Robert Blake, ‘Baretta’ Star Acquitted in Wife’s Murder, Dies at 89

His film and TV career began with “Our Gang” comedies and was highlighted by a performance as a mass killer in “In Cold Blood.” But he led a tempestuous life.

Robert Blake, an actor whose career portraying gritty characters like the television detective Tony Baretta was eclipsed by his trial and acquittal in the murder of his wife in 2001, died on Thursday at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.

The cause was long-term heart disease, a niece, Noreen Austin, said.

Mr. Blake began performing at 2, when his father would take him and his brother and sister to New Jersey parks to dance for money. By age 5 he was a regular in the “Our Gang” film comedies.

He went on to act in scores of films and on hundreds of television shows, all the while making regular visits to late-night talk shows, where he delighted in spouting flagrantly unorthodox views and savagely mocking his own career. He earned a reputation as a Hollywood enfant terrible. He insulted producers, punched a director, fought with fellow actors, abused alcohol and drugs, and sometimes went for years without work.

He nonetheless became a television star in the late 1970s as Baretta, a detective who lived in a run-down hotel, had a pet cockatoo named Fred and used disguises — waiter, wino, janitor, barber — to chase bad guys. His catchphrase, “You can take dat to da bank,” became well known.

One of Mr. Blake’s most acclaimed roles was as the mass murderer Perry Smith in “In Cold Blood,” the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime book. In an interview with Playboy in 1977, Mr. Blake explained that he had sought the part to explore a question that nagged him.

“Everybody knows what a murderer is a millionth of a second after he pulls the trigger,” he said. “But what is he a millionth of a second before he pulls the trigger?”

A jury — and a transfixed American public — pondered whether he could answer that question during his trial, from late 2004 to March 2005, in the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

The details of the case could have come from a pulp novel. Witnesses portrayed Mr. Blake as trolling jazz clubs for women, then wooing them in the back seat of his truck. Ms. Bakley was alleged to be a petty criminal who sold nude pictures of herself to lonely men through the mail. She had nine former husbands and a dozen aliases and was on probation for fraud, according to court testimony.

By 1999 she was in Los Angeles. She met Mr. Blake at a nightclub and, as both acknowledged, had sex with him in his car that night. At the time, she was having a sexual relationship with Christian Brando, the eldest son of Marlon Brando. When she gave birth to a daughter, tests revealed that the father was Mr. Blake and not Mr. Brando, whom she had first identified.

Mr. Blake, whose marriage to the actress Sondra Kerr ended in divorce in 1983 after 22 years, said he had agreed to marry Ms. Bakley for the good of their daughter, Rose. According to trial testimony, the marriage was strained, and Ms. Bakley lived in a separate house on his property. Witnesses said he referred to his wife as a “pig” and spoke of wanting to “snuff” her.

Pool photo by Al Seib

On May 4, 2001, Ms. Bakley, 44, was found dead from a gunshot to her head in her husband’s Dodge Stealth, parked outside an Italian restaurant in the Studio City section of Los Angeles, where the couple had just dined. Mr. Blake said he was not there when she was shot; he said he had gone back to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left in a booth.

That gun, it was determined, was not the murder weapon; one found in a nearby dumpster was.

By April 2002, the police had nonetheless gathered enough evidence to charge Mr. Blake with “murder with special circumstances,” a capital offense. He was also charged with soliciting movie stuntmen to do the killing for him.

After he pleaded not guilty to all charges, the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office announced that it would not seek the death penalty. Mr. Blake was initially denied bail and spent 11 months in jail, until March 2003, when he was granted bail, set at $1.5 million, which he posted, allowing him to remain free for almost two years while he awaited trial.

On March 16, 2005, after a three-month trial in which the stuntmen testified to having been solicited by Mr. Blake to kill Ms. Bakley, the jury decided that the prosecutors had not proved Mr. Blake’s guilt. In interviews afterward, jurors said the stuntmen had not been credible because they had admitted to being drug addicts. Mr. Blake said three restaurant workers had seen him return to get his gun, but he did not produce them.

Ms. Bakley’s family later sued Mr. Blake in civil court for wrongfully causing her death. They won a $30 million judgment, which, after Mr. Blake appealed, was cut in half on the grounds that Ms. Bakley had been earning her living by illegal means. Mr. Blake filed for bankruptcy in 2006.

Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi was born on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, N.J. His childhood, as he later described it, was a Dickensian one whose horrors began before he was born. He told CNN in 2012 that his mother had twice tried to abort him with a coat hanger. In a series of interviews in 1992 and 1993, he said his father, who worked for a can manufacturer, had been an alcoholic who forced him to eat from the floor, locked him in closets and sexually abused him.

