LOS ANGELES -- Nicholas King was an actor and an assistant to renowned Hollywood photographer Bob Willoughby in the late 1950s when a close friend of Willoughby stopped by his home with intriguing news.
The friend, film editor William Cartwright, had visited the famed Watts Towers in Los Angeles for the first time and was surprised by what he saw.
The unique work of folk art, created over 33 years by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia, had been abandoned since he moved away in 1954. His former house had burned down, the gates to the walled property were open and unguarded, and the grounds were littered with refuse left by unwanted visitors.
King heard Cartwright talking and shared his interest in finding out "why these marvelous towers would be left abandoned," Cartwright recalled last week.
The two men wound up buying the Watts Towers, which led to the formation of a citizens committee in 1959 to preserve and exhibit the walled complex of spires -- the tallest is nearly 100 feet -- and other structures decorated with broken pottery, seashells, glazed tiles and pieces of colored glass.
The Watts Towers are now a National Historic Monument that attracts international visitors.
King, who had battled Lewy body dementia in recent years, died April 3 in a nursing home in Santa Rosa, Calif., said a son, Silas. He was 79.
"Nick was an artist to the bone; he really was a very sensitive man who understood the international merit of the towers," said Jeanne Morgan, a charter member and current chairwoman of the Committee for Simon Rodia's Towers in Watts.
"Without his participation, the towers would have been destroyed under the city's demolition order" after they were deemed a potential safety hazard in the late 1950s, Morgan said.
Rodia, who has been described as a cement finisher and construction worker, began building the towers in 1921. He stopped working on them in 1954, signed his property over to his neighbor, Louis Sauceda, and moved to Martinez, Calif., to be near relatives.
By talking to people who lived near the towers, King and Cartwright learned that the current owner was Joseph Montoya, a milker in a dairy.
In a 1965 New Yorker story, King recalled that when he and Cartwright met with Montoya for the first time, they asked him if he wanted to sell the towers, "and he said yes -- three thousand bucks. We said, 'Sold.' We wrote out a $20 check for the deposit right there, and we walked out of that building 15 feet off the ground. We couldn't get over it -- we owned those damned things." Last week, Cartwright told the Los Angeles Times: "We knew we had to do something that we believed should have been done before us: preserving something that needed it and not abandoning it."