In 1986 Robert Blake was starring in "Hell Town," an NBC series about a tough-talking slum priest. The show was not a Top 10 hit but it was doing satisfactorily. Blake, who had written the pilot, owned the show and was making a good deal of money, which he needed to pay off accumulated debts and the cost of a divorce.
Then, after 16 episodes, he quit the series and dropped almost totally from sight.
"I was living on sleeping pills and junk food," Blake said, remembering 1986 at his house in Studio City. "I was overweight. My face was puffy and I had old, sad eyes. I would get in the limo to go to the 'Hell Town' location every morning and I'd be so uptight I could hardly breathe. My heart hurt, my soul hurt. I've always been a fierce competitor and a perfectionist, but during 'Hell Town' I only remember being terrified. One morning I realized I was only days--maybe hours--away from sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger."
He was, Blake says, out of control. His three children, who lived with him, were scared of him. He was saying outrageous things, some of them on the Johnny Carson show in front of millions of viewers. Blake realizes now that he was alienating everyone within reach. And, he adds, "There was no one around who was trying to save me from me."
He went to Brandon Tartikoff, then head of programming at NBC, and said that he not only wanted out, he needed out. Tartikoff, Blake says, was very sympathetic and let him go although he was technically breaking his contract.
Born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, N.J., in 1933, he'd come west with his parents and his brother and sister, all hoping for careers in the movies. He was 2 years old. Back home, the three children had already been entertaining in local parks, dancing and singing while their father played the guitar, and then passing the hat. Blake, using an image he cites frequently, likens his moppet self to an organ grinder's monkey, on a collar and chain.
In Hollywood his father got the young Mickey Gubitosi as an unspeaking extra on "The Little Rascals," as the "Our Gang" comedy series was called after Hal Roach sold it to MGM. When one of the gang couldn't say, "Confidentially it stinks," Mickey Gubitosi could, and became a regular, with lines.
In 1941, when he was 8, MGM needed a child actor to read with actresses being tested for a film. Mickey did the scenes so well he was cast in the title role of "Mokey," playing a foster child, with Donna Reed and Dan Dailey as the elders. The studio decided a new name would be more appropriate, so Mickey Gubitosi became Robert Blake, and Blake has outlived the film by half a century.
His last line in "Mokey" was "I finally got my own mother." Even then it had ironic overtones for him. He says he has no memory of his mother ever embracing him, and indeed his memories of his childhood make Oliver Twist sound like a pampered rich kid. He was an abused child, Blake says. The first Christmas present he can remember receiving, he says, was from the director of "Mokey," not from his parents.
Adamant that his son would have the show business career that had eluded him, his father used to stand behind the camera to keep the boy on his toes during shooting of "Little Rascals," Blake says. By the time of "Mokey," the father was not allowed on the set at all, because of the way he upset his son. "He was an alcoholic, dead at 45," Blake says.
When his mother died a few years ago, Blake had not seen her for 30 years, and he adds that he has not seen his brother for 35. His sister, the one person in the family he felt close to, died in 1986. It is possible that bitterness and time have made the remembered early years even darker and more hurtful than they were. Yet it is not uncommon for child actors to feel their childhoods were so unlike those of their contemporaries that it was as if they had never had a childhood at all.
Blake's sudden withdrawal from "Hell Town" and his subsequent years of seclusion became at last a process, well-advanced although not yet completed, of re-examining his childhood, and trying to rediscover the Mickey Gubitosi who, along with childhood, got lost along the way.
He always wanted a BB gun, which his parents wouldn't let him have. Now Blake has a gun rack for his collection of dozens of BB guns, including a one-of-a-kind presentation model from the Daisy Air Rifle Co. He never kept scrapbooks or stills, but has now begun to reacquire the mementos of his earliest movie years, including a photograph of the MGM studio classroom in which Elizabeth Taylor is a prominent fellow student.
"When somebody sends me a picture for an autograph, I ask permission to make a copy before I send it back," Blake says. An aunt who kept two scrapbooks on his career gave them to him, and he studies them carefully, often with mixed emotions and occasionally with the feeling that they concern someone he barely remembers.
Blake says he is attempting to re-experience as much as he can of the dark side of his childhood, and by re-experiencing it, somehow cleanse it from memory, or at least strip it of the anger that has clung to it for these decades. "I've spent my whole life lying, to myself, to others, to all around me," he says--suppressing all the rage, or expressing it in ways that concealed the real sources of the rage.
He became the principal support of his dysfunctional family, and he was very successful as a child actor, which did not change his feeling of being a trained monkey. He played John Garfield as a boy in "Humoresque" in 1946, Edward G. Robinson's son in "Woman in the Window" and the continuing role of Little Beaver in the "Red Ryder" television series. He had a small but vivid role with Humphrey Bogart in "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre."
