Lee Schatz Starred in the Real-life 'Argo'

Severna Park, MD's Lee Schatz is going to Hollywood this weekend, the second trip this month.

The first time, he and his family were there for the premiere of "Argo," the film depicting the 1980 escape from Tehran of six Americans who had slipped out of the U.S. embassy when it was overrun by a revolutionary mob.

He's not in the movie.

He lived it.

Schatz was one of the six Americans protected by Canadian officials who helped them escape nearly three months after the embassy's fall.

After seeing the premiere, he walked out of the theater with Tony Mendez, the CIA operative who helped pull off the escape. "I leaned over and told Tony, 'I think I preferred it live.' "

In the fall of 1979, Schatz was a 31-year-old agricultural attache. He arrived on Labor Day to take up his second overseas post since joining the Agriculture Department's foreign service.

He left the embassy after the daily briefing on the morning of Nov. 4, going out of the compound after one crowd of demonstrators dispersed and before another gathered.

Minutes later he saw the crowd grow more agitated -- and then the embassy gates were scaled, the compound stormed.

"I saw that scene from about a 90-degree angle from my office window," the tall, gregarious, 64-year-old said last week in Severna Park, where he lives with his wife, Pat, and their two sons.

After reporting goings-on to embassy personnel by walkie-talkie, using the codename Palm Tree, he was ordered to move out of his office. He hid in a Swedish embassy office two floors up.

Meanwhile, the crowd rushed into the embassy and took all the personnel hostage.

All but about 10 others.

"A group of them got out of the compound, then split up. One group went left, the other went right," he said. One of the groups ran into a crowd of students and was captured and returned to the embassy.

The 52 Americans in the compound would be held for 444 days.

The other five Americans eventually were taken in by Canadian officials.

Schatz holed up in the Swedish office for a day and half, maintaining contact with U.S. State Department officials and reporting what he could see through binoculars.

Schatz then moved to a Swedish woman's house and stayed there for the next 10 days.

When that got too precarious, he was told he was being moved.

He packed quickly and was picked up by a brusque man whom he assumed to be CIA.

Once in the car, his handler smiled and introduced himself as a Canadian, John Sheardown, who had already taken in three of the escaped Americans. Schatz would spend the next weeks at Sheardown's home with the others.

"The Canadians, the Sheardowns and Ambassador Ken Taylor took great risk," Schatz said. "If we were caught, we would have been taken to the embassy with the other hostages. But they might have been arrested, or worse."

Life in hiding, while tense and dangerous, was actually rather luxurious.

"We had dinner every night, good wine, and lots of books and newspapers," he said. "We passed the time playing Scrabble."

He and his fellow hidees were aware of plans to extricate them. Some of the other embassies in town and the Canadians discussed ways to get them out.

Enter Tony Mendez. Three months after the embassy's fall in January 1980, Mendez and his assistant came to dinner. No one was the wiser.

"Tony presented three ideas. The third was the movie crew," Schatz said.

The plan: Mendez and the six Americans would pose as a Canadian film crew scouting locations to film a bogus science fiction movie, "Argo." Back in the states, the CIA had set up an elaborate back story, creating a fake film company -- Studio 6 Productions -- and even getting stories and ads placed in Variety.

Schatz and his compatriots had two days to learn their covers. He became the film crew's cameraman, Henry W. Collins (Mendez provided a camera lens for him). Each person had a full kit of clothes, identification cards and Canadian passports.

"They even had Canadian shaving cream and toothbrushes. I got a Molson's beer hat, a Canadian pin. They even had matchbooks from the hotels we would have stayed at in other countries on our tour," he said.

Then it was time to go.

The movie takes liberties with the facts, as movies do. A scene in which Mendez and the group have to go to Tehran's main bazaar, to convince Iranian officials that they're a real film crew checking out a location, didn't happen.

The movie also has a scene at the airport in which the crew's tickets initially aren't ready because Washington officials had tried to nix the plan.

"That didn't happen. We had tickets in hand. In fact we had tickets for two flights, one on Swissair and a second on British Airways," he said.

Also unlike the movie, Schatz was the first to go through the line to board the plane. In fact, he jumped in a short line for nonsmokers, while the others went through the longer line for smokers.

"After we lifted off and they announced we had left Iranian airspace and the drink cart would come around ... we all got Bloody Marys. And people wondered why these six Americans all raised their glasses," Schatz said.

People kept wondering for 17 years. In 1997, the CIA's 50th anniversary year, the mission was declassified. Mendez was honored as one of the top 50 agents in the history of "The Company."

And now the movie version. Schatz was flown to Los Angeles by Warner Brothers this weekend so he, Mendez and others involved in the real story could present an ensemble cast award to the "Argo" actors at the Hollywood Film Festival.

To this day, no one needs to tell the six who escaped that they had it easier than those held captive.

"I am no hero," Schatz said. "Those are the real heroes -- the people who endured that and the people who worked to get them out alive."

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