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.
“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.