You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

‘Argo’ action relied on Variety ad, stories

CIA operative planted fake info in trade as cover for hostages

It’s been a big week for Variety, landing a new owner and playing a small but pivotal role in “Argo,” which opens today.

Variety has been used in countless fictional pieces, from “Yankee Doodle Dandy” to “Singin’ in the Rain,” to “Entourage” and “The Simpsons.” But the use in “Argo” is based on fact.

One paragraph in Daily Variety on Jan. 15, 1980, and a full-page ad the following day, were parts of a plot by the CIA and the Canadian government to secure the freedom of six American embassy employees who were caught behind enemy lines in Iran.

Were Variety staffers suckers in falling for the plot, or is it flattering that the CIA chose the paper to lend an air of credibility to a plan that would seem far-fetched and silly if it weren’t true? Maybe both.

Ben Affleck directs and stars in the film, playing Tony Mendez, a specialist in extracting personnel from hostile environments who was working with the CIA. Mendez came up with the idea of disguising the six hostages as a Canadian film crew in Iran who were scouting locations for a fake sci-fi movie titled “Argo.” To lend credibility, they recruited makeup artist John Chambers (who did the makeup for the 1968 “Planet of the Apes”) and other Hollywood personnel to set up a production company. Scenes of that company are filmed on the Burbank lot of Warner Bros., which is releasing the pic.

Part of selling the fictional cover story involved planting seeds of key information in the media, and Variety published the following news brief in its Pix, People, Pickups roundup: “Studio Six Prods. has announced that sci-fi thriller, ‘Argo,’ will begin filming in March on various locations in Asia and Europe. Indie is keeping mum on any plot and cast details until just before pic is released.”

The blurb appeared inches away from a story about CBS News prexy Bill Leonard addressing the stormy news coverage of events in Iran.

The following day, the faux producers of “Argo” took out a full-page ad in Daily Variety announcing the start of principal photography in March 1980.

The production company, Studio Six, of course, took its name from the six Americans being held hostage in Tehran, while fictional scribe Teresa Harris was a nom de plume for embassy worker Cora Lijek, played by Clea DuVall in “Argo.”

The “Argo” mission was declassified in 1997 by President Clinton, which led to a 2007 Wired article by Joshuah Bearman that was later adapted by screenwriter Chris Terrio.

Spoiler alert: The climax of Affleck’s film finds the Iranian militia guarding the Tehran airport looking at a copy of Variety and phoning the fake production company to confirm the authenticity of the film.

With a CIA operative posing as producer, the cover story holds and clears the way for the hostages’ escape.

The faux “Argo” never saw the light of day, but the story behind its inception was declassified in 1997, paving the way for the Affleck-directed backstory. It seems that neither Hollywood nor Washington can resist a good subterfuge plot.

Popular on Variety

More Film

  • Rugrats. Nickeoldeon Animation Studios

    Film News Roundup: 'Rugrats' Writer David N. Weiss Honored by Animation Writers

    In today’s film news roundup, David N. Weiss is honored, Rin Tin Tin is getting a modern movie and “The Shasta Triangle” finds a home. WEISS HONORED David N. Weiss will receive the animation writing award from the Animation Writers Caucus of the Writers Guild of America West. The award will be presented by Weiss’ [...]

  • Marrakech Chief on Selecting Arthouse Films

    Marrakech Chief on Selecting Arthouse Films With a Big Stress on the Word 'Art'

    The 18th edition of the Marrakech Film Festival (Nov. 29-Dec. 7) – one of the leading cultural events in the Africa and Middle East region – will screen 98 films from 34 countries. The fest is also reinforcing its industry presence this year through the second edition of the Atlas Workshops, sponsored by Netflix, which [...]

  • Emma Stone Brad Pitt Damien Chazelle

    Paramount Lands Damien Chazelle's 'Babylon,' Dates It for Christmas 2021

    Paramount Pictures has landed the worldwide rights to Damien Chazelle’s next feature film “Babylon,” sources tell Variety. Insiders add the studio has dated the film for a Dec. 25, 2021 limited release, with plans to go wide on Jan. 7. The release date puts in prime position for another awards season run for Chazelle, who [...]

  • Chris Pratt

    Chris Pratt's Sci-Fi Film 'The Tomorrow War' Gets Release Date

    Chris Pratt’s upcoming sci-fi actioner, which was recently retitled “The Tomorrow War,” has set a Christmas Day 2020 release date. The Paramount film was formerly titled “Ghost Draft.” It follows a man (played by Pratt) who is drafted to fight a future war in which the fate of humanity may rely on his ability to [...]

  • Kim Dong-Ho of GIFF Chairman of

    Inaugural Gangneung Film Festival Pays Tribute to Pierre Rissient

    The opening ceremony of the first edition of the Gangneung International Film Festival was dominated by a tribute to the French film scout and festival selector Pierre Rissient, who died in May 2018. The new festival, 240 km from Seoul, counts former Busan festival co-founder Kim Dong-ho as its chairman and former Bucheon festival head [...]

  • 'Waves': Sterling K. Brown and Trey

    'Waves' Cast Reflects on the Making of the Tragic Family Drama

    “Waves,” a partially autobiographical film written and directed by Trey Edward Shults, is a visually arresting look at the fraying of an upper-middle class black family in South Florida in the aftermath of a violent tragedy. It examines themes of grief, domestic violence, substance abuse and modern-day pressures on kids to succeed. “Propelled by color, [...]

  • Gaston Pavlovich

    Gaston Pavlovich Talks About Producing 'The Irishman'

    Through his production company Fabrica De Cine, Gastón Pavlovich is one of the producers on Martin Scorsese’s two most recent movies: 2016’s “Silence” and 2019’s “The Irishman.” The 51-year-old native of Mexico first gained notice as an executive producer on the Tom Hanks comedy-drama “A Hologram for the King.” Pavlovich also began working with Scorsese [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content