Whenever actor Robert Blake got into trouble in life, an acting role would set things right.
At age 5, she found an escape from an abusive home life by landing a role in the “Our Gang” movies.
He landed the pivotal role of his career, real-life assassin Perry Smith in the 1967 film “In Cold Blood,” after years of drug abuse.
A string of failed movies was interrupted by her biggest success: the lead role in the 1970s TV series “Baretta,” for which she won an Emmy. But his on-set behavior eventually left him nearly jobless until his career was resurrected by playing another real-life assassin, John List, in a TV movie.
Then, in 2001, came the story of the murder in Blake’s own life: the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, for which he was put on trial. He was acquitted in a criminal court, but found liable in a civil case.
Once again, Blake searched for a role that would transform her 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. She was 89.
Blake’s checkered career began in the late 1930s, when at age 5 he appeared in “Our Gang” comedies. He rose to fame 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 playing the title character in the hit police detective series “Baretta.”
He also played leading roles in the movies “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969) and “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973) and in the 1985 TV series “Hell Town.” His last role was in the 1997 David Lynch film “Lost Highway”.
Despite his former popularity and critical acclaim, Blake’s career was overshadowed by the events of May 4, 2001. He and Bakley (theirs was a strained relationship) dined that night at Vitello’s, a Studio restaurant. City where he was a regular customer. After they finished and headed for the car, Blake told police, he returned to the restaurant and said that he had left his personal weapon, a .38 Smith & Wesson Special revolver, in a booth.
When he returned to the car, he said, Bakley, 44, was slumped in the passenger seat and was fatally shot in the head.
Police initially said that Blake was not a suspect. The murder weapon, a 9mm Walther P38 pistol, was found in a nearby dumpster.
Nearly a year later, he was arrested and charged with the shooting. He spent 11 months in jail before bail was set and spent millions of dollars on lawyers and private investigators.
It fell to his legal team to persuade a jury that an actor who had so convincingly portrayed two real-life murderers: Perry Smith, who murdered members of a Kansas family as depicted in the best-selling Capote, and John List, who murdered his wife and children. and mother in a New Jersey massacre—wasn’t able to do it in real life.
Blake was especially sympathetic to 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 reach for 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 electronic pager bracelet, telling reporters he didn’t know the colorful lingo that once made him a valued guest on TV talk shows. “Right now,” he said, “I couldn’t buy leggings for a hummingbird.”
His financial picture was going 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 was angry and insensitive.
The civil jury found that Blake had “intentionally caused” Bakley’s death. Her family won $30 million in damages, later reduced to $15 million. Blake later filed for bankruptcy.
Blake’s cunning tough guy personality while testifying resulted in perhaps the worst, and surely 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.”
He was born as Michael James Gubitosi on September 18, 1933 in Nutley, New Jersey. On his birth certificate, his father is listed as James Gubitosi. But Blake later learned that his biological father was actually James’s brother, his “Uncle” Tony, who had an affair with his mother.
As a child he was shown little affection at home, he said, sometimes beaten and locked in a closet. But James got him into show business.
He formed a family act, the Three Little Hillbillies, made up of Blake, a half-brother and a half-sister, who performed in parks and on sidewalks. At age 2, Blake was singing the novelty song “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” pretending to be drunk. “People were throwing more money away, 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 got jobs as extras at MGM in the “Our Gang” movies. One day, a child actor on the show was supposed to say the line, “Confidentially, it sucks,” but he couldn’t utter “confidentially.” Blake tugged on the director’s pant leg to get his attention, the line said, at which point he went from extra to actor.
Bobby Blake, as he came to be known, appeared in approximately 40 of the comedy shorts. He went on to play Little Beaver in the popular Red Ryder series of Westerns in the 1940s and landed small roles in films starring big names, including Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, whom he fondly remembers for helping him grow as an actor.
Perhaps Blake’s most memorable early role was uncredited: he played a persistent boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in the 1948 classic “Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”
But the problems at home continued and he said he was regularly bullied at Hamilton High School. Blake started drinking heavily and eventually taking drugs. “I sold dope, used it, snorted it, did everything I could,” he said on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1973.
After a brief stint in the Army in the mid-1950s, he returned to sporadic 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 the Times film critic Charles Champlin, “made Smith terrifyingly comprehensible and the fact all the more frightening for his seeming inevitability.”
Blake also received rave reviews for the subsequent films “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” and “Electra Glide in Blue,” but she also developed a reputation in the business for being disruptive, necessitating script and other changes. On the set of the crime drama “Electra Glide,” the assistant director “would have been justified in shooting me,” Blake said in an interview with the Times in 1973. “There was pain, conflict and blood in the arena.”
During “Baretta,” the 1975-78 ABC series in which he played a master-of-disguise police detective living with his pet cockatoo, Blake discussed not only the writing but also casting, setting, and even the props. At least for a while, he was worth it. “You went to the newspapers and he was wonderful,” series creator Stephen J. Cannell told The Times in 2001.
He landed a new series, “Hell Town” in 1985, which he helped create, playing a spirited priest in East Los Angeles, and vowed to reform. “This is the new image: Mr. Nice Robert Blake,” he told the Associated Press. But after 16 episodes, he walked away from his own series and stayed away from acting until he broke through once again in the 1993 TV movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story.”
After that, he played only two more roles, including in Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir film “Lost Highway.”
If Blake ever felt completely comfortable as an actor, it was perhaps on TV talk shows, where he came across as funny, rebellious and a bit outrageous in his observation of the entertainment industry and life in general, so much so that “The Tonight Program starring Johnny Carson” hired him regularly.
The last time Blake tried that was in a 2012 appearance on “Dr. Phil” before a sympathetic audience. He flatly said that he didn’t kill his wife, and even laughed at her explanation, complete with character voices, of why he shouldn’t have been charged.
Blake was clearly encouraged by the answer. “It’s been a long time, but I’m home again,” he told the audience. “That is all I have in life, that is the only thing that God has given me.
“There is nothing better than this”.
Colker is a former staff writer for The Times.