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Stuntmen Pivotal in the Blake Case

Times Staff Writers

They took on physical though anonymous roles in movies such as “Patriot Games” and “Midway.”

Now, the two veteran Hollywood stuntmen are expected to be the star witnesses for the prosecution in the murder trial of actor Robert Blake.

Both Gary “Whiz Kid” McLarty, 64, and Ronald “Duffy” Hambleton, 68, say Blake tried to hire them to kill his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.

They are set to take the witness stand this week in a Van Nuys courtroom as prosecutors continue to mount their case that Blake solicited Hambleton and McLarty to kill Bakley and, when they refused, eventually pulled the trigger himself.

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Blake, 71, faces life in prison if convicted in the May 4, 2001, shooting death of the 44-year-old Bakley in his car near a Studio City restaurant where they had just dined. He has been free on $1.5-million bail for nearly two years.

“If they are believed, they’re the best evidence you have, since [prosecutors] don’t have any direct evidence linking [Blake] to the shooting,” said Laurie Levenson, a former federal prosecutor who teaches criminal law at Loyola Law School.

Hambleton did lead police to records from a prepaid phone card that documents dozens of calls from Blake’s home to the stuntmen. Hambleton told police he assured Blake that calls made using the card could not be traced. The card itself was not recovered, but police were able to trace its purchase to retrieve records of the calls.

In the three years since court documents revealed their possible roles in the case, the stuntmen have shunned publicity. Their friends and family also are mostly hesitant to talk about them. Yet details of their lives and careers, as well as their allegations, came out when the men testified as key prosecution witnesses at Blake’s preliminary hearing two years ago.

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Both testified that they had not seen Blake in more than two decades, since the Emmy Award-winner’s television heyday -- nor had they socialized with him when they worked together in the 1970s. Yet neither hesitated to meet, separately, with Blake at a Studio City diner in 2001, each hoping to land a stunt job in the actor’s next professional adventure.

“I would like to have found a job. Absolutely,” McLarty testified at the preliminary hearing. “I’m always looking for one.”

Hambleton, of Lucerne Valley, and McLarty, of Sylmar, worked on the ‘70s detective series “Baretta,” starring Blake as a cockatoo-loving cop whose forte was disguising himself to infiltrate the criminal world. They have led the unusual, sometimes risky lives of men who make their living by doing things that would make others blanch.

“It’s hard for anybody my age to be scared of too much if they’ve done stunt work,” Hambleton testified at the preliminary hearing.

Hambleton and McLarty once belonged to the same stunt organization and worked on a few films together. But they hadn’t seen each other for 15 or 20 years until they exchanged brief greetings two years ago in a courthouse hallway -- one having just testified, the other awaiting his turn to take the witness stand.

Each told police that in March 2001, two months before Bakley was killed, a mutual friend, Roy “Snuffy” Harrison, called to set up a meeting with Blake at a restaurant in Studio City. Each testified that Blake asked him to “pop” or “snuff” Bakley. Each said he refused.

To undercut their testimony -- which in itself could land Blake in prison for life for soliciting murder -- defense lawyer M. Gerald Schwartzbach has portrayed them as drug addicts prone to delusions.

McLarty’s son, Cole, also a stuntman, is expected to testify for the defense that his father was once so addled by drugs that he believed the Los Angeles Police Department was tunneling under his house, and that he had seen aliens from space.

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As for Hambleton, Schwartzbach said “he fantasized there were 20 armed men in his home, and there wasn’t anybody there.” And he contended that Hambleton decided to become a witness to keep the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department “off his back” for alleged involvement with illegal drugs.

Of the two stuntmen, McLarty is the more successful, working in “thousands” of films dating back 40 years, he testified. He liked to race motorcycles in the desert and shoot squirrels on his property.

Despite health problems, McLarty was always looking for his next paycheck. He said he had been a stunt double for Blake once or twice on “Baretta” and drove trucks in “Coast to Coast,” a 1980 Blake film. On the film set, “I knew him well enough to say hi,” McLarty testified at the preliminary hearing.

But McLarty, like many in the entertainment industry, had an idea for a movie and needed financing when he agreed to meet Blake in 2001. “I think it was a pipe dream more than anything,” he testified, unable to recall details of the proposal except that it would have been “a period thing” set in 2070.

