Tony Mendez, former CIA officer portrayed in 'Argo,' dead at 78

A former CIA technical operations officer whose role in rescuing six American diplomats from Iran in 1980 was immortalized in the Academy Award-winning drama "Argo" has died. Antonio "Tony" Mendez was 78.

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

Following Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, Mendez helped devise a plot in which the six diplomats were disguised as members of a Canadian film crew so they could board a flight out of Iran. The plot -- for years a side note to the hostage crisis in which 52 Americans were held for 444 days -- captured the public's imagination in "Argo." The film was directed by Ben Affleck, who also portrayed Mendez, and won three statues at the 2013 Oscars -- including best picture and best adapted screenplay.

FILE - Photo released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack O'Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo."

FILE - Photo released by Warner Bros. Pictures shows Bryan Cranston, left, as Jack O'Donnell and Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo." (AP)

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"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 film, based on Mendez's memoir of the same name, embellished the story for the big screen. The movie's climax included a white-knuckle takeoff at Tehran's airport, with Iranian assault teams racing down the runway in a bid to stop the jet. In fact, Mendez wrote, the six Americans' passage through the airport and onto the plane was uneventful.

Mendez, who joined the CIA after he was 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 creating false documents and disguises, according to a biography for his first book, "The Master of Disguise; My Secret Life in the CIA."

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Born in Nevada, Mendez moved to Colorado at age 14, attended the University of Colorado and worked for the firm Martin Marietta on the Titan intercontinental missile, according to an online biography. He was recruited for the CIA in Denver through a blind ad. In less than two years, the biography said, he and his family had moved overseas while Mendez worked in South and Southeast Asia.

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His wife, Jonna, is also a former chief of disguise in the CIA's Office of Technical Service. The two wrote a book 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.

His family says he will be buried in a private ceremony at the family graveyard in Nevada.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.