The CIA mastermind behind the so-called "Canadian caper"—which got six US diplomats out of Iran during the 1979-80 hostage crisis—died Saturday the age of 78, the Washington Post reports; he had Parkinson's disease. A 25-year CIA veteran, Tony Mendez was also an impressionistic painter admired for his imaginative disguises and forgeries. "I've always considered myself to be an artist first," he said once, "and for 25 years I was a pretty good spy." He was the agency's chief of disguise when militant Iranian students seized the US Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979. After six US diplomats escaped to the homes of two Canadians, Mendez concocted an outlandish, complex scheme in which he disguised himself as an Irish filmmaker who visited Iran and smuggled the diplomats out as his film crew.
Described in a 2007 Wired article and dramatized in the Oscar-winning Argo, Mendez's work earned him the revered Intelligence Star from President Carter but stayed secret until the CIA publicly honored him in 1997. His origins were modest: Born into a family with little money in 1940 in Eureka, Nevada, Mendez later dropped out of university for lack of funds, worked as an illustrator drawing missile parts for Martin Marietta, and became a CIA agent when he answered a blind ad for "Artists to Work Overseas." The author of several memoirs, he was married twice (his first wife died of cancer); survivors include his second wife and three children. "He was a brilliant man, a gifted artist, and a true American hero," his literary manager, Christy Fletcher, tells CNN. "I will miss him enormously." (More obituary stories.)