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Robert Blake, star of ‘In Cold Blood’ who faced murder charges in real life, dies at 89

Robert Blake
Robert Blake at the premiere of “In Cold Blood” in 1968.
(J. Wilds / Getty Images)
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Whenever actor Robert Blake got into trouble in life, an acting role would set things right.

At 5, he found escape from an abusive home life by getting a role in the “Our Gang” movies.

He won the seminal role of his career — real-life murderer Perry Smith in the 1967 film “In Cold Blood” — after years of abusing drugs.

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A string of unsuccessful movies was broken by his biggest hit — the title role in the 1970s TV series “Baretta,” for which he won an Emmy. But his on-set behavior eventually made him nearly unemployable until his career was resurrected by playing another real-life murderer, John List, in a TV movie.

Then in 2001 came the murder story in Blake’s own life — the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, for which he was put on trial. He was acquitted in a criminal court but found liable in a civil case.

Once more, Blake looked for a role that would transform his life.

“My goal in life is to make one more beautiful film,” he told interviewer Piers Morgan on CNN in 2013. If that happened, he said, “I’ll go out the way I want to go out.”

The role never came and, on Thursday, Blake died of heart disease in Los Angeles, his niece, Noreen Austin, told the Associated Press in a statement. He was 89.

Blake’s up-and-down career began in the late 1930s with the “Our Gang” comedies. He rose to prominence as an actor when he played Smith in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and won the Emmy in 1975 for his work in “Baretta,” a police detective series.

After a 12-week trial that ended with jurors saying they did not believe two Hollywood stuntmen central to the prosecution’s case, actor Robert Blake was found not guilty Wednesday of fatally shooting his wife.

March 17, 2005

He also played lead roles in the films “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969) and “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973) and in the 1985 TV series “Hell Town.” His last role was in the 1997 David Lynch movie “Lost Highway.”

Despite his onetime popularity and critical acclaim, Blake’s career was overshadowed by the events of May 4, 2001. He and Bakley — theirs was a strained relationship — ate dinner that evening at Vitello’s, a Studio City restaurant where he was a regular. After they finished and went out to the car, according to Blake’s statements to police, he returned to the restaurant, saying he had left his personal handgun, a .38 Special Smith & Wesson revolver, in a booth.

When he got back to the car, he said, Bakley, 44, was slumped over in the passenger seat, fatally shot in the head.

Police initially said Blake was not a suspect. The murder weapon, a Walther P38 9-millimeter pistol, was found in a nearby dumpster.

A jury acquitted him. Will Hollywood execs and the public be a tougher audience?

March 25, 2005

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Nearly a year later, he was arrested and charged with the shooting. He spent 11 months in jail before bail was even set, and he spent millions of dollars on lawyers and private investigators.

It fell to his legal team to persuade a jury that an actor who had so convincingly played two real-life murderers — Smith, who slaughtered members of a Kansas family as described in Capote’s bestseller, and List, who killed his wife, children and mother in a shooting spree in New Jersey — was not capable of it in real life.

Blake especially empathized with Smith, who was abused as a child. “Throughout the film,” Blake said of “In Cold Blood” in his 2011 memoir, “Tales of a Rascal,” “I never had to reach for anything. Perry and I were intertwined like vines over the same grave.”

He was acquitted in March 2005, largely because testimony by key prosecution witnesses proved unreliable in the eyes of the jury. Blake cut off his electronic locator bracelet, telling reporters he was broke in the colorful jargon that once made him a valued guest on TV talk shows. “Right now,” he said, “I couldn’t buy spats for a hummingbird.”

His financial picture was to get much worse. Bakley’s family sued him, and at the civil trial, unlike at the criminal proceeding, Blake was forced to testify. In eight days on the stand, he came off as angry and callous.

Late Night: Robert Blake goes berserk on ‘Piers Morgan Tonight’

July 12, 2012

The civil jury found that Blake had “intentionally caused” Bakley’s death. Her family won $30 million in damages, later cut to $15 million. Blake later filed for bankruptcy.

Blake’s tough-guy, street-wise persona while testifying resulted in perhaps the worst — and surely the most damaging — review of his career.

