Wife of Actor Robert Blake Shot to Death
Robert Blake, best known for his role as a streetwise detective in the 1970s’ television series “Baretta,” was enmeshed in a real-life police drama Saturday after his wife was fatally shot in the couple’s parked car outside a Studio City restaurant Friday night.
Blake told police that he left his wife, Bonny Bakley, in their Dodge Stealth after dinner and returned to Vitello’s, a popular neighborhood establishment. He went back to Vitello’s to get a handgun that had slipped from his waistband, according to his lawyer.
The 67-year-old actor retrieved the gun, headed back to his car about a block away and discovered his wife slumped over in the passenger seat, shot once in the head, police said.
“He’s in an absolute state of shock,” said Blake’s lawyer, criminal defense attorney Harland W. Braun.
Police, who interviewed Blake on Saturday, said only that he was a witness and not a suspect in the crime. But detectives entered his home in the afternoon after obtaining a search warrant and removed some items.
Late Friday, Blake allowed officers to enter a unit behind his Studio City home, where Bakley lived, his lawyer said.
The two married recently after DNA tests established that the actor was the father of her 11-month-old daughter, but they lived separately, said Braun.
The couple had a leisurely dinner Friday at Vitello’s, one of Blake’s favorite hangouts. At the Tujunga Avenue restaurant, his penchant for pasta with sauteed spinach and tomato sauce is so well known that adding those ingredients to a dish is called “Robert Blaking” by the staff.
Steve Restivo, co-owner of the restaurant, said Blake and Bakley had a reservation, arrived about 8:30 p.m., and seemed happy and relaxed as they sat in a corner booth.
‘You’ve Gotta Help Me’
Restivo said he has known Blake for 20 years and joked with him Friday night. “I told him he was more of a Sicilian than my father,” because Blake preferred to drink plain chicken broth straight from the soup bowl with no vegetables. Blake joked that the soup had kept him from getting the flu all winter.
Restivo said he left shortly after the couple and did not find out about the slaying until Saturday morning.
When Blake discovered his wife with the gunshot wound, he ran across the street, banging on the front door of Sean Stanek’s home, his lawyer said. Stanek, a film director who had frequently seen Blake at the neighborhood’s cafes and restaurants, opened the door thinking someone was playing a prank. “You’ve gotta help me, you’ve gotta help me!” said Blake, begging Stanek to call 911.
After getting dressed, Stanek said he ran out to Blake’s car. Blake returned to the restaurant looking for a doctor or nurse, his lawyer said. Stanek found Bakley, gasping for air, her eyes rolling back. The car’s window was rolled down and there was no sign of shattered glass.
“I tried to talk to her,” said Stanek. “I said what’s your name, can you hear me? If you can hear me please just squeeze my hand.”
Bakley never squeezed.
“It was horrifying,” he said.
Paramedics and police were at the scene within seven minutes and medics worked on Bakley for about 10 minutes before putting her body in an ambulance and leaving. Police then took Blake to the side and started questioning him. Blake began vomiting on the street, Stanek said.
Joe Restivo, Steve’s brother and the restaurant’s co-owner, said he did not remember Blake returning for a gun, but said the actor came back frantic after the shooting.
“He said, ‘My wife, she got hurt or we got mugged or something. . . .’ I said, ‘You want me to call 911?’ He said he did already,” said Joe Restivo. He said that Blake was agitated and that he asked for a glass of water as he was describing what had happened.
“The guy was nuts,” he said.
Officer Guillermo Campos, an LAPD spokesman, said investigators have questioned Blake and consider him a witness.
“At this point he’s not considered an official suspect,” Campos said Saturday afternoon. “Whenever there’s a murder investigation, the people who last saw the victim alive are obviously questioned in detail.”
Blake and Bakley had a difficult relationship and were married about four months ago, said Blake’s lawyers. The two had been involved in a tense dispute after Bakley had her child. Bakley originally gave the child the last name of Brando, said lawyer Barry Felsen, because she thought the child had been fathered by Christian Brando, the son of actor Marlon Brando.
But when DNA tests proved Blake was the father, “Robert did the right thing,” Felsen said. He married Bakley, even as he had hired investigators to check into her background.
Felsen said Bakley lived in a separate unit behind Blake’s Studio City home and indicated that the two were not particularly close. Many of Blake’s neighbors said Saturday that they didn’t know the actor was married and that they had little knowledge of Bakley.
“I never saw her,” said Laura Gilpatrick, a mail carrier delivering mail to Blake’s house. “He was a real nice guy and has a beautiful daughter.”
Blake, who had left his rustic one-story Dilling Street house in the afternoon, returned shortly after 8:30 p.m. Saturday. He was slumped down with a baseball cap over his face in the front passenger seat of a Mercedes-Benz sedan. A passenger in the back seat got out and lifted the police tape so the car could enter the property. About 30 minutes later, the sedan left again. Ten minutes afterward, it returned with Braun, who said he had taken the actor to the hospital because he had high blood pressure.
Braun said Blake keeps numerous guns that he owns in the home. The lawyer added that Blake has a permit to carry a concealed weapon and that on Friday night he was carrying a handgun because Bakley was worried for her safety. He described Bakley as “troubled.”
Troubled would be an apt word to describe Robert Blake’s life.
Born Mickey Gubitosi in Nutley, N.J., Blake began working in MGM’s popular “Our Gang” comedies at the age of 5 and as Red Ryder’s Indian sidekick Little Beaver in the Western serials.
By Blake’s accounts, his home life was horrific. He recalled in an 1992 Times interview that his mother never embraced him and his alcoholic father abused him.
The actor got rave reviews in 1967 for his terrifying performance as murderer Perry Smith in “In Cold Blood,” based on Truman Capote’s book.
After decades in which he performed in dozens of movies, Blake turned to TV in 1975, winning an Emmy for his role as New York detective Tony Baretta, a quirky character known to carry his pet cockatoo, Fred, on his shoulder.
The series was canceled after three seasons, sending Blake into a tailspin marked by battles with depression and abuse of alcohol. Since “Baretta,” he has worked inconsistently, and has had stretches of up to seven years in which he had nothing to do with the TV or movie business.
But he has played remarkable roles, one of them his Emmy-winning portrayal of John List, a New Jersey man who killed his family and lived under an assumed name for years before being caught.
He acknowledged that it wasn’t difficult to get under List’s skin. “You have to love the person you are going to play,” he once said. “You can’t say, well, this guy killed his family. I am going to play this ghoul. I have played a lot of people who killed. I have been on Death Row. You know, I have never met a murderer in my life. That’s because there ain’t any. There are people who crossed the line. Some of us don’t cross the line.”
His two most recent movies were “Money Train” in 1995 and David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” in 1997.
Times staff writers Ann O’Neill, Susan King and Sue Fox contributed to this story.
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