Jimmy Carter

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:

Tony Mendez’s book, “The Master of Disguise

Wired Magazine

Chicago Tribune


Teaching Reagan: Constructing a Unit Based on Argument

For the last 20 years, I have never been a big fan of the textbook. They serve a small purpose to a very small point. For me, the small point of the textbook is to have it be the basis for an argument. As a teacher of US History, I try to have my students make arguments and analysis based on facts. An opinion usually sneaks in here or there, but that is fine once in a while. The past week has found me ending a unit in my history classes. The foundation for the unit is the shift from a moderate populace to a more conservative one in the 1980s. At the center of this shift is none other than Ronald Reagan.

I have blogged about Reagan before. He is an enigma, a wildly popular president and for the life of I have a hard time understanding why sometimes as I look at the record. However, as a teacher, I have to make my own students make their own choices.

Whether it was SDI, the conservative movement, cartoons, supply side economics, or one of many other events, I have been slowly accumulating lessons about the Gipper. 20 years ago, he took up one day. Now, he takes up six. The reason for the change has been the effect Reagan still has on the Republican party and on middle America. I grew in Reagan country and still live here as an adult. I have not always agreed with his policies and I have not agreed with his legacy. For the students, the enigma of how Reagan became so influential is perplexing.

The Unit Begins
1. The Malaise
The Fallout of Watergate and Vietnam are examined in this introductory lesson. Topics include the Halloween Massacre, the continuing energy crisis, the election of 1976, the Iranian Hostage Crisis, and the continuing malaise during the Carter presidency.

2. Culture of the 1970s
Students learn about the fabulous and the dangerous late 1970s culture through my eyes. I talk about my days of nerd heaven between Star Wars and beginning to play Dungeons and Dragons. I also take about the scourge of Disco and the coming of Punk. New technologies are also discussed like the Microwave and cable TV.

3. Reagan and his first term
In the third lesson, I finally get to Reagan. We discuss his background of growing up in nearby Tampico and Dixon and his early career. We reminisce about HUAC and discuss his time as Governor of California. Finally, we get to the election of 1980. After a short PPT presentation, the students read about his first term and discuss things that went well and things that didn’t. Students discuss the merits of his presidency and do a cartoon worksheet which.

4. The Great Communicator
Five speeches are examined as students make a product about Reagan’s speaking ability. A Time for Choosing, the Challenger Speech, Tear Down this Wall, Evil Empire Speech, and the Iran Contra Speech. The goal is to break down the elements of what made Reagan and effective speaker. Here are two of the speeches…

5. Reaganomics
Students review Reagan’s first term. Then a discussion is held about why people are certain denominations of money. Bills are discussed and not coins. Then in small groups, they read a balanced account of economic indicators about Reaganomics. Students make a t-chart and place the items in either good or bad.

With the advice from former president Richard Nixon, Reagan concentrated on economic issues his first six months in office. Reaganomics was the name given to the supply-side economic theory which Reagan based his economic plans. It operated on the belief that the economy was struggling in large part because of excessive taxation. With more money going to taxes, individuals and corporations were unable to invest capital to stimulate growth. The plan called for massive tax cuts in order to stimulate investments. The economic growth would then `trickle down` to the workers. Supply side economics also called for budget cuts to counteract the loss of revenue from the tax cuts. Reagan followed this model in creating his budget plan in 1981. Reagan put together legislation that cut government expenditures by $40 billion and created a three-year tax cut plan for individual and corporate income taxes. The tax cut was the largest in history and was expected to jump-start the economy. However, after the bills passed in the summer of 1981, the country fell into the worst recession since the Great Depression.

Inflation averaged 12.5 percent when Reagan entered office, was reduced to 4.4 percent when he left.

Interest rates fell six points.

Eight million new jobs were created as unemployment fell.

An eight percent growth in private wealth.

According to the Statistical Abstract of the United States for 1996, the number of people (white, black, and Hispanic) below the poverty level increased in almost every year between 1981 (31.8 million) and 1992 (39.3 million).

We were $994 billion in debt in fiscal 1981, when Carter left off, and $2,867 billion when Reagan leaves office in fiscal 1989. The rough number is 2.85 times as much in 1989 as in 1981.

