Robert Blake, actor acquitted of the murder of his wife, dies aged 89

LOS ANGELES (AP) – Robert Blake, the Emmy Award-winning performer who went from acting acclaim to celebrity when he was tried and acquitted of killing his wife, died Thursday at age 89.

A statement released on behalf of 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,” had once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the long ordeal that began with the killing 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 case, a story more bizarre than any in which he appeared. Many remembered him not as the gruff, dark-haired star of “Baretta,” but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant.

In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while in jail awaiting trial, he lamented the change in his status with his 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 a jury ultimately acquitted him. But a civil jury would find him responsible for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a verdict that sent him into bankruptcy. The daughter he and Bakley had together, 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,” not “Dad.” .

It was an ignominious finale to a life lived in the limelight from childhood. As a youngster, he starred in “Our Gang” comedies and starred in a movie classic, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of the real-life murderer Perry Smith in the movie about Truman Capote’s true crime bestseller “In Cold Blood”.

His career peaked with the TV cop series “Baretta” from 1975-78. He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises. It was typical of his specialty to portray 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 an Emmy in 1975 for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was plagued by disputes involving the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of Hollywood’s best actors, but one of the most difficult to work with. He later admitted to struggling 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, church-going man who murdered his wife and three children.

Blake’s career had slowed 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 later years “enjoying jazz music, playing the guitar, reading poetry and watching many classic Hollywood 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 the age of 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 film extra, and little Mickey Gubitosi was picked out of the crowd of producers who cast him in comedies “Our Gang”. He appeared in the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.

He continued 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 “Sierra Madre Treasure.”

In adulthood, he got serious film 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 had stalled,” he said in the AP interview. “I had 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 little 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 me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I will walk into the sunset together.”

Prosecutors would argue that he planned to kill Bakley to gain custody of the baby and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence was confused, 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 gun he had accidentally left behind. The police were initially confused and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime took place.

Once a wealthy man, 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 want to give my best performance,” he said. “I want to leave a legacy for Rosie about who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and fishing rod yet. I want to go to bed every night desperate to wake up every morning and create some magic.”


Deutsch, the primary author of this obituary, retired from The Associated Press in 2014.

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