Interview With King Baggot III – Grandson of the Silent Film Star From St. Louis
The King Baggot Tribute will take place Wednesday September 28th at 7pm at Lee Auditorium inside the Missouri History Museum (Lindell and DeBaliviere in Forest Park, St. Louis, Missouri). The 1913 silent film IVANHOE will be accompanied by The Rats and People Motion Picture Orchestra and there will be a 40-minute illustrated lecture on the life and career of King Baggot by We Are Movie Geeks’ Tom Stockman. A Facebook invite for the event can be found HERE
Hollywood Cinematographer Stephen King Baggot, also known as King Baggot III, is a retired cinematographer and news cameraman born in 1943. Like his father and grandfather before him, he was always billed onscreen as simply ‘King Baggot’. The first King Baggot (1879-1948) was at one time Hollywood’s most popular star, known in his heyday as ‘King of the Movies’ ,’The Most Photographed Man in the World’ and “More Famous Than the Man in the Moon”. Baggot appeared in at least 300 silent motion pictures between 1909 and 1921, ruling the international box-office during much of that period. His son, Robert King Baggot, was a cameraman who worked for decades in Hollywood. His name can be seen in the credits of such films as THE PHILADELPHIA STORY and TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON. While filming offshore background footage in 1965 for the Disney movie LT. ROBINSON CRUSOE U.S.N. in Hawaii, his 16-foot outboard boat was hit by a huge wave, throwing him into heavy surf. He was rescued from the water, but died of his injuries. He left behind his wife and two sons.
During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Stephen King Baggot worked as a field cameraman at KABC-TV in Los Angeles. He found himself in the middle of the Charles Manson trial in December of 1969. The Los Angeles Times printed a confession by Manson “family” member Susan Atkins detailing, among other things, how they changed into clean clothes during their getaway drive after the Tate murders and then dumped the bloody clothes into a roadside ravine. The L.A. Police Department ignored this part of the confession while Baggot and two members of his news team did not. The three of them decided to recreate the getaway drive the day after the Times printed the confession. They drove from the murder scene and parked at a spot on the shoulder that matched the description Atkins gave and at the bottom of the ravine, they found the bloody clothes. At the trial, Baggot testified for the news team. Since Atkin’s L.A. Times confession was suppressed, no mention of it was made during Baggot’s testimony. This made it sound as if he’d found the clothes out of sheer luck. During his self-defense testimony, Charles Manson used this to try to implicate Baggot in the murder. All of this is documented in Vincent Bugliosi’s book on the case “Helter Skelter.”
After his news career, King Baggot III became a motion picture cinematographer and had a successful career in Hollywood beginning in 1980 as a cameraman on AMERICAN GIGOLO. Noted for his Steadicam specialty, and his ability to direct the action, he was hired as Director of Photography for such films as Oliver Stone’s THE HAND, CHEECH AND CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE. THE LAST STARFIGHTER, and REVENGE OF THE NERDS. He is a member of the American Society of Cinematographers (ASC). King Baggot III, now retired, has been married to his wife Marilyn since 1968 and they have raised two sons, Joseph and Michael.
Interview conducted by Tom Stockman
We Are Movie Geeks: You were five years old when your grandfather died in 1948. Do you have any memory of him at all?
King Baggot III: I remember meeting him just one time. I went to Culver City in California to spend some time with him. My dad dropped me off to spend some time with him there he asked me what I wanted, and since I was just a little boy I told him I wanted some food like cowboys eat and that I wanted some cowboy boots. So he took me to the store and bought some cowboy boots for me and we had lunch together. He passed away shortly after that.
WAMG: What do you remember about him physically?
KB: I recall that he was a very striking looking man. He was tall man, especially for his age. Over 6 feet tall, just a striking looking gentleman.
WAMG: Have you been in touch with any of your St. Louis family members?
KB: Yes when I was young I spent a weekend on summer in St. Louis with my grandfather’s sister Mariam. She was the secretary to August Busch for over 30 years, you know down at the Budweiser brewery. Mr. Busch treated her very well.