But as he moved out of the cute kid stage into his teen years, there was less work and even more friction within the family. He left home at 16 and after bouncing in and out of various high schools (five, by his count) he went into the Army. He was stationed in Alaska as a sergeant in Special Services, putting on shows and having a fine time, when he fell in love with a local girl and bought her an engagement ring.
She was only 16 and her furious father had Blake arrested and thrown in the stockade pending a court martial for statutory rape. "I could easily have ended up in Leavenworth," Blake remembers, a disastrous turn of events compounded by the fact that Blake had felt himself truly in love for the first time.
In the end, a friendly priest negotiated a settlement with the family and the Army by which Blake agreed never to see the girl again. "I was escorted to the plane under guard by MPs," Blake says, "and I flew home and was discharged, with nothing bad on my record."
After he abandoned "Hell Town," Blake was, in his words, "a walking nervous breakdown." The analyst he had being seeing for 30 years urged him to go into a hospital, but he refused. He remembers circling endlessly through the house and he slept on a pile of fur blankets on the living room floor. His most frequent thought, he says, was, "God, don't let me die."
Today he pulls from a battered attache case a copy of one of Karen Horney's books, "Our Inner Conflicts." It is dogeared and torn, with underlinings and marginal comments on virtually every page. He's been studying it for years, Blake remarks, seeking clues to--and salvation from--his turmoil.
On scraps of paper clipped inside the attache case he has scrawled various lines that caught his eye: "Happiness is taboo," but, more significantly, "No night so dark that it can hinder the coming of the dawn."
When he felt like facing people again, says Blake, he began confronting his friends and associates, asking, "Why didn't you help me? I know I was crazy, you knew I was crazy." When those he confronted had no answers for him, he began breaking away from them. (Perhaps in their defense, it can be said that in his troubled times, Blake was the first and last angry man rolled into one, a figure of formidable temper and strength.)
He broke with his psychiatrist, a tough decision. He ran across a book called "Outgrowing the Pain" by Eliana Gil (Dell) and says he's since given copies to dozens of friends. It is addressed to anyone who had a troubled childhood. He went to a woman therapist, who was kind and helpful, then to a second therapist, who, through hypnosis, helped him, he says, to become a camera: seeing images of the family tenement in New Jersey, watching young Mickey, working at MGM every day but still sharing a bed with his older brother, briefly feeling safe in Reed's arms in "Mokey."
The second therapist wrestled with him, keeping him focused. "She's the one God sends you when all hell's breaking loose," Blake says. "In a movie she'd be played by Claire Trevor."
He guesses he's half way, perhaps two-thirds of the way through his search. Meanwhile, the self-healing process has released a flood of energy. Partly with his own hands he has built a second house, small but handsome, behind his existing house. It has both a weight room, with some body-building equipment he designed himself, and, adjoining it, a mirrored dance rehearsal room with a barre, where he says he also works out every day.
He looks lean and hard, and is probably as composed as it's possible for him to be. In an office adjoining the main house he works with writers on new projects. Blake is now eager to get back to work, but not, if he can help it, in a TV series. His adult career, as he is quick to say, has been a roller coaster in terms of importance--notable acting achievements followed by mundane chores.
On his living room wall is a framed pastel, a brilliantly white sailboat slicing along a deep-blue sea. The idyllic scene is the more moving because it was done in prison on a bed sheet, in the weeks before he was hanged, by Perry Smith, the killer Blake played in Richard Brooks' "In Cold Blood." Prison officials presented it to Blake, a reminder of what is probably his finest outing as an actor.
He was striking as a nice, doomed highway patrolman in "Electra Glide in Blue" and as an Indian in "Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here." His finest work for TV was undoubtedly as Jimmy Hoffa in a four-hour miniseries on ABC.
But Blake also remembers, painfully, that John Schlesinger called to talk to him about "Midnight Cowboy," "and like an arrogant jerk I never even called him back." Like almost every actor, Blake is haunted by the noes that should have been yeses, the yeses that would have been better unsaid.
Just now he has developed a feature film project, a crime thriller with overseas potential, that he feels he can get made. "I'm still kind of hot," he says. "Somebody thinks, 'Why don't we get that crazy Blake?' and they send me a movie-of-the-week script. But I've been at it for 50 years and that's not where I'm at right now."
Blake may not yet have made the last of his mistakes. That's a problem no one solves. But, whatever else is true, he has found and become reconciled with the lost Mickey Gubitosi, and it gives Robert Blake a healthier purchase on life than he has probably ever had.