A diplomat, Taylor was Canada’s Ambassador to Iran in November 1979, when members of the Muslim Student Followers of the Imam’s Line — supporters of the Iranian Revolution — invaded the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in retaliation for the U.S. allowing the deposed Shah of Iran to enter the U.S. for cancer treatments. The terrorists took 52 diplomats and citizens hostage, and the “Iran hostage crisis” lasted 444 days. When the siege occurred, six American diplomats escaped, running from house to house to avoid capture, until several days later they contacted the Canadian Embassy for help. They were welcomed and given sanctuary, staying in the homes of Ken Taylor and Canadian immigration officer John Sheardown, while plans were made to extricate them from Iran. The group was given Canadian passports with forged Iranian visa stamps, and a cover story was created: the six were part of a Canadian film crew scouting locations for a science fiction movie called Argo. Meanwhile, Taylor started sending non-essential Canadian personnel home, and winding down his own embassy operations. It took 79 days, but the group successfully made it out of Iran. Operatives hoped to keep the rescue secret until the 52 other hostages were released, but the story broke internationally even before the group made it home. Luckily, Taylor had closed his embassy, and he and his staff had all gotten out of Iran too.
When the news went public, Americans were exceptionally grateful to Canada and, in particular, Ambassador Taylor. For years afterward, he was recognized when he traveled: New York City cab drivers often refused to let him pay for rides, and he was repeatedly approached by Americans wanting to thank him and shake his hand. Taylor later became the Canadian consul general in New York, and retired from foreign service in 1984, and worked as a senior vice president of Nabisco. He later worked as a political affairs consultant. In 2012, the film Argo — based on the “Canadian Caper” (as the rescue became known to Americans) — was released, directed by Ben Affleck. The film was a success (and won the Academy Award for Best Picture), but criticized for falsely showing that the six Americans were turned away from the British and New Zealand embassies, and for minimizing Canada’s role in the rescue in favor of the CIA’s role. “The movie’s fun, it’s thrilling, it’s pertinent, it’s timely,” Taylor said after seeing it. “But look, Canada was not merely standing around watching events take place. The CIA was a junior partner.” In 1980, Taylor was awarded the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal for his role in the rescue, and was made an Officer of the Order of Canada. Ambassador Taylor died in New York on October 15, from colon cancer. He was 81.