Tony Mendez
Tony Mendez in 2012. (Jonathan Newton/THE WASHINGTON POST)

THE WASHINGTON POST

A forgery artist and master of disguise for the CIA, Tony Mendez once transformed a black agent and an Asian diplomat into a pair of white business executives, using masks that gave them an uncanny resemblance to the movie stars Victor Mature and Rex Harrison. On another occasion, he devised an oversize “jack-in-the-box” — a spring-loaded mannequin — that enabled a CIA source to sneak out of his car while a dummy popped up in his place.

Mr. Mendez, a 25-year veteran of the spy agency, was effectively in the business of geopolitical theater. Pulling techniques from magicians, movie makeup artists and even the television show “Mission: Impossible,” he changed one person into another, transforming agents into characters with backstories, costumes and documents that helped them evade detection and avoid capture in foreign countries.

Appropriately for a man whose career seemed drawn from a Hollywood thriller, his greatest triumph hinged on a bogus sci-fi film, a sham production office in Los Angeles and a fake location-scouting expedition to Iran. Disguising himself as an Irish filmmaker, Mr. Mendez successfully smuggled six State Department employees out of Tehran during the 1979-1981 Iran hostage crisis, passing them off as a Canadian movie crew in a daring mission that formed the basis of the Oscar-winning movie “Argo” (2012).

Mr. Mendez, who was portrayed by actor-director Ben Affleck in the film, was 78 when he died on Jan. 19 at an assisted-living center in Frederick, Md. He had Parkinson’s disease, said his wife, fellow CIA veteran Jonna Mendez.