Fresh out of Yale in the early 1970s, Ron Taylor wanted to go into foreign service for the U.S. State Department. Given his family’s history of achievement and social engagement in Los Angeles, this seemed a reasonable goal.
“He would have been quite adept at it,” Taylor’s brother Steve said this week.
But before that dream could take shape, a job at ABC popped up. Then a promotion. Then a chance to work as a programming executive on a miniseries called “Roots.”
Launched on a career as writer, producer, studio executive and educator, Taylor became a pioneer in pushing the entertainment industry toward greater diversity.
Part of his work was teaching at USC, where on Monday morning students in Taylor’s ethics class took their finals. After he and his co-teachers bade the students farewell, Taylor headed to the gym on campus — where he collapsed and was pronounced dead. He was 71.
His death stunned family, friends and admirers in show business and academia, many of whom noted how Taylor’s career had evolved into a mission to pry open doors that had long been closed.
“You could see that diplomatic skill that he must have had to exercise for decades,” said USC professor of cinematic arts Lisa Leeman, who was with Taylor on that last day of teaching. “It couldn’t have been easy.”
Taylor attended John Marshall High School in Los Feliz, where he was student body president and played football and basketball. At Yale University, he majored in Latin American studies.
But once he landed within the entertainment industry, siblings said, his direction was clear.
As a writer, producer and executive over the next 45 years, he took on jobs and projects at Warner Bros., Disney, UPN, MGM, Spelling Productions and Sony TV, often as the only person of color in the room, usually aiming to boost diversity in an industry resistant to change.
Taylor’s resume notes that he gave several industry standouts their first jobs in television, including producer John Wells (“ER”) and director and choreographer Kenny Ortega. From 2003 through 2010, Taylor served as vice president of diverse programming at Fox Broadcasting.
“He was there in a rough time,” said Hilary Ward, an L.A.-based actor, friend of Taylor and visiting faculty member at the Carnegie Mellon School of Drama in Pittsburgh. As the lone person of color in such situations, “there’s a real pressure to be excellent. Not only do you have to do the job, you have to do it so expertly that you’re undeniable,” she said.
Known for his easy smile and measured tone, Taylor often found his way to assignments as a teacher or mentor. This included adjunct teaching for Columbia College Chicago, running a mentorship program for the Directors Guild of America and, beginning in spring 2021, leading classes at USC’s School of Cinematic Arts.
In August, “Red & White Blues,” a feature screenplay Taylor wrote with Nelson Handel, won grand prize in the Save the Cat! Screenplay Challenge competition.
Taylor also served several years on the Studio City Neighborhood Council.
“He brought a calm discernment to a room,” said Christopher Carlson, a screenwriter who knew Taylor from church. “He was the kind of person who, after a brouhaha, could bring things into clarity.”
Taylor grew up in Los Angeles as one of five children. His father, James B. Taylor, was a math teacher who became a high school principal in Sun Valley and South Los Angeles, then rose to be deputy superintendent of the Los Angeles Unified School District during the debate over busing in the 1970s. Animo James B. Taylor Charter Middle School in Watts is named for the senior Taylor, who died in 2016.
Taylor’s mother, Jane Johnson Taylor, a pianist, organist and teacher, played a central role for decades at Mount Hollywood Congregational Church, which by the 1930s had become one of the city’s first churches with a racially integrated congregation. She was also a cousin of the Nobel laureate and United Nations official Ralph J. Bunche, whom Ron Taylor grew up calling “Cousin Ralph.”
Ron Taylor followed in his mother’s role with the church, serving in a variety of prominent positions — beginning with the role of baby Jesus in the church’s 1951 nativity play, continuing in the 1990s and beyond as treasurer and spokesman. He was often joined by his wife, Jane Taylor, and youngest son, Grant.
Nine days before his death, Taylor was in the church courtyard with his grandson, Thomas, enjoying an arts and crafts fair.
The Rev. Ashley Hiestand, who arrived as pastor at the church two years ago, said she was struck immediately by Taylor’s “energy, his presence, his light. He just shone and he made you feel safe, welcome and free.”
“He meant a lot to a lot of people,” said friend actor Amy Hill, best known for playing Kumu on the rebooted “Magnum P.I.”
In her years of working with the East West Players theater company in Los Angeles, Hill said, she could always count on seeing Taylor at openings and special events, looking for talent and chances to advance his cause.
In their ethics class’ last regular session on Nov. 28, Leeman said, the conversation turned to pay inequities and Taylor brought up an inequity between co-stars he’d encountered in one of his studio jobs.
“The students were totally on the edge of their seats, because it was a true-life story of someone who identified the source of a problem and was able to bring it to people’s attention and made a difference. It was a beautiful, perfect way to wrap up our last class together,” Leeman said, recalling the applause from the class.
“It left students feeling that we each can make a difference. Because Ron had.”
Among the five Taylor siblings — including a doctor, a lawyer, a composer and the president of a charitable foundation — “Ronnie was the smartest, no question,” said Nancy Taylor, a younger sister. “When my mom passed and my dad passed, we siblings wanted Ronnie to be the speaker.”
In addition to his wife and son Grant, Taylor is survived by sons Miklos, Andrew and Tristan; one grandson; and siblings Carolyn Taylor-Olson, Stephen James Taylor, Peter J. Taylor and Nancy Taylor.