At this point, it’s hard to separate the outstanding work that Robert Blake the actor did in music and film from the man who was arrested and charged with killing his wife outside a restaurant in Studio City, California, in 2001. Although Blake was acquitted in criminal court, he was later found liable for his wife’s death in a civil trial.
Blake died at age 89 of heart disease in Los Angeles on March 9, 2023.
Blake was born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey. His family moved to Los Angeles in 1938 and put young Mickey to work as a movie extra. He eventually landed a role in the long-running Our Gang (aka, The Little Rascals) comedy short subjects.
BIake adopted his stage name around this time and went on to play the character of Little Beaver in 23 episodes of the “Red Ryder” serial until 1947.
It's hard to be certain about his age, because Blake told everyone that he was conscripted into the U.S. Army in 1950. Kicked out of five schools as a teen, he failed to register for the draft, and the penalty was immediate conscription. If his Sept. 18, 1933, birth date is correct, that would mean he was drafted at age 16 or 17. Since that didn’t happen, either Blake enlisted or he was older than 89 when he died.
Blake spent most of his Army stint in Alaska before returning to Los Angeles, where he struggled with drugs and alcohol. He recommitted to acting and became a regular guest star on television.
Gregory Peck gave Blake his big break in the movies when he cast him in the 1959 Korean war movie “Pork Chop Hill.” Our regular readers will remember that “Pork Chop Hill” was the last studio picture about the Korean War until the release of “Devotion” in 2022.
Blake started a YouTube channel late in life to share stories from his career, and last year, he posted a video in which he talked about how much making “Pork Chop Hill” meant to his life and career.
In the video, Blake also talks about his own Army service, saying that he had 16 weeks of infantry training instead of the standard eight, because the casualty rate was so high in Korea among soldiers who only had the shorter instruction term. While he was home on a two-week leave before shipping out to Korea, the war ended. Soldier Mike Gubitosi, instead, was sent to Alaska.
Blake’s most memorable performance came in 1967 when he played the real-life murderer Perry Smith in a movie adaption of Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood.” With Scott Wilson in the role of fellow murderer Richard Hickcock, the two relatively unknown actors were an exceptionally chilling team as the movie followed them from crime to execution.
Blake would want you to know that, in “In Cold Blood,” he became the first actor to utter the word “bulls**t” on screen in a studio motion picture.
Blake starred in “Electra Glide in Blue,” one of the weirdest action pictures of the 1970s. James William Guercio was the producer and manager of Chicago, one of the era’s biggest rock bands. He wanted to direct an action picture and got the band to invest in the production.
Blake starred as a motorcycle cop who dreamed of becoming a detective and tries to solve a crime that he believes will ensure his promotion. While there’s the required number of motorcycle chase scenes, the movie features a lot of scenes where Blake nails Officer John Wintergreen’s neediness and uncertainty.
That movie led to Blake’s signature role as Det. Tony Baretta on the ABC crime series “Baretta” from 1975-1978. With a pet cockatoo named Fred, Baretta did whatever it took to bring the bad guys to justice, even if it meant bending a few rules.
With “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” a theme song sung by Sammy Davis Jr. (“Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time”), “Baretta” won Blake an Emmy as Best Actor in a Drama Series and made him an icon with a generation of kids who often had to watch without their parents’ approval.
For a show that was such a cultural phenomenon in its day, “Baretta” has almost disappeared from view. It’s not streaming anywhere, and only the first season has ever been released on DVD.
We located a news documentary that tries to explain the “Baretta” phenomenon.
Blake made his final appearance in either movies or television in the 1997 David Lynch movie “Lost Highway,” playing one of Lynch’s weirdest characters in a movie catalog full of strange ones.
Blake is “The Mystery Man,” a character in white face makeup who’s been appearing in the dreams of lead character Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). Blake’s role was an even more extreme version of the character Ben from Lynch’s “Blue Velvet,” a part that helped revive the career of Dean Stockwell, another former child actor.
And then, nothing. Blake never worked in Hollywood again. He became the 10th husband of Bonnie Lee Bakley in November 2000 after DNA tests proved he was the father of their infant daughter Rosie. On May 4, 2001, she was murdered outside Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City.
Blake was eventually arrested for her murder but was acquitted in 2005. Bakley’s children immediately filed a civil suit and a jury found the actor liable for her wrongful death in November 2005 and awarded the family $30 million, a penalty Blake was never able to pay.
It’s a sordid and depressing story, one that you can explore in more detail in several true-crime documentary series. And while Blake was suspected of being somehow involved in killing a woman he believed was extorting him, he was never convicted.
Blake then disappeared from public life. He was a talented actor who was once an icon. He served his country, even if we can’t quite figure out exactly how and why he ended up in the Army. He may have believed that his final years were tragic ones, but his circumstances were likely nowhere near as awful as what his late wife suffered.
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