A Matter of Character

updated 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 03/23/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

THE YEAR WAS 1972, AND NEW SEVENTH grader Regina Taylor had just set foot in Muskogee, Oklahoma's Alice Robertson Junior High. As one of the first wave of blacks integrating the previously all-white school, "I was feeling like this idealistic child of Martin Luther King," says Taylor. Then, she recalls, "I sat down, and this little white girl next to me stood up and said, 'I do not want to sit next to this nigger'—it's what she said exactly, and she said it with such utter hatred. I thought, 'How can she hate me when she doesn't know me?' "

Today, gazing out from her sparsely furnished 22nd-floor apartment in Atlanta's fashionable Buckhead section, Taylor still feels the memory's sting. Life, in fact, never lets her forget it. "I go places even today, even in New York, where I know my presence isn't welcome," she says. "Progress has been made, but still there are the silences."

Taylor eloquently puts both the pain and the silences to use each week when she creates the character Lilly in NBC's acclaimed drama I'll Fly Away, which is back on the air after a time-slot shuffle. The series is set in the fictional Southern town of Bryland on the eve of the civil rights movement and filmed in and around Atlanta. Taylor, 30ish, plays a maid in the home of a white prosecutor (Sam Waterston)—whose wife has been confined to a mental institution—and his three children. Taylor sees the outwardly impassive but inwardly questing Lilly as a way to "deconstruct the whole Mammy myth" and shed light on the quieter acts of courage in the civil rights movement. Her personal connection with the character came to light in her victorious final audition for NBC brass in March 1991. Recalls series executive producer John Falsey: "She talked about her mother, who had told her how devastating it was to be a black woman at that time, and she said she felt Lilly was someone she understood."

Though Regina's mother, Nell, was not a domestic, she does provide an apt model for Lilly, who is also the single parent of a daughter. A social worker in the Social Security Administration, Nell bore her only child in Dallas and was transferred to Oklahoma when Regina was in the second grade. (Of her father, Regina says firmly, "This is not an area I am willing to go into.")

Regina's talent appeared early. "I developed an active imagination very young," she says, "and was always writing plays and musicals." Then, as now, Nell Taylor was her inspiration: "She taught me never to set limits on who I could be."

When she enrolled at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Regina, who wanted to be a writer, planned to study journalism, but an acting class rekindled the early fire, and she switched to theater. At SMU she got her first break when she was spotted by a casting agent for a TV movie, Crisis at Central High, about the landmark integration of the famous Little Rock, Ark., school.

New York City, where she moved after graduation (and still calls home), was liberating despite lean living. "I shared a two-room apartment with three other people," she says, "and we tossed to see who would get the bed, which was these stacked milk cartons with foam over it. But I fell in love with the city. I wanted to be the Leontyne Price of classical theater." To pay the bills, Taylor worked as a housekeeper and later helped refurbish houses. After endless auditions and scattered stage work, Hollywood took notice: Taylor showed her range by playing a recovering crack addict in the 1989 feature Lean on Me, then a district attorney in the TV movie Howard Beach: Making the Case for Murder.

Unwilling to discuss her romantic interests, she clings to a tight circle of friends. "She loves to laugh," says longtime confidant David Caldwell, a producer of corporate and civic special events in Manhattan, "but it's a hearty, deep laugh she doesn't give away freely." Taylor's colleagues are frankly admiring. "After you've spent time with her," says Sam Waterston, "you somehow feel improved."

Building on her Fly Away success, Taylor may soon have a play produced off-Broadway and hopes to one day publish the poetry and children's books that she writes. The attention she has been accorded from fans startles her, but, she admits, "I have to say I sort of like it—so far." Don't expect a house in Malibu to follow. "It's hard for me to give up my bohemian status," she says. "Ten years from now, I'll still be exploring."

TIM ALLIS
GAIL WESCOTT in Atlanta

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