Ken Taylor, Real-Life 'Argo' Diplomat, Dies at 81

Argo Victor Garber Ben Affleck - H 2015
Everett Collection

Victor Garber played Taylor in the 2012 Oscar-winning film.

Ken Taylor, Canada's ambassador to Iran who sheltered Americans at his residence during the 1979 hostage crisis, has died. He was 81.

Taylor's wife, Pat, said Ken died on Thursday after a two-month battle with colon cancer.

Taylor kept the Americans hidden at his residence and at the home of his deputy, John Sheardown, in Tehran for three months. Taylor facilitated their escape by arranging plane tickets and persuading the Ottawa government to issue fake passports.

He was heralded as a hero in both the U.S. and Canada for helping save the Americans in the clandestine operation.

Some of Taylor's exploits in Iran in 1979 later became the subject of the 2012 Hollywood film, Argo. But Taylor and others, including former U.S. President Jimmy Carter, felt the film downplayed his role and that of Canada in the operation.

Taylor's wife said he was diagnosed with cancer in August and that friends from Canada, the U.S. and elsewhere visited him at New York Presbyterian hospital, where he was being treated.

She said Taylor, born in 1934 in Calgary, has a legacy of generosity.

"He did all sorts of things for everyone without any expectation of something coming back," she told the Associated Press in a telephone interview.

"It's why that incident in Iran happened," she said. "There was no second thought about it. He just went ahead and did it. His legacy is that giving is what is important, not receiving. With all his friends that's what he did."

The six U.S. diplomats had managed to slip away when their embassy was overrun in 1979. They spent five days on the move, then took refuge at the Canadian Embassy for the next three months.

The CIA consulted with Canadian officials on how to organize a rescue, and Canada gave permission for the diplomats to be issued fake Canadian passports.

Tributes poured in for Taylor.

U.S. Ambassador Bruce Heyman called Taylor's actions courageous.

"Ambassador Taylor earned the enduring gratitude of the United States — and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal — for his valor and ingenuity in harboring six American citizens trapped in Iran in the aftermath of the seizure of the American Embassy in Tehran on November 4, 1979 and, ultimately, in securing their safe return," Heyman said in a statement.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was sad to learn of the news.

"As Canada's Ambassador to Iran during the Iranian Revolution, Taylor valiantly risked his own life by shielding a group of American diplomats from capture," Harper said. "Ken Taylor represented the very best that Canada's foreign service has to offer."

Joe Clark, Canada's prime minister in 1979, called Taylor a Canadian hero and a valued friend.

Although Taylor's actions were made famous again in the movie Argo, which won the 2013 Oscar for best picture, Taylor said it made Canada look like a meek observer to CIA heroics. Friends of Taylor were outraged when Argo debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2012. The original postscript of the movie said that Taylor received 112 citations and awards for his work in freeing the hostages and suggested Taylor didn't deserve them because the movie ends with the CIA deciding to let Canada have the credit for helping the Americans escape.

In 2013, Taylor's story was told again at the Toronto International Film Festival, which debuted the documentary, Our Man in Tehran.

Taylor is also survived by his son, Douglas, and his wife Dana and two grandchildren. His funeral arrangements were not immediately clear.