Alan Arkin in “The Russians Are Coming, ­the Russians Are Coming,” his first film.  Photo © 1966, United Artists

One of the controversies surrounding this year’s Oscar race is the omission of Ben Affleck on the list of best director nominees for his work on “Argo.” It’s a snub that has become even more puzzling since Affleck’s win for Outstanding Directorial Achievement from the Directors Guild, as Arkin pointed out.

“I haven’t got a clue what it means or what it comes out of. He’s won every award in the universe. It’s a complete mystery to me, as it is to everybody else. I don’t believe in it anyway, to tell you the truth,” he added. “I think the nomination, to me, is the really exciting part, because it puts you in a group with people who you admire, and it turns it into a shared communal experience.”

In “Argo,” Arkin plays the role of film producer Lester Siegel, who helps the CIA operative, played by Affleck, pull off the charade. Although Siegel’s character is a fictional composite, Arkin revealed that he based his performance on two real-life filmmakers — director/producer Sydney Pollack and legendary studio chief Jack L. Warner.

“I just relish a good character,” he said of his process of delving into any role. “I don’t care what his profession is particularly. If the character is alive, then he’s alive. It’s my job to make the character alive, no matter if he’s a dentist or a street cleaner or the president of a company. To me, it’s the internal life of the character that’s important, not what the job is. I have fun with a well-written character.”

Writer Chris Terrio’s Oscar-nominated screenplay for “Argo” is littered with memorable one-liners, many of them delivered by Arkin. But while great dialogue is always attractive to an actor, the ensemble-loving Arkin returned again to the importance for him of how characters he plays are integrated into the production, as a whole. 

“I don’t need to have the best lines in the movie. I need to have lines that define a character, that help give me the picture of what his role is in the entire event. But I don’t need to be the best thing in something. That’s not what I look for.” 

‘Homeland’ scores at Golden Globes

“Homeland,” a television drama based on an Israeli program, won for best drama at the Golden Globes Awards.

The Showtime program, based on “Hatufim,” or “Prisoners of War,” also received awards for best actor, Damian Lewis, and best actress, Claire Danes, at Sunday's awards ceremony.

Parts of the show's second season, as well as the first, were filmed in Israel.

The popular comedy series “Girls,” created by Lena Dunham, received the Golden Globe for best comedy. Dunham, who also stars in the show and is one of its writers, won as well for best actress in a comedy series.

“Argo,” a thriller based on the real-life plan to free American hostages in Iran by creating a fake movie production as a cover, won for best film drama and best director for Ben Affleck, beating out the favored “Lincoln,” directed by Steven Spielberg.

The Golden Globes are awarded annually by the Hollywood Foreign Press Association.