When Michael was 2, his father enlisted him and his two older preschool siblings to dance for money in parks as “the Three Little Hillbillies” while the father played a guitar. “It was either doing that or stealing milk bottles off other people’s porches,” Mr. Blake said in a 1959 interview with The Los Angeles Times.

Inspired by the success of child stars like Shirley Temple, his father in 1938 took his family to Hollywood. Michael was hired as an extra for the “Our Gang” shorts, later shown on television as “The Little Rascals.” When another child actor flubbed a line, Michael told the director, “I can do that.”


He could, and he was eventually cast as a lead character, Mickey. He was billed as Mickey Gubitosi in most of the “Our Gang” shorts, and as Bobby Blake in the last few. He acquired the stage name Robert Blake in 1956.

After the “Our Gang” series ended in 1944, he appeared in more than 70 films over the next decade, establishing himself as a tough, fast-talking young character actor with a mischievous grin. In “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre,” starring Humphrey Bogart, he was the Mexican boy who sold Bogart the lucky lottery ticket that set the plot in motion.

Mr. Blake was thrown out of five schools before finally graduating. He neglected to register for the draft, and the penalty was immediate conscription into the Army. He was stationed in Alaska. After his discharge, he applied to study at the Actors Studio in New York with the acting guru Lee Strasberg. Strasberg, he said, advised against pursuing an acting career.

Returning to Hollywood, Mr. Blake found work as a stuntman. He continued to act in movies, including “PT 109” (1962), about John F. Kennedy’s wartime experience in the Pacific; he played one of Kennedy’s fellow sailors.

Columbia Pictures Corporation

His breakthrough movie was “In Cold Blood,” which received excellent reviews, as did he. But his next few movies struggled at the box office, and after filming “Busting” (1974), a detective drama in which he starred alongside Elliott Gould, he considered suicide, he told Playboy, and checked himself into a hospital for psychiatric treatment.

Mr. Blake returned to television in January 1975 to take the title role in the ABC detective series “Baretta,” a retooled version of “Toma,” which had starred Tony Musante. When Mr. Musante quit after the 1973-74 season, the show was taken off the air, but ABC decided to reactivate it as a midseason replacement and asked Mr. Blake to be the star. He accepted, even though he made it clear in interviews that he considered himself above series television. He proceeded to make many suggestions to shape the renamed show to his liking.

“I could have my name all over ‘Baretta,’ but I’ve never taken credit for writing or directing any of the shows,” he told Playboy. Mr. Blake won a 1975 Emmy and a 1976 Golden Globe for his performance, and “Baretta” was briefly a Top 10 hit, but it was canceled in 1978.

Speaking of Mr. Blake in an interview with People magazine in 2002, Stephen J. Cannell, the creator of “Baretta,” said: “Complex doesn’t even begin to capture his personality. If you were in business with him, you just had to strap in really tight, because you were going to get lurched around a lot.”

Mr. Blake claimed to be inspired by daredevils like circus high-wire performers and rodeo riders.

“You get on a high wire without a net,” he said in the 2012 CNN interview. “You get on a bull and they open that goddamn chute and there’s nobody in the universe but you and God. And that’s where I’m comfortable, doing something that’s so scary that I can’t sleep at night.”

Mr. Blake became a favorite on late-night talk shows, particularly “The Tonight Show,” where be made fun of himself in his tough-guy Baretta voice and gesticulated wildly with an unlit cigarette.

Prodded by Johnny Carson, he excitedly shared his positive views on duck-hunting and negative ones on rodents and insulted Orson Welles for being overweight. Welles replied that he could perhaps be thin, but that Mr. Blake would always be stupid.

Appearing in a number of television movies, Mr. Blake was praised for his performance as the Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in “Blood Feud” in 1983. In 1985, he created the NBC series “Hell Town,” in which he starred as a tough-talking slum priest. Though Mr. Blake needed the income from the show to pay for his recent divorce, he walked away from the job, saying he was emotionally exhausted.

He sought solace sleeping in his van, parked in the Hollywood Hills, and worked with a therapist on his childhood traumas. He returned to acting in 1993 in the made-for-TV movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story,” about a real-life New Jersey accountant who murdered his wife, mother and three children.

To get that part, Mr. Blake had offered to forgo his $250,000 salary until the film was finished. He was paid in full. His last acting job was in “Lost Highway” (1997), a psychological thriller directed by David Lynch.

Mr. Blake is survived by two children from his first marriage, Noah and Delinah Blake, and Rose Blake, his daughter with Ms. Bakley.

After his trial, Mr. Blake told CNN, he grew a beard, lived on Twinkies and liked to wander into pool halls for a game of nine ball. “I was born lonely, I live lonely, and I’ll die lonely,” he said.

April Rubin contributed reporting.

Source: Movies -


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