TORONTO – John Sheardown, a former Canadian diplomat who sheltered fugitive American Embassy staffers at his Tehran home at great personal risk during the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, has died. He was 88.

His wife, Zena, said Saturday that Sheardown passed away in an Ottawa hospital on Dec. 30. She said he had been treated for Alzheimer’s disease for the past four years but also suffered from other ailments.

Sheardown, the first secretary at the Canadian Embassy in Tehran at the time of the Islamic Revolution, played a key role in the events depicted in Ben Affleck’s Oscar-contender film “Argo,” although he was not portrayed in the film.

Militant Iranian radicals seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran on Nov. 4, 1979, taking 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in retaliation for U.S. support for the recently deposed shah. Almost a week later, the Canadian diplomat received a call from Robert Anders, one of the six Americans who had managed to evade capture. The American consular officer was calling his friend Sheardown for help.

“‘What you so long?’” was Sheardown’s reply, said his wife.

The Sheardowns agreed without hesitation to shelter four of the six Americans in secrecy in their 20-room house in Tehran. The Canadian ambassador, Ken Taylor, housed the other two Americans.

For 79 days, the pair ran a household in tumultuous Tehran that was comfortable and welcoming for the Americans.

“We have a lot of fond memories. We spent American Thanksgiving together, New Year’s Eve, together. Every night we would all sit around for dinner together. There was a lot of humor and laughter. It was a nice time to have to spend together,” she said.

She said her husband became a father figure to whom everyone turned for advice.