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Lee Schatz

Idahoan tells the real story behind Argo

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Lee Schatz, 64, had been in charge of the agricultural section of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran for only two months when revolutionaries stormed the American compound in November 1979, taking 52 hostages for 444 days.

The Post Falls native and University of Idaho graduate joined five other embassy employees in escaping the takeover, finding refuge in the residences of Canadian Ambassador Ken Taylor and Canadian Consul John Sheardown. Their ordeal and rescue is the subject of the new film Argo, heralded by critics as a major Oscar contender.

Marcia Franklin, an Idaho Public Television host and producer who has been to Iran twice and made a documentary on the environmental movement there, talked to Schatz about Argo and his real-life 1979 drama.

What did you think of the film?

[The filmmakers] actually taught people some history that's important ... and I think it's also just a fun film. I was not looking forward to sitting in a theater for two hours; I sat down, and the next thing I know, it's over. You know how it's going to end, but you still get pulled along by it.

You're described in the beginning of the film as being kind of odd.

Which was fine. I'm an 'Aggie,' you know. Everyone else was a State Department person. The Aggies are always kind of odd in embassies.

They have footage of you giving the finger to someone in jest.

Yeah, that would be me.

That was mock footage, though, right?

Yeah, I'm slightly more politically correct than that.

Did you get to meet Rory Cochrane, the actor who played you?

I talked to him on the phone a couple of times. He said, "They got me these big horn-rimmed glasses." And I said, "Rory, we did not wear horn-rimmed glasses. You tell those people to go out and get Ray-Ban Shooters; that's what [we] wore. And if you can, get them in photogray."

You weren't originally with the group that escaped the embassy, right?

No, my office was down the street. Agriculture, in those days, always tried to be in the most accessible location because we worked a lot with the public.

The day of the takeover was just another day of protests in front of the embassy. It got really loud outside ... and I looked up and you could see people going over the wall. I could see them already running around in the compound.

So you knew you needed to go.

Actually, we ordered lunch. Denial is a great tool. All of the principal officers, of which I was one, had two-way radios with them 24/7, so I could describe for the people inside the chancery what was going on outside as they began destroying documents.

Were you scared?

Concerned, I guess. But scared doesn't do you much good.

What was it like when you joined the other [escapees]?

It was more boredom than anything else. There really wasn't any tension. We sat down to a family dinner every night with the Sheardowns. We filled hours every day reading. We eventually gravitated towards Scrabble ... and I got pretty good at it. The Sheardowns had a two-volume British dictionary that I paged through, page by page, looking for words.

You didn't spend time worrying about your fate, because we knew we were really lucky. What we knew, though, was that we put the Canadians at risk, and that was one of the things we were most concerned about.

There's been some criticism that there wasn't enough due given the Canadians in the film.

Once you get your head wrapped around the fact that this is not about our situation in Tehran, it's about the CIA and Hollywood and how they worked to get us out, then you realize there's not much space there for character development on the Canadian side or character development of the six of us.

So, for anyone who doesn't worry about credit, I think there's plenty there. We wouldn't have been there for the CIA and Hollywood to work with had it not been for the Canadians.

What did you think of the scenario [pretending to be a movie crew scouting locations for a science fiction film] to get you out?

For us to succeed ... we had to be able to see ourselves [acting like a film crew] and enjoying doing it.

In the movie, there is a lot of tension at the airport but, in reality, it wasn't that dramatic, was it?

No, we knew there was a backup plan that if our plane wasn't going to leave ... we had backup seats on British Airways.

But there really was a mechanical failure announcement for SwissAir that morning. We're sitting there going, "Jesus, I hope they really fix this because we've got a ways to go before we land." We would have been turning around and going back to Tehran. Now, that would have been frightening.

Did watching the movie affect you?

This doesn't bring back any bad memories. And it was half a lifetime ago. This is one-half of 1 percent of my life. I'm a father; I'm a husband. So many things have meant more than those 90 days.

And you and the others continued your foreign service, sometimes in dangerous places.

I got into this business originally because I thought I could make a difference. And you try to do that. You can't be afraid, because if you are, you're not going to be able to do your job.

Did you keep any memorabilia?

I kept the [fake identity] business card. When we got to Switzerland, they did an inventory of all our stuff. And I was one business card short. And they go, "So what'd you do with it?" Was I going to tell them it was in my right shoe? Of course not.

Do you want to go back to Iran?

I watched the [U.S.] flag being torn down on the embassy. And what I've always hoped I was going to have a chance to do in my career was to see an [American] flag going up on a facility [in Iran]. Because I really do believe that these are two countries that should be talking to each other, rather than at each other.

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