This post has been updated
There he was, Tony Mendez, a spy standing next to John Goodman, the actor, in front of millions of people on international TV at Sunday night’s Golden Globes. They introduced a clip from “Argo,” the movie about Mendez’s daring rescue of diplomats in Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis.
Mendez was a bit shy and a bit smaller than Goodman, and the microphone didn’t quite work right, but the world saw the Mendez I got to know for my Sunday profile of him and his family.
In a room full of stars, here was an American hero — soft-spoken, older and gentler than the days he spent as a master of disguise and deception, probably a bit bewildered by all the hullabaloo lately about his life.
I just got off the phone with Tony and his wife, Jonna, also a former spy. They seemed to be smiling over the phone. Tony told me he was nervous and excited to take the stage, but that the night was one thrill after another. (They were impressed by the level of security, too — police popping trunks, sweeping underneath cars. “It was like Saigon,” Tony said.)
The couple sat at a table with Michael J. Fox and Glenn Close, among several other stars, and at one point someone tapped them on the shoulder to relay word that former president Bill Clinton wanted to see them in his skybox. They quickly made their way to meet the president and were greeted by a Secret Service agent who stuck out his hand and thanked Tony for his service.
“That’s the nicest thing you can say to us,” Jonna said.
They swapped stories about declassifying covert operations, and Clinton told Tony how much he enjoyed the movie. They were then joined by actor Bradley Cooper, who apparently had also been summoned by the former president.
But Ben Affleck, director and star of the movie, was the hit of the night, winning for best director and best movie. “I was stunned,” Tony told me. “I was thrilled. The place went crazy” when the movie won.
As part of my reporting for my story about his life as a painter — and spy — I interviewed Tony and actor/director Ben Affleck in New York City.
I asked Mendez what he thought of Affleck playing him in “Argo,” and very quietly he said, “I wasn’t sure what he was up to, but it turns out he means well.”
Affleck is a famous movie star, more handsome than should be legal, husband to Jennifer Garner, best friend of Matt Damon, but during the interview — and when he accepted the award last night for best director — he was primarily an admirer of Tony Mendez.
Affleck told me: “He’s an extremely soft-spoken guy, but that belies his exceptional intelligence and ability to analyze situations.”
I asked Affleck what he would take away from this movie for the rest of his life.
“I think there’s a profound sense of honor and sacrifice,” he said. “These are Americans who are doing really hard work out of a sense of duty and something they believe in.”
I asked Tony what his favorite scene was in the movie. It’s when he takes off with the rescued diplomats from the airport in Iran.
“Wheels up,” he said.
Mendez experienced that “wheels up” feeling so many times in his career. It meant he got away with something.
What’s it like to finally get this recognition, to see himself in the air getting away with one of the greatest spy capers in history?
“It’s kind of a heavy load to carry,” he said.
Tony and Jonna are staying in California for a few days to relax. Their plan for today: See another thriller about a CIA operative, “Zero Dark Thirty.”