Iranian whose experience inspired Spielberg’s ‘The Terminal’ dies at Paris airport

An Iranian man who lived for 18 years at Paris’ Charles de Gaulle airport and whose saga loosely inspired the Steven Spielberg movie “The Terminal” died Saturday at the airport he had long called home, officials said.

Mehran Karimi Nasseri died after suffering a heart attack in Terminal 2F of the airport around noon, according to a Paris airport authority official. Police and a medical team treated him but could not save him, the official said. The official was not authorized to be named publicly.

Nasseri lived in the airport’s Terminal 1 from 1988 to 2006, initially in a legal vacuum because he had no residency papers and later by apparent choice.

Every year, he slept on a red plastic bench, befriended airport workers, showered in staff facilities, wrote in his diary, read magazines and surveyed passing travelers.

Iranian whose experience inspired Spielberg
FILE — An Aug. 5, 2004 photo of Mehran Karimi Nasseri, originally from Iran, at Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris.

Eric Fougere/VIP Images/Corbis/Getty Images

The staff nicknamed him Lord Alfred and he became a mini-celebrity among the passengers.

“Eventually, I’ll leave the airport,” he told The Associated Press in 1999, smoking a pipe on his bench, looking gaunt with long thin hair, sunken eyes and hollow cheeks. “But I’m still waiting for a passport or a transit visa.”

Nasseri was born in 1945 in Soleiman, a part of Iran then under British jurisdiction, to an Iranian father and a British mother. He left Iran to study in England in 1974. When he returned, he said, he was imprisoned for protesting against the shah and deported without a passport.

He applied for political asylum in several European countries. UNHCR in Belgium gave him refugee credentials, but said his briefcase containing the refugee certificate was stolen at a Paris train station.

French police later arrested him but could not deport him anywhere because he had no official documents. It ended up at Charles de Gaulle in August 1988 and stayed.

Further red tape and increasingly strict European immigration laws kept him in legal land for years.

When he finally received his refugee papers, he described his surprise and insecurity about leaving the airport. He reportedly refused to sign them and ended up staying there for several more years until he was hospitalized in 2006 and later lived in a shelter in Paris.

Those who befriended him at the airport said his years of living in the windowless space took a toll on his mental state. The airport doctor in the 1990s was concerned about his physical and mental health and described him as “petrified here”. A friend of the ticket agent compared him to a prisoner unable to “live outside”.

In the weeks before his death, Nasseri was living again at Charles de Gaulle, the airport official said.

Nasseri’s harrowing story loosely inspired 2004’s “The Terminal,” starring Tom Hanks, as well as a French film, “Lost in Transit,” and an opera called “Flight.”

In “The Terminal,” Hanks plays Viktor Navorsky, a man who arrives at JFK Airport in New York from the fictional Eastern European country of Kraków and discovers that an overnight political revolution has canceled all of his travel documents. Viktor is flown to the airport’s international lounge and told to stay there until his situation is resolved, which continues as the unrest in Krakosia continues.

No information on survivors was immediately available.

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