The primary reason the deficit grew during the Reagan years was the Cold War military buildup.

Tax cuts did revenues increased in fact in almost a straight progression from pre-Reagan years.

The trade deficit quadrupled.

The 1986 Tax Reform Act is widely considered to be the best piece of American tax legislation since the adoption of the income tax. It is the opposite of Reaganomics. Over its first five years, it closed more than $500 billion in loopholes and tax shelters. As a result:
•Major U.S. corporations that previously had paid little or nothing in income taxes due to loopholes were put back on the tax rolls, and corporate taxes were increased overall by a net of more $100 billion over five years.
•A huge wasteful tax-shelter industry for high-income individuals was shut down.
• Tax rates on capital gains income were raised to the same level as on other income.
• Millions of moderate-income working families got tax relief through a major expansion of the earned-income tax credit.
• Taxes on most families (on average, all but the best-off tenth) were reduced. (The table shows the tax changes by income group.)
• The income tax was substantially simplified for most filers.
The average annual growth rate of real gross domestic product (GDP) from 1981 to 1989 was 3.2 percent per year, compared with 2.8 percent from 1974 to 1981 and 2.1 percent from 1989 to 1995.

During the economic expansion alone, the economy grew by a robust annual rate of 3.8 percent. By the end of the Reagan years, the American economy was almost one-third larger than it was when they began.

When Reagan took office in 1981, the unemployment rate was 7.6 percent. In the recession of 1981-82, that rate peaked at 9.7 percent, but it fell continuously for the next seven years. When Reagan left office, the unemployment rate was 5.5 percent.

Real median family income grew by $4,000 during the Reagan period after experiencing no growth in the pre-Reagan years; it experienced a loss of almost $1,500 in the post-Reagan years.

The savings rate did not rise in the 1980s, as supply side advocates had predicted. In fact, in the 1980s the personal savings rate fell from 8 percent to 6.5 percent. If the median family was better off why did their savings go down?

In 1993 Clinton raised the taxes on the rich, the opposite of Reaganomics, opponents argued that this would stop the growing economy. That did not happen.

Not surprisingly, students understand most of the economic discussion held. As a class we discuss which fact goes on which side. Most of the time it is clear cut, but there are some facts up for debate. Students look at a graph and answer some questions about the chart and conservative thought. Then, using the t-chart, the students determine whether Reagan should be put on the $10 bill replacing Alexander Hamilton.

6. Foreign Affairs
Students review what they already know about Reagan and foreign affairs from his speeches. Then a cartoon is analyzed. Students get a blank map and using text boxes and arrows, they read their textbook and fill out where the hot spots that Reagan had to deal with. Reagan’s dealing with Central America are discussed as well as Iran-Contra, Nicaragua, El Salvador, and the Reagan Doctrine. Students then get a worksheet to analyze the Iran-Contra affair. In the worksheet are what other options did Reagan have and other solutions to the problem.

7. SDI
Students go to the computer lab and read a PPT a student did for National History Day about Reagan and SDI. At the end of the PowerPoint are a series of questions about how SDI influenced foreign affairs in the summits with Gorbachev and the functionality of SDI today.

8. Reagan in Cartoons
Students go to the computer lab and analyze a selection of about 30 cartoons about Reagan. Students pick out ten and explain how the cartoons reflect the presidency of Reagan – both good and bad. Using what they have learned in previous lessons as evidence, the students put it altogether.


While the Reagan Lessons are over, the unit continues for another week and a half as students examine George H.W. Bush, Desert Storm, the Clinton Legacy, Columbine and 1990s culture.

Altogether, the unit lasts about 4 weeks. It is a unit that is always evolving. As more and more information is released and more and more documents are released from the Reagan era, then lessons can be built around investigation and argument. I think that next year, I would like to add some video which discusses the presidency as a whole and add some polling data about his popularity. In addition, I would like to add a scenario or a simulation for the students to investigate Iran-Contra or dealing with the Soviets.

At its core, the lessons are about using the evidence to make arguments for both sides as the students form their own opinions and learn multiple points of view.