Whenever actor Robert Blake faced problems in life, an acting role would turn things around.
At 5, he found an escape from an abusive home life by landing a role in the ‘Our Gang’ movies.
He landed the lead role of his career – real-life killer Perry Smith in the 1967 film “In Cold Blood” – after years of drug abuse.
A series of unsuccessful films was interrupted by his biggest success – the title role in the 1970s TV series “Baretta”, for which he won an Emmy. But his on-set behavior eventually made him nearly unemployable until his career was resurrected playing another real-life hit man, John List, in a TV movie.
Then in 2001 came the murder story in Blake’s life – the shooting death of his wife, Bonnie Lee Buckley, for which he was tried. He was acquitted in a criminal court but found liable in a civil case.
Once again, Blake sought a role that would change his life.
“My goal in life is to make one more beautiful movie,” he told CNN interviewer Piers Morgan in 2013. If that were to happen, he said, “I’ll go out the way I want.”
The role never came and, on Thursday, Blake died of heart disease in Los Angeles, his niece, Noreen Austin, told The Associated Press in a statement. It was 89.
Blake’s career began in the late 1930s when, at the age of 5, he appeared in the sitcoms ‘Our Gang’. He became known as an actor when he played the murderer Perry Smith in the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and won an Emmy in 1975 for the title role in the hit crime detective series “Baretta”.
He also had lead roles in the films Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) and Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and the 1985 television series Hell Town. His last role was in David Lynch’s 1997 film Lost Highway.
Despite his one-time popularity and critical acclaim, Blake’s career was overshadowed by the events of May 4, 2001. He and Bakley—their relationship strained—had dinner that night at Vitello’s, a restaurant in Studio City where he was a regular. After they finished and got in the car, according to Blake’s statements to police, he returned to the restaurant saying he left his personal weapon, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson revolver, in a compartment.
When he returned to the car, he said, Bakley, 44, fell into the passenger seat and was fatally shot in the head.
Police initially said Blake was not a suspect. The murder weapon, a Walther P38 9mm pistol, was found in a nearby dumpster.
Almost a year later, he was arrested and charged in the shooting. He spent 11 months in jail before bail was even set, and spent millions of dollars on lawyers and private investigators.
It was up to his legal team to convince the jury that an actor who had so convincingly played two real-life killers – Perry Smith, who slaughtered members of a Kansas family as described in Capote’s bestseller, and Jon Liszt, who killed his wife, his children. and mother on a shooting spree in New Jersey — she wasn’t up to it in real life.
Blake was particularly fond of Smith, who was abused as a child. “Throughout the movie,” Blake said of “In Cold Blood” in his 2011 memoir, “Tales of a Rascal,” “I never had to catch anything. Perry and I were entwined like vines over the same grave.”
He was acquitted in March 2005, largely because the testimony of key prosecution witnesses proved unreliable in the eyes of the jury. Blake cut off his tracking bracelet, telling reporters he was tired of the colorful jargon that once made him a prized guest on TV shows. “Right now,” he said, “I couldn’t buy spit for a hummingbird.”
His financial picture was about to get much worse. Bakley’s family sued him, and in the civil trial, unlike the criminal trial, Blake was forced to testify. In eight days on the stand, he came out both angry and cruel.
The civil court found that Blake had “intentionally caused” Bakley’s death. Her family won $30 million in damages, which was later reduced to $15 million. Blake later filed for bankruptcy.
Blake’s tough, wisecracking persona while testifying led to perhaps the worst — and certainly the most damaging — review of his career.
“As a group,” said the foreman of the jury, “we believe that Mr. Blake was probably his own worst enemy on the stand.”
Born Michael James Gubitosi on September 18, 1933, in Nutley, NJ On his birth certificate, his father is listed as James Gubitosi. But Blake later learned that his biological father was actually his brother James, Tony’s “uncle”, who was having an affair with his mother.
As a child he was shown little affection at home, she said, and was sometimes beaten and locked in a closet. But James put him in show business.
He formed a family act, the Three Little Hillbillies—consisting of Blake, a half-brother, and a half-sister—who played in parks and on sidewalks. At age 2, Blake was singing the innovative song “Show Me the Way to Go Home” while pretending to be drunk. “People threw in more money, and not pennies or nickels, but half dollars,” he wrote in “Tales of a Rascal.”
The family moved to Los Angeles when Blake was 4 years old and he got a job as an extra at MGM on the “Our Gang” films. One day a child actor on the show was supposed to say the line “Confidentially, it stinks,” but he couldn’t pronounce “confidentially.” Blake pulled the director’s pants to get his attention, said the line, and in that moment he became an actor.
Bobby Blake, as he became known, appeared in about 40 of the comedy shorts. He played Little Beaver in the popular Western series Red Ryder in the 1940s and got bit parts in films starring big names such as Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, whom he fondly remembered as helping him develop as an actor.
Perhaps Blake’s most memorable role was initially unbelievable: He played a stubborn boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in the 1948 classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
But problems at home continued and she said she was bullied on a regular basis at Hamilton High School. Blake began drinking heavily and eventually taking drugs. “I sold drugs, I used it, I smoked it, I did everything you can do to it,” he said on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1973.
After a brief stint in the military in the mid-1950s, he returned to occasional acting work on television shows. When he landed the role of Perry Smith in 1966, the Times headline was “Unknown actor to play ‘In Cold Blood’ killer.” Blake’s performance, wrote Times film critic Charles Champlin, “made Smith terrifying comprehensible and the act all the more hideous for its apparent inevitability.”
Blake also received rave reviews for the follow-up films “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” and “Electra Glide in Blue,” but also gained a reputation in the business for being disruptive—demanding script and other changes. On the set of the crime drama “Electra Glide,” the assistant director “would have been justified in shooting me,” Blake told The Times in 1973. “There was pain and conflict and blood on the sand.”
During “Baretta,” the 1975-78 ABC series in which he played a police detective who lived with his pet, Blake argued not only over the script, but also over casting, sets and even the props. At least for a while it was worth it. “You’d go to dailies and it would be great,” series creator Stephen J. Cannell told the Times in 2001.
He got a new series, “Hell Town” in 1985, which he helped create, playing a crazy priest in East Los Angeles and vowing to reform. “This is the new image: Mr. Nicea Robert Blake,” he told The Associated Press. But after 16 episodes, he left his own series and stayed away from acting until he triumphed once again in the 1993 TV movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story.”
After that, he got only two more roles, including in 1997 in the Lynch neo-noir film “Lost Highway”.
If Blake ever felt completely comfortable as a performer, it was perhaps on television shows, where he came across as funny, rebellious and a little outrageous in his observation of the entertainment industry and life in general — so much so that “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” booked him regularly.
The last time Blake got a taste of it was in a 2012 appearance on “Dr. Phil” in front of a sympathetic audience. He adamantly stated that he did not kill his wife, and even laughed at his explanation – complete with character voices – of why he should not be charged.
Blake was clearly excited by the response. “It’s been a long time, but I’m home again,” he told the audience. “This is all I have in life, this is the only thing God ever gave me.
“It doesn’t get any better than this.”
Kolker is a former Times staff writer.