WAMG: Oh yes, August Busch was another famous St. Louisan. Do you recall if you went and visited your grandfather’s boyhood home when you were here?
KB: I do not recall but I don’t think we did. I was just there in St. Louis a few days. I know my uncle Bob was there as well and he and Marion took me on a tour of the city.
WAMG: When your Grandfather was growing up here, he lived in a nice part of North St. Louis, but that area has become pretty run down now.
KB: A lot can happen in a hundred years.
King Baggot III’s Grandmother Ruth Baggot and his father Robert King Baggot in a photo take in 1926
WAMG: Your father King Baggot II worked in Hollywood as well. What was his job in the movie industry?
KB: He was a camera loader and assistant camera operator. He was killed on the set of a movie for Walt Disney, LT. ROBINSON CRUSOE USN, in 1965.
WAMG: What famous films did your father work on?
KB: He was at MGM for years he worked on TEAHOUSE OF THE AUGUST MOON and HELEN OF TROY. These were tremendous movies of the day. Also GREEN MANSIONS and THE PHILADELPHIA STORY.
WAMG: How was he credited in those films?
KB: Assistant cameraman or camera operator.
Robert King Baggot on the set of GIVE A GIRL A BREAK with Debbie Reynolds in 1953
WAMG: And your mother’s name was Mimi. When did she pass away?
KB: My mother passed away just six years ago. She lived to be 92.
WAMG: Good for her. Did she have any memory of your grandfather? She must have known him.
KB: Yes Sally Dumaux interviewed her for the book (King Baggot – A Biography and Filmography of the First King of the Movies). My father and my grandfather weren’t very close for whatever reason – but they were reasons that were never discussed with me. If my mom had anything she would have given it to Sally.
WAMG: I’ve approached Cinema St. Louis with the idea of throwing a King Baggot tribute tonight as part of the St. Louis international film Festival and it looks like that will indeed be happening in mid-November but of course there are very few King Baggot films in existence. It looks like IVANHOE and DR JEKYLL AND MR. HYDE (both from 1913) are the only complete films that your grandfather started in that are extant. I believe there are fragments of a few others. Have you seen IVANHOE?
KB: Yes I have seen it. UCLA did a tremendous restoration of that film and they gave a big exhibit probably about 10 years ago. They recognized him as one of the giants of the film industry. The students there were taught about him. But yes I remember IVANHOE and when I was young we had a photo in our living room of my grandfather in his Ivanhoe costume and I would look at that a lot as a child. I don’t know what happened to that photo. You know, when he came back to New York from Europe after filming IVANHOE, there were thousands and thousands of people waiting to greet him when he got off of that steamship. They carried signs that read “Our King is Back”. I have seen photos of that event and it’s the most impressive thing I have ever seen. Just thousands and thousands of people.
WAMG: There was a similar event at Union Station in St. Louis in 1910 where there were massive crowds lined up to greet your grandfather when he got off the train at there. In fact, President Taft had made a stop there a couple of weeks earlier and the crowd for the President was half the size of the one for your Grandfather.
KB: Yes, he was very popular in his day
WAMG: Did you attend the UCLA event?
KB: I did not.
WAMG: Have you ever spoken about your famous grandfather?
KB: No I have not. Sally DuMaux had some of the other of my grandfather’s films on video tape. One night she had my brother and I over to her house and we watched them. I do believe they may have just been fragments of some of his films.
WAMG: There doesn’t seem to be any photos of your grandfather as a young man. In fact, the earliest photo I can find of him is from one of his films from 1909 when he would have been almost 30.
KB: No, there’s not. I’ve never seen a photo of him as a young man either.
WAMG: The high school your grandfather attended burned down in 1916 so though so there are no archives there and even Sally could only find one photo of your grandmother Ruth Baggot.
KB: Yes my grandmother Ruth died before my grandfather did so I never met her, but my father and his mother were very close.
