John Chambers – The Real Master of Disguise: Studio 6, Argo, and the Iranian Hostage Crisis

John Chambers was a respected makeup artist in Hollywood. But most people did not know until recently that Chambers, an Academy Award Winning makeup artist, also worked for the Central Intelligence Agency for most of his career. Chambers, the man behind “The Planet of the Apes” masks did some of his best work for “the company” and it will never be seen. Recently, the movie “Argo,” directed by Ben Affleck, delivers some aspects of what Chambers did for the CIA in one operation in 1979 during the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

John Chambers was born and raised in Illinois. During World War II, the young Chambers served as a medic technician. After the war, Chambers came home to Illinois and worked at the Veteran’s Hospital in Hines, Illinois. There, Chambers began his first work in prosthetics. Hines helped soldiers from the war with fake limbs and prosthetics for their face. The skills Chambers developed at the hospital led to his getting makeup gigs. First was NBC in 1953, and then later Universal Studios. His work on TV in the 1960s included the shows The Munsters and Spock’s ears on Star Trek, and ironically, masks on the TV show Mission Impossible. In 1968, Chambers did his greatest work developing the masks for “The Planet of the Apes.” His work resulted in a special Academy Award just for his efforts.

In addition, Chambers mentored many future make-up artists. Some would call him a surrogate father, His influence in the industry was far-reaching. Famed makeup artist Michael Westmore (Star Wars, Star Trek) said of John,

“John had a reputation for being a very talented individual. I was in my last year of my apprenticeship at Universal and John basically had knowledge of doing everything. John’s forte from working as a dental technician in the Army was teeth — he taught me how to make teeth. When I got the job supervising [‘Star Trek: The Next Generation’] I made all the alien teeth.”

All the while, Chambers had begun working with the CIA in developing disguises. By the late 1960s, Chambers had befriended a young CIA agent, Tony Mendez. Mendez had first sought help from Walt Disney, but is was Chambers who helped Mendez design “disguise kits” for operatives. Chambers helped Mendez with CIA missions in Laos, Poland, and Russia. In 1979, Mendez called upon Chambers once again. However, this time, Chambers’ connections in Hollywood were of more importance than his makeup skills.

In 1979, the people of Iran rose up against the Shah of Iran, the ruler of the nation since the early 1950s. The revolution was led by a religious group headed by the Ayatollah Khomeini. The people of Iran lashed out at the Shah’s largest supporters, the United States. The Shah has been placed in power by the CIA when the group helped overthrow Mohammed Mossadeq in 1953. The wrath of the people of Iran toward the US never faded. In the days after the revolution, students and other radicals surrounded the American Embassy in the capital of Tehran. Eventually, the embassy is taken over and the staff, or most of it, was taken hostage. However six Americans made it out of the embassy and wound up being hid in the home of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor.

The Canadians informed the US about the hostages. However, months went by before a plan was designed late in 1979. Mendez sought help from his old pal, John Chambers. Together, along with Bob Sidell, another special effects guru (Who would later do the makeup for E.T.), they would concoct a scheme that could only work in the movies.

Mendez’s experience in the cloak and dagger game was extensive. As stated in a Wired magazine article,

“He’d once transformed a black CIA officer and an Asian diplomat into Caucasian businessmen — using masks that made them ringers for Victor Mature and Rex Harrison — so they could arrange a meeting in the capital of Laos, a country under strict martial law. When a Russian engineer needed to deliver film canisters with extraordinarily sensitive details about the new super-MiG jet, Mendez helped his CIA handlers throw off their KGB tails by outfitting them with a “jack-in-the-box.” An officer would wait for a moment of confusion to sneak out of a car. As soon as he did, a spring-loaded mannequin would pop up to give the impression that he was still sitting in the passenger seat. Mendez had helped hundreds of friendly assets escape danger undetected.”

Artwork by Jack Kirby

This mission was to be a little different. Mendez would travel to Tehran and bring the hostages home disguised as a film crew. Chambers and Sidell set up a fake studio, Studio 6 (named for the six Americans). In just four days, the three men set up the company that included business cards, letter head, stationary, and artwork designed by legendary comic book artist Jack Kirby (X-Men, Fantastic Four, Captain America, Thor, and The Incredible Hulk).

An office was created at Sunset Gower Studios and Chambers found a script based on an aborted project on Roger Zelazny’s science fiction novel, Lord of Light. That project never got off the ground because of embezzled funds. Mendez renamed the film project “Argo” after the ship of Jason and the Argonauts and the Golden Fleece. Ads were placed in Variety magazine and The Hollywood Reporter stating that principal photography would begin shooting in March 1980.

Studio 6 Artifacts

The Script

Business Cards and Envelopes

The letter Mendez carried about the production

The ads place in Variety and The Hollywood Reporter

While Mendez flew to Tehran with approval of President Carter, Chambers and SIdell had to actually run Studio Six films. The office contained three phone lines (2 regular lines and 1 secret line from the CIA), posters, typewriters, and some left over  film canisters. In the movie Argo, the office was sparse. In real life, Sidell’s wife Andi was constantly answering the two regular phones. Writers and other Hollywood producers were calling to get their own projects off the ground. The ad in the Hollywood Reporter ensured the office would stay busy when it said,

“Their first motion picture being Argo, a science fantasy fiction, from a story by Teresa Harris … Shooting will begin in the south of France, and then move to the Mideast … depending on the political climate.”

Mendez was able to implement the plan a little differently than in the movie Argo. However, due to the nature of the political climate at the time, the Canadians were given credit for the caper. Chambers, Mendez, and Sidell would not be given their due until the 50th anniversary of the CIA in 1997. Then surprisingly, the Agency acknowledged their role in securing the six Americans from Iran. Chambers was given an award by the CIA. Surprisingly, Mendez was allowed to write a book about his career during the Cold War.

Chambers would not be so lucky. He passed away in 2001. He does have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for his career as a makeup artist. This event of Studio 6 was part of the cloak and dagger aspect of the time period of the Cold War. Mendez and Chambers had worked together before and they would work together again. However, it would always be in secret.

The six freed Americans had to keep the role of Chambers and Mendez a secret for many years. In the film, actor John Goodman played John Chambers. Sidell loved Goodman’s portrayal. Sidell said,

“Johnny Chambers had a little bit of arthritis … he had a little bit of a limp in his left leg. John Goodman has the same limp — that was like the icing on the cake. […] John Goodman was a Xerox copy of Johnny Chambers”

Sidell was thought to be dead and was not part of the prep for the film but he did give the film his approval, 

“When Affleck saw me at the after-party, he looked me up and down and said, ‘You are in pretty good shape for a dead man.’ I think what happened was Ben knew that John Chambers was dead and I think they made the assumption that I was too.”

The freed Americans meet with President Carter

Surprisingly, here is a PBS video about the event from 1980. No mention of Chambers or Mendez is made.

An interview with Mendez

For further reading:

Mendez’s account to the CIA:
https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/kent-csi/vol43no3/pdf/v43i3a01p.pdf

Tony Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise

Wired Magazine

Chicago Tribune

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