The Dallas Morning News
Acclaimed actor struck by scandal
LOS ANGELES — Robert Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted in the killing of his wife, died Thursday at age 89.
A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died from heart disease, surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake, star of the 1970s TV show Baretta, had once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the long ordeal which began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on May 4, 2001. The story of their strange marriage, the child it produced and its violent end was a Hollywood tragedy played out in court.
Once hailed as among the finest actors of his generation, Blake became better known as the center of a real-life murder trial. Many remembered him not as the rugged, dark-haired star of Baretta, but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant.
He was adamant that he had not killed his wife, who was shot once in the head outside a Los Angeles restaurant where the couple had just dined in May 2001, and a jury ultimately acquitted him. But a civil jury would find him liable for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a judgment which sent him into bankruptcy.
Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense and wound up living on Social Security and a Screen Actor’s Guild pension.
It was an ignominious finale for a life lived in the spotlight from childhood. As a youngster, he starred in the Our Gang comedies and acted in a movie classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of reallife murderer Perry Smith in the movie made from Truman Capote’s true crime bestseller In Cold Blood.
His career peaked with Baretta. He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises. It was typical of his specialty, portraying tough guys with soft hearts, and its signature line: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.
Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was wracked by disputes involving the temperamental star. He later admitted to struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his early life.
In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in, Judgment Day: the John List Story, portraying a soft-spoken, churchgoing man who murdered his wife and three children.
He made only a handful of screen appearances after the mid-1980s; his last project was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway, released in 1997. According to his niece, Blake had spent his recent years “enjoying jazz music, playing his guitar, reading poetry, and watching many Hollywood Classic films.”
He was born Michael James Gubitosi on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, N.J. His father, an Italian immigrant and his mother, an Italian American, wanted their three children to succeed in show business. At age 2, Blake was performing with a brother and sister in a family vaudeville act called “The Three Little Hillbillies.”
When his parents moved the family to L.A., his mother found work for the kids as movie extras and little Mickey Gubitosi was plucked from the crowd by producers who cast him in the comedies.