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“As a group,” the jury foreman said, “we believe that Mr. Blake was probably his own worst enemy on the stand.”

He was born Michael James Gubitosi on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, N.J. On his birth certificate, his father is listed as James Gubitosi. But Blake later learned that his biological father was actually James’ brother, his “uncle” Tony, who had an affair with his mother.

As a child he was shown little affection at home, he said, and was at times beaten and locked in a closet. But James got him into show business.

He formed a family act, the Three Little Hillbillies — consisting of Blake, a half brother and a half sister — that performed in parks and on sidewalks. At age 2, Blake was singing the novelty song “Show Me the Way to Go Home,” pretending to be drunk. “The people were throwing more money, and not pennies or nickels, but half dollars,” he wrote in “Tales of a Rascal.”

The family moved to Los Angeles when Blake was 4 and got work as extras at MGM on “Our Gang” films. One day a child actor in the series was supposed to say the line, “Confidentially, it stinks,” but couldn’t pronounce “confidentially.” Blake tugged on the director’s pant leg to get his attention, said the line, and in that moment moved up from extra to actor.

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Bobby Blake, as he came to be known, appeared in approximately 40 of the comedy shorts. He went on to play Little Beaver in the popular Red Ryder series of Westerns in the 1940s and landed small parts in films starring major names, including Spencer Tracy and John Garfield, both of whom he remembered affectionately as helping him grow as an actor.

Perhaps Blake’s most memorable early role was uncredited: He played a persistent boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in the 1948 classic “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.”

But trouble at home continued, and he said he was bullied on a regular basis at Hamilton High School. Blake began drinking heavily and eventually taking drugs. “I’ve sold dope, used it, snorted it, done everything you can do to it,” he said on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1973.

Steve Restivo’s restaurant, Vitello’s, was where Robert Blake and Bonny Lee Bakley had dinner before she was shot in 2001. Restivo died Nov. 5 at 81.

Dec. 3, 2021

After a short stint in the Army in the mid-1950s, it was back to sporadic acting work on TV shows. When he got the Perry Smith role in 1966, The Times’ headline was “Unknown Actor to Play ‘In Cold Blood’ Killer.” Blake’s performance, wrote Times movie critic Charles Champlin, “made Smith horrifyingly comprehensible and the deed all the more ghastly for its seeming inevitability.”

Blake also got rave reviews for follow-up films “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” and “Electra Glide in Blue,” but also developed a reputation in the business for being disruptive — calling for script and other changes. On the set of the police drama “Electra Glide,” the assistant director “would have been justified in shooting me,” Blake said in a 1973 Times interview. “There was pain, conflict and blood on the sand.”

During “Baretta,” the 1975-78 ABC series in which he played a master-of-disguise police detective who lived with his pet cockatoo, Blake argued about not only the writing but also casting, scenery and even props. At least for a while, he was worth the trouble. “You would go to dailies and he would be marvelous,” series creator Stephen J. Cannell told The Times in 2001.

He got a new series, “Hell Town” in 1985, that he helped create, playing a feisty priest in East L.A., and he promised to reform. “This is the new image: the Mr. Nice Robert Blake,” he told the Associated Press. But after 16 episodes, he walked away from his own series and stayed away from acting until he triumphed once again in the 1993 TV movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story.”

After that, he took only two more roles, including in the 1997 Lynch neo-noir film “Lost Highway.”

If Blake was ever completely comfortable as a performer, it was perhaps on TV talk shows, where he came off as funny, rebellious and a bit outrageous in his observation of the entertainment industry and life in general — so much so, that “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” booked him regularly.

The last time Blake got a taste of that was in a 2012 appearance on “Dr. Phil” before a sympathetic audience. He flatly stated that he did not kill his wife, and even got laughs out of his explanation — complete with character voices — of why he shouldn’t have been accused.

Blake was clearly heartened by the response. “It’s been a long time, but I’m home again,” he told the audience. “That’s all I have in life, that’s the only thing that God ever gave me.

“It don’t get any better than this.”

Colker is a former Times staff writer.

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