In a Rare and Inspiring Triumph Over Down Syndrome, John Taylor Gets His Name in Lights

updated 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 04/25/1988 AT 01:00 AM EDT

At the Pix Cinema in Spring Valley, N.Y., the 7:30 showing of The Seventh Sign is ending. As the credits roll, John Taylor, who has been watching from a front-row seat, stands up, faces the audience and bows. Within seconds, moviegoers are crowding around him. "Can I have your autograph?" asks one. Then a pal who came with him declares, "You were good, John." A beaming Taylor fishes further: "Was I good—or excellent?"

He was excellent, but that's not the only reason to excuse Taylor's bravado. While his sisters Mary, 25, and Laurie, 28, are trained actresses still waiting for their big screen break, John, at 21, parlayed his first-ever audition into a small but important role in a hit thriller starring Demi Moore. John plays a boy with Down syndrome who is sentenced to death for killing his parents because "God told me to do it."

His accomplishment seems all the more remarkable because John does suffer from Down syndrome, the congenital disorder once known as mongolism. Caused by the presence of an extra chromosome, Down's often results in such abnormalities as weak muscle tone, short stature and a flattened nose, as well as mental retardation. Taylor's abilities surprise many who meet him. In his case, the impairment takes a mild form. He has astonishing recall (one hobby is memorizing encyclopedias), an impressive vocabulary and a crafty sense of humor. Casting director Penny DuPont, who interviewed 25 boys with Down's before hiring Taylor for the film, says the first thing John asked was, "What does this character do, and why does he do it?" That, she says, is "a real actor's question."

Until the 1970s children with Down's were usually institutionalized, their potential left untested and unrealized. Fortunately for him, John was raised at home in Spring Valley by a boisterous family that supports but doesn't patronize him. Sister Laurie, with her husband, Merce Williams, has made an as yet unreleased documentary about John called Yours to Keep. "There was never any embarrassment in this family," she says, "and we never acted like it was this tragic thing."

John's version of his life story goes like this: "I was born on Sept. 22, 1966. My mother gave birth to me. I came out nice and healthy. The doctor said, 'It's a boy, but there's only one problem. We haven't run the chromosome test, but we're sure the extra one will be there.' " Thirteen days later, John's mother, Lois, received confirmation that her only son had Down's. "I was very frightened," says Lois. "I cried a lot because I didn't know anything about it." Then she steeled herself and acquired every book and pamphlet on Down's she could find. "They were so gloomy, so negative. There are so many experts who are all too happy to tell you what Down's children cannot do," says Lois, a registered nurse who works in a detox unit. "I just threw everything out, and I stopped listening to the experts."

For books and doctors, she substituted common sense. "Instead of focusing on John's IQ, we focused on accepting him, on letting him know that he has a place," she says. "To me, that is the most important thing." It helped that her husband, Lanny, a professor at a local community college, endorsed her approach. (Divorced from Lois in 1970, Lanny spends weekends with his son.) It also helped that there are three older children, all girls, who are devoted to John. (The non-actress is Bridget, 24, a teacher of autistic children who was influenced in her career choice by watching John develop.) "We didn't worry about what our boyfriends were going to think of John," says Laurie. "We worried about whether he'd like them." At school, says John, "if people called me retarded, I'd say, 'That's your problem, not mine.' "

After graduating from his local public high school in 1985, John worked at an animal shelter, not entirely happily: "It was all smelly." He tried for a job at a radio station, cataloging records (he is an expert on the music of the '70s and early '80s), but was turned down because he expected to get paid. Then Seventh Sign director Carl Schultz asked DuPont to find "a boy with Down syndrome who could take direction." DuPont heard about John through one of his teachers. When DuPont met John, she says, "He was very open with his emotions for a young boy." He also had performing experience. "From the time my kids were little," says Lois, "they were always putting on shows."

Hired at $2,500 a week, John traveled to California, where he and his mother lived for five weeks in an oceanfront hotel in Venice. On the set for up to 12 hours a day, John began spending much of his time with co-star Demi Moore. Demi and her new husband, Bruce (Moonlighting) Willis, recently visited him in New York. DuPont, who says, "The greatest worry was that you're exploiting him," is now satisfied that the experience was a good one for John: "I think he got a lot out of it." John's mother wasn't worried that the film exploited him. "His self-confidence just zoomed," she says.

Back home, John began working at a Sam Goody record store as a clerk or, as he jokingly puts it, "an employee executive." He commutes by bus—a 15-minute ride each way—four days a week. He hopes to act again. "I'm looking for a specialized role," he explains earnestly. He sees friends almost every night, spending the rest of his time working out at a local gym or "in my room with the stereo blasting." According to sister Laurie, "The only thing missing from his life is a girlfriend." He occasionally dates, choosing girls with Down's because "otherwise I would get shy." Though the family talks about John marrying, they aren't sure yet if that will come to pass. But as John says, "Down's has never stopped me from doing anything." Now he has a movie to prove it.

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