Actor Robert Blake, a man with a long and complex legacy, has died, according to the Associated Press. The former child actor was best known for his Emmy-winning role as the cockatoo-owning undercover cop on the hit 1970s TV series “Baretta” and, more infamously, for his trial following the murder of his wife in 2001. He was 89 .
As reported by the AP, Blake died of heart disease Thursday at his home in Los Angeles.
These two aspects of Blake’s legacy were in some ways inseparable, and the personal turmoil that made the latter at least circumstantially plausible (the case against Blake hinged on motive—he might want to be free of his rocky marriage) fueled his acting.
Blake was acquitted of the murder charge, as well as a charge of soliciting murder, in his criminal trial in 2005, but in a civil trial later that year, he was found responsible for the wrongful death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, and sentenced to to pay his family $30 million, an amount later cut in half by an appeals court. (Blake filed for bankruptcy in 2006.)
Following the news of Blake’s possible involvement in Bakley’s murder, many remarked on the “eerie” resemblance to the actor’s most famous film role in Richard Brooks’ 1967 adaptation of Truman Capote’s novel-as-reportage “In Cold Blood”, starring Blake and Scott Wilson the young killers of an entire Kansas family. In a 2011 interview with Tavis Smiley, Blake acknowledged, “If I wasn’t so sick and so troubled, I might not have been an actor.”
“Baretta” creator Stephen J. Cannell (who died in 2010) once noted that Blake was as brilliant as Baretta, but that “the devil gets into him,” which creates some of the intensity seen on screen. “I think he uses it in the performance,” Cannell said.
“Baretta” came along when Blake was near the peak of his acting. ABC was in talks with the actor when the acclaimed series “Toma” ran from 1973-74. The gritty series based on the real-life experiences of an unconventional undercover cop starred Tony Musante. According to Cannell, Musante declined to continue after the first season and the network was looking for a similar show.
No other casting choices were discussed, according to Cannell. Blake was adamant that he would not appear in any actor’s “cast-off show”, but Cannell, with copious notes from Blake, created a script that retained key elements from the original – such as the main character’s penchant for disguises – while allowing for it. for departures to Blake.
Producer Roy Huggins confirmed Blake’s intense participation in the production of the series. “No actor had been that involved,” he said. He also noted that Blake always had an agenda, a vision he wanted to implement.
The show ran from 1975-78 and earned Blake an Emmy for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1975 and another nomination in 1977.
Born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, NJ, Blake came from a family of artists. At a young age, he performed with his siblings in his parents’ vaudeville troupe. When he was a small child, his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, where he and his siblings began working as film extras. (“Throughout his professional life, he was haunted by anger at the way his family and the studios treated him as a hard-working child star,” Roger Ebert wrote of Blake.)
Blake’s film debut came in 1939’s “Bridal Suite,” starring Robert Young and French actress Annabella. He appeared in MGM’s “Our Gang” shorts, starting with 1939’s “Joy Scouts” under the name Mickey Gubitosi. Between 1939 and 1944 he appeared in more than 40 of the shorts.
In 1940 he had a bit part in the Myrna Loy-William Powell film “I Love You Again”. During the 1940s, he branched out from bit parts to lead roles (the 1942 drama “Mokey”) and appeared in a small but important role in John Huston’s “Treasure of the Sierra Madre” in 1948.
During the 1950s, Blake transitioned to adult roles in action films and westerns such as “Apache War Smoke” (1952), “Screaming Eagles” (1956) and “The Tijuana Story” (1957). He also appeared in television anthology series such as “Fireside Theatre” and “Zane Gray Theatre”, as well as western/adventure series including “The Roy Rogers Show”, “The Cisco Kid”, “Adventures of Wild Bill Hickok” and ” Whirlybirds .”
In the 1960s he moved into more prominent roles, such as in “PT 109” (1963), starring Cliff Robertson and Robert Culp, and in 1965 the religious epic “The Greatest Story Ever Told”. He also continued steady work on television, appearing in series such as “Wagon Train,” “Ben Casey” and “Rawhide.”
His most memorable film role came in 1967’s “In Cold Blood.” Blake gave perhaps his most terrifying performance as drifter killer Perry Smith; Anthony Hopkins is said to have seen Blake’s performance several times in preparation for his role as Hannibal Lecter in the film “Silence of the Lambs”.
Ebert wrote in 1968: “The actors, Robert Blake (Smith) and Scott Wilson (Hickock), are so good that they pass beyond performance and almost into life.” Reassessing the film in the wake of Blake’s 2002 murder trial, Ebert wrote: “Robert Blake, personally and in many of his characters, seems born to be a victim pushed around by others, dismissed because of his short stature , carrying old grievances and wounds. Blake’s unhappy childhood seems to find a mirror in Perry Smith’s tortured childhood.”
Blake followed this career up with a handful of films, including Abraham Polonsky’s well-regarded Western “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969), in which he played an Indian on the run after killing someone in self-defense. In “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973), Blake played a decent motorcycle cop in the Arizona desert who is caught up in the system.
In 1975, the actor began his run as the title character in “Baretta,” a street-smart undercover cop who lived with a cockatoo named Fred. The show hit the top 10 during the 1976-77 season before being canceled in 1978.
The 1970s brought professional success but also addiction for Blake, who said, “I was hooked on heroin for two years, stealing, smashing motorcycles into trees, drinking, eating pills by the handful. . . . Even destruction? I could write a book.”
After “Baretta,” Blake worked in a series of TV movies, including a critically acclaimed adaptation of Steinbeck’s “Of Mice and Men” in 1981. He received an Emmy nomination for his complex, charismatic portrayal of Jimmy Hoffa in the Mike Newell-directed “Blood Feud” (1983).
Blake briefly returned to series television in 1985 with NBC’s “Hell Town,” about an inner-city priest who fights crime; he also wrote the story for the telepic that led to the series.
The actor then dropped out of the spotlight for nearly a decade, returning in the 1993 CBS telepic “Judgment Day: The John List Story.” His turn as an accountant turned mass murderer earned him an Emmy nomination.
Blake’s last appearances were in the film “Money Train” (1995), in which he played a villainous transit boss, and David Lynch’s “Lost Highway” (1997), in which he became memorable as the terrifying Mystery Man in white pancake makeup.
In May 2001, the actor was thrust back into the spotlight when Bakley was murdered in Blake’s car in the parking lot of Vitello’s Italian restaurant in Studio City, where the couple had just dined. He was arrested for the crime in 2002; the general consensus was that the prosecution’s case was weak in almost every respect, resulting in an acquittal.
Nevertheless, the case put an end to his acting career, and Blake kept a low profile in the following years, although he appeared on Tavis Smiley’s PBS talk show in December 2011. In July 2012, he appeared on Piers Morgan’s CNN show to promote his upcoming autobiography, but broke down when Piers Morgan questioned whether the actor was telling the truth about the matter. His memoir “Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love” subsequently appeared.
Blake is survived by his children with his former wife, actress Sondra Kerr – actor Noah Blake and Delinah Blake – and by a daughter, Rose, with Bakley.