- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 4, 2001

LOS ANGELES — Since the CIA's founding in 1947, movies and TV shows often have depicted the intelligence service's agents as sinister, disloyal or unstable.

But while the spy agency can bristle at its Hollywood image as a conspiratorial viper's nest, it's also forged secret ties within the entertainment industry.

Former agents reveal these unlikely alliances in the documentary "Into the Shadows: The CIA in Hollywood" on the American Movie Classics cable network (tonight at 10 ).

In the program, retired agent Antonio J. Mendez, 61, describes recruiting master Hollywood makeup artists to devise ways to disguise operatives in the field.

Mr. Mendez, who has been honored by the agency as one of its top 50 innovators, received special clearance from the government to discuss many of his exploits.

One of his most valuable contacts was Oscar-winning makeup artist John Chambers, who designed the pointy Vulcan ears for the 1960s TV series "Star Trek" and transformed actors into monkeys for the original "Planet of the Apes" movie in 1968.

Mr. Mendez came to him with a problem during the Vietnam conflict: a black CIA agent had cultivated a government source in Laos, but a meeting between a black man and an Asian might arouse the suspicion of local authorities.

Mr. Chambers, who died in August at 78, came up with the idea of disguising the two men with realistic latex masks.

"One mask he had looked like the actor Victor Mature and another looked like Rex Harrison," Mr. Mendez recalls with a laugh.

Shortly after the agent picked up his Laotian contact for the meeting, their worst fear was realized: they hit a government roadblock.

"But when the guards saw what looked like two Caucasians in a diplomatic car, they just waved them through," Mr. Mendez says. "That wasn't unusual to them."

Perhaps the CIA's biggest Hollywood-aided coup was rescuing six American diplomats from Iran during the hostage crisis in 1979. The Americans were stranded at a Canadian Embassy, and Mr. Mendez and Mr. Chambers devised a way to sneak them out of the country as part of a Hollywood film crew.

The key was developing credible cover, so Bob Sydell, another makeup artist and trusted friend of Mr. Chambers, set up a small office at Sunset-Gower Studios. He then placed ads in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter announcing the company's new sci-fi epic "Argo," which would be filmed partly in Iran.

There was a script, there was a studio, but it was all a sham.

"We had to create a pretty complete scenario in case any Iranian authorities checked up on it," Mr. Sydell says. "It worked pretty well, because even people in Hollywood were calling us looking for work."

Mr. Mendez, masquerading as the producer, slipped into Iran pretending to scout locations and disguised the staid diplomats in the flashier fashions and jewelry of Hollywood types.

They were able to leave Tehran without arousing suspicion that the "film crew" was really composed of U.S. government officials.

Following the September 11 terrorist attacks, the federal government has shown a renewed interest in the talents of show business.

President Bush sent his senior adviser Karl Rove to Los Angeles last month to meet with entertainment leaders and discuss ways TV and movies could encourage volunteerism and offer support for American troops.

Screenwriters and directors such as David Fincher ("Fight Club") and Spike Jones ("Being John Malkovich") have also brainstormed with Pentagon officials about creative ways to prevent future terrorist attacks.

Recently, the CIA even started a more overt presence in the entertainment industry supplying technical advice for some projects, such as CBS' "The Agency" and the upcoming Ben Affleck thriller "The Sum of All Fear."

But the CIA is wary of assisting TV shows or films that reinforce old stereotypes.

"If it's a type of effort where someone's portraying us in a realistic light, we're happy to help out," CIA spokesman Mike Tadie says. "If it perpetuates the types of myths in popular films of the past that we're into assassination plots and drug dealing we're just not going to cooperate on something like that."

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