WAMG: Sally theorized in her book that Ruth may have destroyed all of the family photographs during the divorce. Have you heard that?
King Baggot biographer Sally Dumaux
KB: I had heard that. The divorce at that time was very bitter. I have heard there were two photo albums and they seem to have disappeared right around that time so that is probably what happened to them. I would have to say that Sally in her book didn’t really personalize my grandfather much or at least not to a great extent. I really don’t think she got into his personality much but I think that type of information would have been very hard to find. It was so long ago. I met Mary Pickford one day when I was a young man. She heard someone say my name and she came up to me and she asked if I was related to King Baggot. I said yes, that he was my grandfather, and she said that he was the most wonderful man she had ever worked with. Rumor had it that they had a long affair. Cary Grant was another actor who approached me and asked about my grandfather. He had met him and thought he was a most terrific man as well. Everyone I met when I was younger from that era just told me how well respected my grandfather was.
WAMG: Though he seems now to be somewhat forgotten.
KB: Well, they all are. He started in films so long ago. I’ll tell you a great story. I was filming a movie with George Burns in 1984 called OH GOD YOU DEVIL. I had a director’s chair and my name was on it. After about a month of the filming he approached me and asked me if I was related to King Baggot. I told him that yes, I was his grandson. Then he told me that when he was five years old he would save his pennies becasue all he wanted to do was go to the Nickelodeon and see my grandfather’s movies. He said that my grandfather was one of the reasons that he became an actor.
WAMG: That is a great story. Even here in his hometown of St. Louis I will approach my movie buff friends and very few have heard of him.
KB: You have to remember, that was over a century ago. His career started in 1909. Those were all Nickelodeon’s he was in, they were one reelers. In 1913 he was at the top of his career. Charlie Chaplin didn’t even start until 1915. He was a pioneer of the industry. One thing that is well-documented is his directing career, he directed TUMBLEWEEDS. That film went down as a landmark on how westerns will be made. It was my grandfather’s greatest triumph as a director, the picture he’ll be remembered for.
WAMG: Oh yes clearly more of the films he directed have survived in the films he acted in. Of course that was over a decade later.
KB: Right, of course film acetate in those days just destroyed itself. They didn’t know that you had to keep the films in vaults at certain temperatures. And even if you did keep them in vaults, they still decomposed.
WAMG: Then of course after his directing career ended he went back to acting. but had these tiny cameos in films up until his death.
KB: The industry kept him going. But this was later in his life. He had a huge drinking problem but there were people that wanted to keep him going until the day he died. He was a tremendous gambler and a tremendous drinker, but the women loved him. He lived quite a life, so you have to put that into perspective.
WAMG: He did have a few speaking roles in the very early 30s there’s a comedy short on YouTube that he has several lines him.
KB: Yes, he spoke very well. He came from Broadway, He was a stage actor. It wasn’t like a lot of silent stars who had terrible voices – Valentino could barely speak. But my grandfather was no kid by them. That was 1929 when the talkies came to be, and he was around 50.
WAMG: Why do you think he didn’t get more roles in talkies?
KB: It’s just that he wasn’t a leading man. Back then actors were just gone by the time they got to a certain age. It’s more in today’s market that actors careers just continue on and on. How many movies did Roy Rogers make when he got old? Not many.
WAMG: It’s fun to look for him in these cameos. In A NIGHT A THE OPERA you can barely spot him but there’s a great on-set photo of him that I have where he’s sitting with the Marx brothers.
KB: Yes and of course in those days those stars knew who he was, they would have remembered him. Many old actors that I met were in awe of him, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy. He was a forerunner of what actors are doing today and that’s how he kept living, those cameos. They didn’t pay a lot of money, but they paid enough to pay the rent.
WAMG: And he did a lot of them.
KB: Yes he worked a long time at MGM.
WAMG: Let’s talk about your career. What did you do before you were a cinematographer?
KB: I was a news crew cameraman for ABC.
