The star of “Baretta” who was tried for murder was 89 years old – Variety

Actor Robert Blake, a man with a long and complex legacy, has died, according to The Associated Press. The former child actor was best known for his Emmy-winning role as a cockatoo-owning undercover cop in the popular 1970s TV series ‘Baretta’ and, more infamously, for his trial after the murder of his wife. in 2001. He was 89 years old.

As reported by the AP, Blake died of heart disease Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.

These two aspects of Blake’s legacy were inseparable in some respects, and the personal turmoil that made the latter plausible at least circumstantially (the case against Blake rested on one motive – he might have wanted to be free from her rocky marriage) fueled her action.

Blake was acquitted of the murder charge, as well as one count of solicitation of murder, at his criminal trial in 2005, but at a civil trial later that year he was found responsible for the wrongful death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, and ordered to pay her family $30 million, a sum later halved by an appeals court. (Blake filed for bankruptcy in 2006.)

Upon news of Blake’s possible involvement in Bakley’s murder, many noted the “uncanny” similarity to the actor’s most famous film role in Richard Brooks’ 1967 adaptation of the novel-reportage of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, in which Blake and Scott Wilson played the young killers of an entire Kansas family. Speaking in a 2011 interview with Tavis Smiley, Blake admitted, “If I weren’t so sick and troubled, maybe I wouldn’t have been an actor.”

“Baretta” creator Stephen J. Cannell (d. 2010) once noted that Blake was as brilliant as Baretta but “the devil gets into him”, creating some of the intensity seen on screen. “I think he uses it in the performance,” Cannell said.

“Baretta” happened when Blake was at the peak of his acting. ABC was in talks with the actor when the acclaimed “Toma” series aired from 1973 to 1974. This gritty series based on the real-life experiences of an unconventional undercover cop starred Tony Musante. According to Cannell, Musante declined to continue after the first season, and the network was looking for a similar show.

No other casting choices were discussed, according to Cannell. Blake was adamant that he would not star in an actor’s “abandoned show”, but Cannell, with extensive notes from Blake, created a script that retained key elements from the original – such as the the main character’s fondness for disguises – while allowing for departures towards Blake.

Producer Roy Huggins has confirmed Blake’s heavy involvement in the production of the series. “No actor had been so involved,” he said. He also noted that Blake still had an agenda, a vision he wanted to implement.

The show ran from 1975 to 1978 and earned Blake an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1975 and another nomination in 1977.

Born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, NJ, Blake comes from a family of artists. At a young age, he appeared with his siblings in his parents’ vaudeville troupe. When he was a young child, his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, where he and his siblings began working as movie extras. (“Throughout his professional life he was haunted by resentment about the way his family and the studios treated him like a hard-working child star,” Roger Ebert wrote of Blake.)

Blake’s film debut came in 1939’s “Bridal Suite,” starring Robert Young and French actress Annabella. He appeared in MGM’s “Our Gang” shorts beginning with 1939’s “Joy Scouts” as Mickey Gubitosi. Between 1939 and 1944 he appeared in over 40 short films.

In 1940 he had a small role in the Myrna Loy-William Powell film “I Love You Again”. During the 1940s he moved from bit parts to leading roles (the drama “Mokey” in 1942) and appeared in a small but important role in John Huston’s “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in 1948.

During the 1950s, Blake moved on to adult roles in action films and westerns like “Apache War Smoke” (1952), “Screaming Eagles” (1956) and “The Tijuana Story” (1957) . He has also appeared in TV anthology series such as ‘Fireside Theater’ and ‘Zane Gray Theatre’, as well as western/adventure series such as ‘The Roy Rogers Show’, ‘The Cisco Kid’, ‘Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” and “Whirlwinds.

In the 1960s he moved on to bigger roles, such as in “PT 109” (1963), with Cliff Robertson and Robert Culp, and in 1965 the religious epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. He also continued to work regularly on television, appearing in series such as “Wagon Train”, “Ben Casey” and “Rawhide”.

Her most memorable film role came in 1967’s “In Cold Blood.” Blake turned in perhaps his most chilling performance as drifting killer Perry Smith; Anthony Hopkins reportedly watched Blake’s performance several times in preparation for his role as Hannibal Lecter in the movie ‘The Silence of the Lambs’.

Ebert wrote in 1968, “The actors, Robert Blake (Smith) and Scott Wilson (Hickock), are so good they go beyond performance and almost into life.” Reappraising the film following Blake’s 2002 murder trial, Ebert wrote, “Robert Blake, in person and in many of his characters, seems born to be a victim pushed around by others, fired because of his small size, carrying old grievances and wounds.Blake’s unhappy childhood seems to find a mirror in Perry Smith’s tortured childhood.

Blake followed that career high with a handful of films, including Abraham Polonsky’s well-regarded Western “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969), in which he played a Native American on the run after killing someone. one in self-defense. In “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973), Blake played a good cop on a motorcycle in the Arizona desert who is criticized by the system.

In 1975, the actor began his run as the title character of “Baretta,” a smart undercover cop who lived with a cockatoo named Fred. The show cracked the top 10 during the 1976-77 season before its cancellation in 1978.

The 1970s brought professional success but also addiction to Blake, who said: “I was addicted to heroin for two years, I stole, broke motorcycles in trees, drank, ate pills by handles. . . . Self destruct? I could write a book.”

After “Baretta,” Blake worked in a series of TV movies, including a well-reviewed adaptation of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in 1981. He earned an Emmy nomination for his complex and charismatic portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa. in Mike Newell-directed “Blood Feud” (1983).

Blake made a brief return to series television in 1985 with NBC’s “Hell Town,” about a crime-fighting inner-city priest; he also wrote the telepic story that led to the series.

The actor then dropped out of the spotlight for nearly a decade, returning in the 1993 CBS telepic “Judgment Day: The John List Story.” His turn from accountant to mass murderer earns him an Emmy nomination.

Blake’s last appearances were in the movie “Money Train” (1995), in which he played a villainous transit boss, and in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997), in which he was memorable as a the scary Mystery Man made up as a white pancake.

In May 2001, the actor was thrust back into the spotlight when Bakley was murdered in Blake’s car in the parking lot of Vitello’s Italian restaurant in Studio City where the couple had just dined. He was arrested for the crime in 2002; the general consensus was that the prosecution’s case was weak in almost every way, resulting in an acquittal.

Nonetheless, the affair ended his acting career, and Blake kept a low profile in later years, although he appeared on Tavis Smiley’s PBS talk show in December 2011. In July 2012, he appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN show to promote his upcoming autobiography, but erupted when Piers Morgan asked if the actor was telling the truth about the affair. His memoir “Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love” subsequently emerged.

Blake is survived by his children with his ex-wife, actress Sondra Kerr – actor Noah Blake and Delinah Blake – and by a daughter, Rose, with Bakley.

Leave a Comment