LOS ANGELES — Robert Blake, the Emmy-winning actor who rose from acting acclaim to infamy when he was tried and acquitted of his wife’s murder, died Thursday at age 89.
A statement released by his niece Noreen Austin said Blake died of heart disease surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake, star of the 1970s TV show “Baretta,” once hoped for a comeback but never recovered from the long ordeal that began with the death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on May 4. , 2001. The story of their strange marriage, the child they had and its violent end was a Hollywood courtroom tragedy.
Once hailed as one of the finest actors of his generation, Blake became best known as the center of a real-life murder trial, a story stranger than any in which he starred. Many remembered him not as the tough, dark-skinned star of “Baretta,” but as a spectral, white-haired accused of murder.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while incarcerated awaiting trial, he lamented his change of status to fans across the country: “It hurt because America is the only family I had.”
He was adamant that he had not killed his wife and the court eventually acquitted him. But a civil court would find him responsible for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a decision that sent him into bankruptcy. The daughter they had with Bakley, Rose Lenore, was raised by other relatives and went years without seeing Blake until they spoke in 2019. She would tell People magazine that she called him “Robert” and not “Dad.”
It was an inglorious finale to a life lived in the limelight since childhood. As a youngster, he starred in the comedies Our Gang and acted in a classic film, Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in Truman Capote’s best-selling true crime film In Cold Blood.
His career peaked with the 1975-78 TV crime series, “Baretta.” He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and loved disguises. He was typical of his specialty, portraying tough men with soft hearts, and his signature line, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.
Blake won an Emmy in 1975 for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was rocked by controversy surrounding the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of the best actors in Hollywood, but one of the most difficult. He later admitted that he struggled with alcohol and drugs in his early life.
In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in “Judgment Day: The John List Story,” playing a soft-spoken, church-going man who murdered his wife and three children.
Blake’s career had slowed considerably before the trial. He made only a handful of screen appearances after the mid-1980s. His last work was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, released in 1997. According to his niece, Blake had spent his last years “enjoying jazz music, playing guitar, reading poetry and watching lots of Hollywood Classic movies.’
He was born Michael James Gubitosi on September 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 performed 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 children as a movie extra, and little Mickey Gubitozzi was removed from the crowd by the 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 young John Garfield in 1946’s “Humoresque” 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 got serious film roles. The biggest breakthrough came in 1967 with ‘In Cold Blood’. Later there were movies like “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 Delina. 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 had stopped,” he said in the AP interview. “I’ve been alone for a long time.”
He said he had no reason to dislike Bakley: “He 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 – Marlon’s son – as the father. But DNA tests pointed to Blake.
Blake first saw the baby girl, named Rosie, when she was two months old and she became the focus of his life. She married Bakley because of the child.
“Rosie is my blood. Rosie calls me,” she said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I will ride off into the sunset together.”
Prosecutors would allege she planned to kill Bakley to have sole custody of the baby and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence was confusing, and a jury rejected that theory.
On her last night alive, Blake and his wife of 44 years dined at a neighborhood restaurant, Vitello’s. She claimed she was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun she had accidentally left behind. The police were initially confused and Blake was only arrested a year after the crime.
Once rich, he spent millions on his defense and ended 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 would like to give my best performance,” he said. “I’d like to leave Rosie a legacy of who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and a fishing rod yet. I’d like to go to bed every night desperate to wake up every morning and create some magic.”
Deutsch, the lead author of this obituary, retired from The Associated Press in 2014.