"E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial." (Universal Pictures)
Just when you thought the "Argo" story couldn't get any more intriguing, a detailed C.I.A. case study reveals that a very famous movie crossed paths with the intelligence agency's extremely elaborate cover story.
Over on the C.I.A.'s website, real-life former operative Tony Mendez (Ben Affleck's character in "Argo") gives a blow-by-blow account of the "Canadian Caper" in an intel study titled "A Classic Case of Deception: CIA Goes Hollywood." During his time with the agency, Mendez worked as an exfiltration expert — someone who covertly extracts persons from potentially hostile areas around the world. His official account of the efforts to rescue six US diplomats from Iran under the guise of a Canadian movie shoot is a fascinating read for anyone who wants to know the truth about the events portrayed in Affleck's film "Argo" — especially since the director was required to take some factual liberties for dramatic purposes.
See also: 'Argo': Five film facts
But the case study also reveals a very cool bit of trivia sure to tickle movie buffs. In order to fully sell the movie location scouting cover story to the Iranians, the C.I.A. actually set up a production company in Hollywood with the help of "Planet of the Apes" make-up artist John Chambers and producer Bob Sidell (played in "Argo" by John Goodman and Alan Arkin, respectively). A fake production house (called Studio Six Productions) was all well and good, but they needed a script — a real script.
So, Mendez and his Tinsel Town cohorts got to work soliciting science fiction screenplays from every corner of Hollywood. With the success of "Star Wars" just a few years before, there was no shortage of sci-fi and fantasy contenders, and the team eventually settled on a space opera adventure script called "Argo." Mendez reports that even after Studio Six was set up and "Argo" was chosen, the C.I.A.'s production company kept receiving screenplays. They got about 26 scripts in all, including a movie which featured Steven Spielberg's name -- although Mendez doesn't mention the script's title or offer any other details.
Ben Affleck as Tony Mendez in "Argo."
Although the extraction mission had already been completed by the time the studio got the Spielberg script, the fact that they received a screenplay from the blockbuster "Jaws" director is a testament to how "real" the fake production company seemed to everyone else in Hollywood. Maybe it was the full page ad the agency took out in the industry trade magazine "Variety," or perhaps it was the involvement of the Academy Award-winning John Chambers (code named "Jerome Calloway" in Mendez's brief).
But what movie was Spielberg's script for? Spielberg was filming "Raiders of the Lost Ark" at the time, but he was also in the process of developing "E.T. and Me," a screenplay written by Melissa Mathison based on a story by the director. Columbia Pictures had just passed on the project, so it's very possible that Spielberg was shopping the script around everywhere he could — including to the C.I.A.'s faux production company. The filmmaker would eventually make a deal with Universal and began production on a little movie called "E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial" the following year in 1981.
Also in "E.T."-related news, the tearful audition video of Henry Thomas, who played Elliot in the film, has been making the viral rounds this week. It's an amazing performance from the young actor, and one that immediately won him the job on "E.T." Watch it below.