Artists Undercover – How Artists worked as Spies



Sat, 16 Sep 2017 - 12:43 GMT


Sat, 16 Sep 2017 - 12:43 GMT

Picture of Asmahan via Wikimedia

Picture of Asmahan via Wikimedia

The realm of movies has long been considered primarily as a place of entertainment, with value coming through messages rather than direct change. Yet the truth is stranger than fiction at times, and cases of artists going undercover to help the government are common.

Poster for the CIAs fake Sci-fi film Argo and Asmahan’s photo - Courtesy of Wikimedia

Asmahan, the Egyptian singer and actress, died at the young age of 27 in a car accident in 1944. This mysterious incident was the subject of various conspiracy theories, for Asmahan was more than just an actress; she was believed to be a double-spy, suspected to have flirted between the French and German intelligences to exchange information between them.

Hailing from Syria, Asmahan actually had royal roots there, and felt a sense of loyalty towards her people. She managed to rise as a star at a young age in Egypt, standing as a music icon equal to the legendary Umm Khalthoum. Yet Asmahan was a woman who lived by her own rules, refusing to follow the standards of what was considered moral; she smoked, drank, and demanded to be spoiled by her rich husband.

As World War II broke out, Asmahan first collobrated with the British Intelligence Agency to spy on Nazi Germany and France, though she worked later with the French as well. Her allegiances seemed to lie with whoever could pay the most, though oddly her work as a spy would not have paid as much as her singing career.

Whatever the truth, Asmahan’s life and even her death continues to be fascinating to this day.

Another stranger example of the government and arts secret partnership was depicted in a government rescue.

In 1979, a mob of Iranian supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini stormed the United State’s Compound in Tehran and held those within hostage for 14 months. Six Americans had managed to escape, but were still trapped in Iran, a few of which hid in the residence of the Canadian ambassador, John Sheardown.

It was a dark time for the American government, and it took an ingenious solution to figure a way out that was presented through an ambiguous film production called “Argo” that operated as the secret mission to bring back Americans to their home.

On January 27, 1980, a film crew from Hollywood visited Tehran, Iran in order to scout out a prime location for their science-fiction epic film “Argo.” It didn’t matter to them that Iran was right in the middle of a revolution; they had a movie to make.

The “Argo” crew had managed to successfully pass the Tehran airport, under the watchful eye of Iranian officials who had no idea that they were helping American hostages escape.

Art by Jack Kirby, taken from goodfeets Youtube clip of the documentary ‘First Person’

“Argo” was the brainchild of the CIA in cooperation with Canadian officials, an outrageous plot that was just crazy enough to work when all other options had run out.

By pretending to be a film group shooting on-location, the American crew was very sealed from the Iranian government that could not have anticipated the truth of what was going on, and so they’d have to have been let through.

The CIA’s expert of espionage, Antonio ‘Tony’ Mendez, had been working on a way to get the six Americans safely out of the country. Mendez was the one who had to go to Iran, supply the six escapees with false identities and lead them safely past the Mehrabad Airport.

Mendez’s plan was originally a lot more straightforward; he’d use Canadian documents to get the Americans out, but was stuck with just how he’d convince the government that there were six Canadians there in the first place. It was Mendez who thought up the film idea.

He’d become an Irish film producer named Kevin Costa Harkins, who was in charge of preproduction for a huge science-fiction epic, “Argo.” The American hostages were to be his crew, and the Iranian government wouldn’t suspect a thing. Despite everything, the Iranian government still needed international revenue, and a million-dollar U.S. film set in Iran would have benefitted their economy.

But what good was a sci-fi film without the special effects magic?

Enter John Chambers, a Hollywood makeup artist who received an Oscar for his work on 1969’s “Planet of the Apes.” Chambers was a long-time friend of Mendez, and was willing to help give the outrageous plot a worthy makeover. With fellow SFX artist Bob Sidell, Chambers and Mendez began to work on bringing this out-of-this-world scheme to flight, and they managed to create a fake Hollywood film company in a few days.

“Argo” was based off a 1967 novel by Roger Zelazny titled “Lord of Light,” a science-fiction novel based in a fantastical world derived from Hindu and Buddhist mythology. It was Chambers who provided the idea for the script, as it was actually repurposed from what was supposed to be a legitimate production.

A sleazy producer named Barry Geller had contacted Chambers, telling him that he’d purchased the rights to adapt the Zelazny novel into a fully fledged film and wanted him on-board. Geller had even managed to hire legendary comic book artist

Jack Kirby

to produce concept sketches, and an outrageous theme park named “Science Land” was planned, that fell through when Geller was arrested for embezzlement.

Since Chambers was part of the project, he was able to provide the scripts and concept art he still had with him. Mendez loved the idea, and renamed the script “Argo,” after the legendary vessel in helmed by mythological Greek hero Jason.

Chambers designed an advertisement for the money that would appear in The Hollywood Reporter, while Sidell whipped an entire schedule for a month of film shooting. Mendez was doing everything in his power to ensure that every detail of this film was as believable as possible; six American lives counted on this wild scheme to go smoothly.

President Jimmy Carter approved the plot, and by January 25, 1980, Mendez was in Iran, ready to begin the extraction of the hostages. Mendez arrived at the Sheardown residence to hand the documentations over to the hostages that would grant them freedom. They were pleased with the plot, and eager to escape.

The plan was to lead the hostages over to Mehrabad Airport, after filling out the necessary passports and visas, and by January 27 everything was ready. Packed in a van to the airport, all but one of the six Americans was optimistic and excited about the escape. Mendez had proved himself a trustworthy and confident leader, and he had promised this would go smoothly.

Shockingly, it did. The Americans managed to board the Swiss flight out of Iran without rousing any suspicion. They had miraculously pulled this off.


The CIA kept the entire plot a secret until decades later, when it was eventually adapted into a feature film in 2012 titled “Argo,” and directed by Ben Affleck. The film starred Affleck as Mendez and also featured the talents of John Goodman and “Breaking Bad’s” Bryan Cranston.

The film won 3 Oscars for Best Motion Picture of the Year, Best Writing, Adapted Screenplay and Best Achievement in Film Editing.

Much goes on behind the making of a film, and more still goes on in the lives of the actors. For those big names on top, what do we truly know about what they’re doing when the camera’s off?



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