Though semiretired, McLarty lists the recent thrillers “Collateral” and “Gone in 60 Seconds” among his credits. In 1986, he was honored as the stunt coordinator in “Beverly Hills Cop” at the annual Stunt Man Awards ceremony. His estranged wife of 20 years, Karen, performed stunts in such hits as “The Blues Brothers.”

But McLarty may be best known for his stint as stunt coordinator for 1983’s “Twilight Zone: the Movie,” in which actor Vince Morrow and two child actors were killed when the helicopter used in the film crashed on the set.

He was in the helicopter, and later testified in the involuntary manslaughter trial of director John Landis and four others that he had warned that the scene might be too dangerous. But after his testimony, a fuming prosecutor, Lea Purwin D’Agostino, accused McLarty and other witnesses of softening their testimony so they wouldn’t be blackballed from the movie industry. Landis and the others were acquitted.

In his long career, McLarty took thousands of hits, including some that nearly killed him. Ronnie Rondell, another stunt veteran who knew McLarty and Hambleton, said McLarty “had great coordination, body control and was able to take a whack.”

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Hambleton worked with Blake longer, according to his testimony. He grew up in the North Hollywood area and said he met Blake about 1967 at Vincent’s Gym in Studio City. They were neighbors whose sons rode bicycles together.

When the “Baretta” series began, Rondell, the stunt coordinator for the show, hired Hambleton for fight scenes and to roll cars. He moved up to stunt coordinator on Blake’s next project, a series of made-for-TV movies.

Over the years, Hambleton worked on popular dramas including “The Mod Squad,” “The Rookies” and “Mission: Impossible.” He also supplemented his income as a private investigator, learning the business from his father.

Hambleton retired from stunt work in 1997 after more than three decades and thousands of high falls, car rolls, motorcycle work and fight routines. He testified that he appeared in hundreds of productions.

“He was a good gangster-type, a good look for the heroes to beat up,” Rondell said in an interview. “He was tough ... a capable stunt guy.”

Hambleton owns a ranch that he described in court as a sort of “halfway house for the less fortunate,” which he said included ex-convicts, drug addicts and the unemployed. He was initially reluctant to talk to authorities because he didn’t want “to be labeled a snitch, since he lives and associates with bikers and ex-cons,” according to a search warrant in the case.

Since their heydays, the stuntmen have had physical problems and dealings with the authorities.

A fire heavily damaged McLarty’s ranch in 1999, and he suffered a heart attack and underwent angioplasty in 2001, according to the file in his divorce case, which is pending in court in San Fernando. He was admitted to the hospital twice that year because of his heart condition, once before and once after he said he met with Blake.

When Blake allegedly solicited McLarty, the stuntman said they walked a few blocks from Blake’s Studio City home “until I got tired.” He said his hip was hurting from injuries in a motorcycle accident years earlier.

Hambleton testified in court that he had five surgeries in 1999 and is missing a kidney. He was still ailing in 2000 and did not attend a stunt-world ritual, the Day in the Dirt, an annual get-together that included motorcycle racing. Blake was there with Harrison, his go-between with the stuntmen. So was Hambleton’s son, Daryl, whom his father has described as a cameraman with the movie studios.

Prosecutors say Blake orchestrated separate meetings with the stuntmen because of their violent histories and run-ins with the law.

McLarty shot and killed a man in 1991. Donald Louis Deppe, who was living on McLarty’s property, was wanted in the rape of a 21-year-old woman who was a friend of McLarty and his wife. During a confrontation, McLarty shot Deppe six times.

The shooting was ruled self-defense by the district attorney’s office. At the time, Karen McLarty told the Los Angeles Times that her husband had befriended Deppe because he “wanted to help him out.”

In 1999, Hambleton called 911 and said people were stealing property from his house. When deputies responded, they saw nothing happening on the property, which was ringed by a locked fence. The deputies on the scene called the dispatcher, who said Hambleton was still on the line, saying the theft was in progress at that moment.

The deputies cut through the fence, approached the house and ordered Hambleton to come out. A few minutes later, he did, waving a .22-caliber rifle. He was charged with two counts of brandishing a firearm and one of resisting an officer.

A few weeks ago, Hambleton pleaded guilty to a misdemeanor weapons charge in the case and received three years’ probation and 90 days in jail, which he is to begin serving on weekends in March.

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Times staff writer J. Michael Kennedy contributed to this report.


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