LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted in the killing of his wife, died Thursday at age 89. A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died from heart disease, surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake, star of the 1970s TV show, “Baretta,” had once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the long ordeal which began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on May 4, 2001. The story of their strange marriage, the child it produced and its violent end was a Hollywood tragedy played out in court.
Once hailed as among the finest actors of his generation, Blake became better known as the center of a real-life murder trial. Many remembered him not as the rugged, dark-haired star of “Baretta,” but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while he was jailed awaiting trial, he bemoaned the change in his status with his fans nationwide: “It hurt because America is the only family I had.” He was adamant that he had not killed his wife, who was shot once in head outside a Los Angeles restaurant where the couple had just dined in May 2001, and a jury ultimately acquitted him. But a civil jury would find him liable for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a judgment which sent him into bankruptcy.
After Bakley’s death, it was revealed that she used many aliases to run a mail-order business soliciting money from lonely men and selling pornographic pictures of herself. The daughter he and Bakley had together, Rose Lenore, was raised by other relatives and went for years without seeing Blake, until they spoke in 2019. She would tell People magazine that she called him “Robert,” not “Dad.”
It was an ignominious finale for a life lived in the spotlight from childhood. As a youngster, he starred in the “Our Gang” comedies and acted in a movie classic, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in the movie of Truman Capote’s true crime best seller “In Cold Blood.”
His career peaked with the 1975-78 TV cop series, “Baretta.” He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises. It was typical of his specialty, portraying tough guys with soft hearts, and its signature line: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.
Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was wracked by disputes involving the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actors, but one of the most difficult to work with. He later admitted to struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his early life.
In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in, “Judgment Day: the John List Story,” portraying a soft-spoken, churchgoing man who murdered his wife and three children. Blake’s career had slowed down well before the trial. He made only a handful of screen appearances after the mid-1980s; his last project was in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” released in 1997. According to his niece, Blake had spent his recent years “enjoying jazz music, playing his guitar, reading poetry, and watching many Hollywood Classic films.”
He was born Michael James Gubitosi on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey. His father, an Italian immigrant and his mother, an Italian American, wanted their three children to succeed in show business. At age 2, Blake was performing with a brother and sister in a family vaudeville act called, “The Three Little Hillbillies.”
When his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, his mother found work for the kids as movie extras and little Mickey Gubitosi was plucked from the crowd by producers who cast him in the “Our Gang” comedies. He appeared in the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.
He went on to work with Hollywood legends, playing the young John Garfield in “Humoresque” in 1946 and the little boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a crucial lottery ticket in the Oscar-winning “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” In adulthood, he landed serious movie roles. The biggest breakthrough was in 1967 with “In Cold Blood.” Later there were films including, “Tell Them Willie Boy is Here” and “Electra Glide in Blue.” In 1961, Blake and actress Sondra Kerr married and had two children, Noah and Delinah. They divorced in 1983.
His fateful meeting with Bakley came in 1999 at a jazz club where he went to escape loneliness. “Here I was, 67 or 68 years old. My life was on hold. My career was stalled out,” he said in the AP interview. “I’d been alone for a long time.” He said he had no reason to dislike Bakley: “She took me out of the stands and put me back in the arena. I had something to live for.” When Bakley gave birth to a baby girl, she named Christian Brando — son of Marlon — as the father. But DNA tests pointed to Blake.
Blake first saw the little girl, named Rosie, when she was two months old and she became the focus of his life. He married Bakley because of the child. “Rosie is my blood. Rosie is calling to me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I are going to walk off into the sunset together.” Prosecutors would claim that he planned to kill Bakley to get sole custody of the baby and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But evidence was muddled and a jury rejected that theory.
On her last night alive, Blake and his 44-year-old wife dined at a neighborhood restaurant, Vitello’s. He claimed she was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he had inadvertently left behind. Police were initially baffled and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime occurred. Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense and wound up living on Social Security and a Screen Actor’s Guild pension.
In a 2006 interview with the AP a year after his acquittal, Blake said he hoped to restart his career. “I’d like to give my best performance,” he said. “I’d like to leave a legacy for Rosie about who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and fishing pole yet. I’d like to go to bed each night desperate to wake up each morning and create some magic.”
Deutsch, the primary writer of this obituary, retired from The Associated Press in 2014.