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

Actor Robert Blake, whose decades-long film and television career was marred by a notorious murder case, has died aged 89.

Blake died in Los Angeles, his niece Noreen confirmed to CBS News on Thursday. She said he died after a battle with heart disease, adding that he “died peacefully with family and friends.”

The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office told CBS News it “did not have a report” on Blake’s death.

“Due to his age and reported medical history, his death may not fall under our jurisdiction,” a statement from the medical examiner’s office read.

Before he was prosecuted and acquitted in his wife’s shooting death, Blake was best known for the 1970s TV series “Baretta,” for which he won a best actor Emmy in 1975, and his final film role, the 1997 film “Lost Highway.”

Actor Robert Blake leaves the Burbank County Courthouse after appearing in court for the wrongful death lawsuit filed against him by the children of his slain wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, on August 24, 2005 in Burbank, California.

/ Getty Images

But on May 4, 2001, Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was shot and killed in Blake’s car near a restaurant in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles.

It was Blake arrested on a charge of murder in April 2002.

The case finally went to court in late 2004, and Blake was acquitted by a jury in LA in early 2005.

The jury of seven men and five women handed down the verdicts on its ninth day of deliberations, following a four-month trial featuring a string of characters that included two Hollywood stuntmen who said Blake tried to hire them to kill his wife.

But no eyewitnesses, blood or DNA evidence linked Blake to the crime. The murder weapon found in a trash can could not be traced to Blake, and witnesses said the minimal amounts of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands could have come from another gun he said he carried for protection.

Blake had hundreds of film and television credits. His career began as a preschooler with the role of Mickey in the 1930s and 1940s children’s comedy film series “Our Gang,” which was rebroadcast for decades on television.

He won critical acclaim for his portrayal of real-life killer Perry Smith in the 1967 film “In Cold Blood.” 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 – also based on the true story of a convicted murderer.

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 LA, 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 “Treasures of the Sierra Madre.”

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 an interview with The Associated Press. “I had been alone for a long time.”

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 off 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.”

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