WAMG: Right and there’s a famous story in the book “Helter Skelter” about you.
KB: Yes. I found the Tate murder clothes.
WAMG: What was it like being involved in the Manson trial in the late 60s?
KB: It was very exciting. I was very young, but it’s just like it’s documented in “Helter Skelter”. It was a very exciting time in my life. After the trial we toured the country talking to people. You have to realize that the Manson trial was what everybody was talking about in those days and I worked on the murder case for a year. That’s all I did. It was the biggest story of its time. I was a very successful news crew cameraman. I started at a very young age and was very lucky to have had that career. I did that at KABC-TV from 1964 two 1977 at that station.
WAMG: Was it easy then to transfer to Hollywood is a cinematographer?
KB: Yes. I was probably the best known news cameraman in the country and well-known from what I had accomplished and the awards that had won. I knew I didn’t want to be doing that at age 50. I wanted to do film. I wanted to be challenged. I wanted to be a movie camera man so I just quit the news industry.
WAMG: What was it like to work with Cheech and Chong on CHEECH AND CHONG’S NEXT MOVIE?
KB: They were absolutely great. That was kind of a lucky thing for me. I was a camera operator on the movie UP IN SMOKE and Cheech Marin came up to me and asked if I remembered him. It turns out we had gone to high school together. In those days his name was Richard Marin. We became friendly and I was director of photography on their next film.
WAMG: Where did you two go to high school?
KB: We went to Granada Hills High which is out in San Fernando Valley.
WAMG: Another film that you were director of photography on was THE HAND. Just a few years later that film’s director, Oliver Stone, would become a Hollywood powerhouse.
KB: Yes, that was his first movie.
WAMG: Did you see some qualities in him that made you unsurprised when he went on to such success?
KB: Yes, he was a very interesting man. Very talented. At that time he did not possess the skills that he has now achieved but he certainly was a genius. He had already written wonderful screenplays and I knew that anyone with talent like that would be able to fulfill his life dreams.
WAMG: Yet Stone, in interviews describes THE HAND is a negative experience.
KB: Yes, he had problems. The film went way behind schedule and the studio was on him a lot. But he was the first time director, you have to understand that.
WAMG: Then you retired in 1992?
KB: Yes, WHERE THE DAY TAKES YOU and BOILING POINT were my last two films.
Some films featuring King Baggot III’s Director of Photography credits
WAMG: Are any of your children in the motion picture business?
KB: No they are not, neither one. They just had no interest? When I was working they worked for me but then when I retired, they went in other directions.
WAMG: We have the St. Louis Walk of Fame here and I believe your grandfather is the only star from St. Louis to have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame but not our local one.
KB: Yes, his star is right at Hollywood and Vine. He was certainly proud to be from St. Louis. The whole family was. I was close with his brother and his sister Marion. She loved St. Louis and working for Budweiser. She had quite a life and a lot of stories about St. Louis. There’s not too many actors who started over 300 movies and directed 100 more in our business. He was the first movie star. Do you know how he became that movie star?
WAMG: Tell me.
KB: He had jet black hair with a white streak down it. He had the bluest eyes in the world and was very well-built. and all the women loved that. They all wrote to the studios and asked who he was. He was the first act her to get credit. He and Florence Lawrence were the first movie stars. My grandfather was really just the prototype movie star. And yes, it would be nice if people from St. Louis were proud that someone from their neck of the woods made it so big.
WAMG: And I think it’s important to keep the memory of someone like him alive. 25 or 30 years from now he may be completely forgotten so thank goodness for Sally Dumaux’s book.
KB: Absolutely she was determined, for whatever reason. That book was really her life’s goal.
WAMG: She says in the forward to her book that she was inspired when she was approached by a distant family member of your grandfather.
KB: It wasn’t me.
WAMG: Thanks for taking the time to talk with me and I’ll get this interview posted soon before our event here honoring your grandfather.
KB: Thank you. I wish you great success.