Ken Taylor, the Canadian ambassador to Iran who famously helped six Americans escape Tehran after the 1979 hostage crisis, has died at the age of 81.

Taylor was diagnosed in August with colon cancer. He died with his wife Pat by his side in a New York hospital on Thursday afternoon, said family friend Ralph Lean.

“Canadians lost a true hero who just lived life to the fullest and I got lucky enough to be allowed to tag along with Taylor,” Lean told The Canadian Press.

Lean spent an hour with Taylor on Monday. "He was in and out of consciousness. He knew it was game over. It was only a matter of time. But there was no complaint. Pat was sitting with him. He talked to us about his grandchildren. They were his pride and joy, his two grandchildren. "

As Canada’s ambassador to Iran, Taylor played a key role in the rescue mission carried out by the Canadian government and the CIA. Known as the "Canadian Caper," the mission inspired the 2012 Ben Affleck movie “Argo.”

In interviews, Taylor said that he was disappointed by the film because it made Canada look like a bystander in a heroic CIA operation. In reality, it was Taylor and other Canadians who sheltered the Americans at great personal risk.

Taylor also helped arrange airline tickets and fake passports for the six Americans who fled the U.S. Embassy in Tehran after it was attacked by radical supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Former Canadian prime minister Joe Clark, who was in office during the Iranian hostage crisis, called Taylor a “Canadian hero” and “an example of what we can be at our best.”

In an email to CTV News, Clark said Taylor was “also a valued friend to me and to others who were privileged to know and work with him.”

In a statement, Prime Minister Stephen Harper said he was saddened by Taylor’s death.

“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.”

Taylor publicly disagreed with the Harper in 2012 over the decision to close Canada's embassy in Tehran and sever diplomatic ties.

The U.S. State Department offered a statement extending condolences to Taylor’s family on behalf of the U.S. government and American people.

“Ambassador Taylor earned the enduring gratitude of the United States of America -- and was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal -- for his valor and ingenuity,” it read in part.

“Ambassador Taylor’s courageous actions exemplify the enduring nature of the special relationship between the United States and Canada,” the statement said.

Taylor’s son Douglas told CTV News Channel Thursday that his father “lived life to the fullest” and tried to enjoy every day, despite his illness.

Douglas Taylor said some of his father’s closest friends didn’t even realize how ill he was, because he didn’t want to talk about his health.

“He wanted to talk about how they’re doing and he wanted to talk about sports or politics.”

As for his role in the hostage crisis, Taylor “never looked for individual praise,” his son said.

“He always positioned it as something that was a reflection of Canada and everybody else that was at the embassy.”

In 1980, Taylor was made an officer of the Order of Canada.

Taylor was later appointed Canada’s Consul-General in New York.

Family friend Lean said he met Ken on a plane heading to the Northwest Territories for a fishing trip.

“He had on a sport jacket and Gucci shoes and was going fishing in the Northwest Territories," Lean recalled.

Over the years, Taylor’s fishing partners included former Ontario premier Mike Harris, U.S. President George Bush and hockey great Wayne Gretzky.

Taylor was born in Calgary in 1934.


With files from The Canadian Press