Prominent African-American film and tv actor
BY MAUREEN O’DONNELL Staff Reporter email@example.com October 24, 2012 7:52PM
Wally Taylor: villain on screen, nice guy off died on October 7 in San Antonio,Texas. Taylor, a Maywood, Illinois native studied acting at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre. Wally began his career in 1968 in the play “Riot”. He went on to work in “The Great White Hope”, “No Place to Be Somebody”, “Raisin in the Sun” and “Fences”. Wally was a formidable adversary in his role as the evil, cunning John Kelly in “Shaft’s Big Score” Other film credits include “Cotton Comes To Harlem”, “Cool Breeze”, “Gumball Rally”, “Lord Shango”, “When A Stranger Calls” and “ Escape From New York”. Despite his rugged veneer, Taylor was a sensitive, committed man. He was also an advocate for early cancer detection. Taylor is survived by his daughter, Sharon Hayes (Sonny), son, Alfred Austin (Rita), sisters in Laws, Hixie Taylor and Margaret Caples Taylor, 3 grandchildren, 5 great grand children and a host of relatives and friends.
Updated: November 26, 2012 7:22AM
Growing up in Maywood with four brothers raised by a working single mother, Wally Taylor hustled to help his family.
He collected pop bottles and ran errands to make extra money to eat, said his daughter, Sharon Hayes.
When he scraped together a little cash, he went to the theater. “If they could get enough money with pop bottles, then they would go to the movies,” his daughter said. “He was just fascinated by the movies.”
Eventually, he would study acting at the Goodman School of Drama. His rugged intensity and mastery of his craft made him a busy film and TV actor. Relatives said he was sensitive and gentle in real life, but on screen, he often played the heavy.
In 1972, he was the evil Johnny Kelly in “Shaft’s Big Score!” which included this classic bit of Blaxploitation dialogue from Richard Roundtree: “Stay away from black honkies with big flat feet!”
Mr. Taylor was also in an iconic gem of Black Cinema, in “Cotton Comes to Harlem.” He played a militant who gets thrown up in the air by Detectives Gravedigger Jones (Godfrey Cambridge) and Coffin Ed Johnson (Raymond St. Jacques).
“When I learned director Ossie Davis was looking for a stunt man to do that bit, I volunteered and said I’d do it if I could keep the few lines I had,” he told the San Francisco Chronicle.
He appeared in the Eddie Murphy vehicle “The Golden Child”; in John Carpenter’s “Escape from New York”; in “Rocky III,” and the 1979 version of “When a Stranger Calls.”
For the play “The Great White Hope,” he understudied James Earl Jones. He also appeared as Walter Lee Younger in “A Raisin in the Sun” at Chicago’s Forum Theater. In 1990, he starred with Yaphet Kotto in “Fences” at Washington, D.C.’s, Arena Stage theater.
His TV resume reads like a road map of pop culture, including guest shots on “Knight Rider,” “Starsky and Hutch,” “Sanford and Son,” “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” “St. Elsewhere,” “Cagney and Lacy,” “Hill Street Blues,” “The Dukes of Hazzard,” “The Rockford Files,” “Ironside,” “Moonlighting,” “Falcon Crest,” “Webster” and “227.”
He also played Reverend in Alex Haley’s epic 1977 TV miniseries “Roots,” which sparked a national conversation on the legacy of slavery.
One of his favorite roles was as a bartender in the Pulitzer Prize-winning Broadway play “No Place to Be Somebody,” said his sister-in-law, Margaret Caples, executive director of the Community Film Workshop of Chicago.
Mr. Taylor died of heart disease Oct. 7 in San Antonio. He was 82.
His mother’s family was from Wrightsville, Ga. They migrated north because of crushing bigotry down South. One of his elderly relatives recalled, “You couldn’t bump up against a white woman” on the street without inviting danger, said Caples.
In Maywood, “there were five brothers, and raised by a single mother, so he didn’t really have a childhood,” said his daughter. “He was pretty much always talking of helping his mom, little odd jobs to help pay the rent or buy food.”
After his first marriage ended in divorce, Mr. Taylor worked as a CTA motorman, studied acting and performed in local plays. Eventually he moved to New York, where he worked in the theater, his daughter said.
But Mr. Taylor loved being near the Pacific Ocean. He lived in Los Angeles, Newport, Oregon, and Kauai. He performed in Australia for several months in the play “I’m Not Rappaport.”
In the 1970s, he spent a year in Spain. He told Jet magazine he needed a break, because the movie business was constricting him and other African-American actors who wanted significant roles. “Hollywood is cramming down the world’s throat the message that all [blacks] are pimps and prostitutes,” he said.
When he was younger, he wasn’t above using his fists to stand up for himself. He wouldn’t tolerate disrespect when he was older, either, his daughter said.
Later in life, while on a cruise, he found himself assigned to a dinner table with a man who made derogatory, racist comments, his daughter said.
“He told the man to cut it out,” she said. But, “the next night, he did it again.”
Mr. Taylor “went to whoever he needed to go, and the man was put off the ship,” Sharon Hayes said. “They gave [the offensive dinner companion] a plane ticket home.’’
A previous prostate cancer diagnosis prompted him to become an educator, often speaking to groups about the importance of early detection, relatives said.
This summer, his family plans to scatter his ashes over the Pacific Ocean he loved, his daughter said.
Mr. Taylor is also survived by his son, Alfred Austin, three grandchildren, and five great-grandchildren.