Former CIA agent Tony Mendez, who started an ingenious rescue operation for US diplomats in Iran in 1980 and was inspired by the Oscar-winning film Argo , died Saturday, his family said.

The 78-year-old former spy chief had been suffering from Parkinson’s for more than 10 years, his family said in a statement posted on Twitter by his literary agent Christy Fletcher.

He must be buried in Nevada at a private ceremony, she said.

He died in a specialized facility in Frederick, Maryland, near Washington.

When the Iranian revolutionaries seized the US embassy in Tehran in 1979, a handful of diplomats managed to escape through a back door and took refuge at the Canadian embassy.

Tony Mendez, a specialist in exfiltration operations at the US intelligence agency, had then drawn up an unlikely rescue operation: to set up in Hollywood the production of a sci-fi sci-fi film, “Argo”, to go to Iran to scout and return to the United States with the hostages, portraying them as the film crew.

On January 27, 1980, thanks to fake Canadian passports, the six American diplomats were able to leave Iran unharmed.

The story of this exfiltration has inspired the cinema Argo thriller actor-director Ben Affleck, crowned by the Oscar for best film in 2013.

US Secretary of State and former CIA boss Mike Pompeo called Mendez an “extraordinarily talented intelligence officer.”  

“Extracting Americans from the Islamic Republic of Iran in 1980 was just one of his many achievements,” he added.

Ben Affleck, who played Tony Mendez in Argo , praised a “real American hero”.  

“He was a man of extraordinary grace, decency, humility, and kindness. […] I’m so proud to have worked for him and to have told one of his stories, “he tweeted.

Author of many books, his latest book co-authored with his wife Jonna – also a CIA alumni – is scheduled to appear in May: The Moscow Rules: The Secret CIA Tactics That Helped America Win the Cold War , ie how the CIA has allowed the United States to win the Cold War.