Robert Blake, actor acquitted of murdering his wife, dies at 89

LOS ANGELES (AP) — Robert Blake, the Emmy-winning performer who rose from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, died Thursday at 89. .

A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died of heart disease, surrounded by his family at his home in Los Angeles.

Blake, star of the 1970s TV show ‘Baretta’, once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the long ordeal that began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a restaurant in Studio City 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 one of the finest actors of his generation, Blake has become best known as the center of a real murder trial, a story more bizarre than any he has starred in. Many remembered him not as the burly, dark-haired star of “Baretta,” but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant.

In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while imprisoned awaiting trial, he lamented the change in his status with his fans nationwide: “It hurts because the America is the only family I had.”

He was adamant that he had not killed his wife, and a jury eventually acquitted him. But a civil jury would find him responsible for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a judgment that put him out of business. The daughter he and Bakley had together, Rose Lenore, was raised by other parents and went for years without seeing Blake, until they spoke in 2019. She would tell People magazine that she called him “Robert”, not “papa”.

It was an ignominious end to a life lived in the spotlight since childhood. As a young man, 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 real-life murderer Perry Smith in Truman Capote’s true best-selling film “In Cold Blood.”

His career culminated with the 1975 to 1978 television detective series, “Baretta.” He played the role of a detective who carried a cockatoo on his shoulder and liked disguises. It was typical of his specialty, portraying soft-hearted tough guys, 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 wracked with arguments involving the wayward star. He earned a reputation as one of Hollywood’s best actors, but one of the hardest to work with. He later admitted to having struggled with alcoholism and drug addiction early in his life.

In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in “Judgment Day: the John List Story,” portraying a soft-spoken, observant man who murdered his wife and three children.

Blake’s career had slowed long before the trial. He only made 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 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. By age 2, Blake was performing 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 movie extras, and little Mickey Gubitosi was snatched from the crowd by producers who cast him in “Our Gang”. He appeared on the show 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 Oscar-winning ‘The Treasure of the Sierra Madre’.

As an adult, he landed serious film roles. The biggest breakthrough came in 1967 with “In Cold Blood”. Later, there were movies like “Tell ’em 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 took place in 1999 at a jazz club where he went to escape loneliness.

“I was there, 67 or 68 years old. My life was on hold. My career was at a standstill,” he said in the AP interview. “I have been alone for a long time.”

He said he had no reason not to like Bakley: “She got me out of the stands and back into the arena. I had a reason to live. »

When Bakley gave birth to a baby girl, she named Christian Brando – son of Marlon – as her father. But the DNA tests pointed to Blake.

Blake saw the baby girl, named Rosie, for the first time when she was two months old and she became the center of his life. He married Bakley because of the child.

“Rosie is my blood. Rosie calls me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I will be walking together into the sunset.”

Prosecutors allegedly claim he planned to kill Bakley to gain sole custody of the baby and were trying to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence was confusing and a jury rejected that theory.

On his 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 handgun he had inadvertently left behind. The police were initially baffled, and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime.

Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense and ended up living off 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 revive his career.

“I would like to give my best performance,” he said. “I would like to leave a legacy to Rosie of who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and a fishing rod yet. I would love to go to bed every desperate night to wake up every morning and create magic.


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

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