Sunday, March 19, 2023

The Turbulent Life and Times of Robert Blake

Robert Blake in 1976

"If it weren’t for acting, I’d probably be carrying a gun today, or I’d be dead. I always thought I’d be dead by the time I was 30.’…(Robert) Blake admits he was emotionally confused for most of his early life and carried a monumental chip on his shoulder for being short and foreign-looking. He had assorted other hang-ups and when he got out of the Army in 1956, Bob was uniformly messed up. ‘The Army gave me $100 a month to go to school…but I couldn’t make it at City College. I couldn’t talk to anybody. I had a place up in Laurel Canyon (Los Angeles) and all it was was wine, women and pills.”

- Robert Blake, from "An Actor Who's Acting for his Life," by Don Page, The Los Angeles Times, September 16, 1966

Emmy-winning actor Robert Blake passed away on March 9, 2023.  According to a statement by his  niece, Noreen Austin, Blake died of heart disease in Los Angeles, surrounded by friends and family.  He was 89 years old at the time of his passing.  The talented, but deeply troubled actor, constantly wrestled with his personal demons.   

Robert Blake will be remembered primarily for two reasons: his much-acclaimed role as the star of Baretta in the 1970s detective series, and the tragic May 4, 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley outside a Studio City, California restaurant.  robert blake movies and tv shows was accused of killing her, but was acquitted in a controversial 2005 trial.  Let's begin with his background and his rise to fame.  

Robert Blake was born Michael James Gubitosi on September 18, 1933 in Nuttley, New Jersey.  HIs father, Giacomo (James) Gubitosi was an Italian immigrant and his mother, Elizabeth Catone, an Italian American.  In 1930, James worked as a die setter, setting up equipment for a can manufacturer.

James and Elizabeth were also vaudeville entertainers and they wanted their three children to be successful in show business.  By 1936, two-year-old robert blake movies and tv shows was performing with his brother James and his sister Joan in a family vaudeville act called The Three Little Hillbillies.  In 1938, the family moved to Los Angeles and the children worked as movie extras.

In his early childhood, Blake was known as "Mickey Gubtosi."  He launched his acting career as Toto in the 1939. MGM film Bridal Suite, starring Robert Young.  At the age of five, young Mickey won a role in MGM's Our Gang series ( also known as Little Rascals).  He appeared in the Our Gang short films from 1939 until 1944.

Mickey eventually changed his name to Bobby Blake.  From 1944 to 1947, he played "Little Beaver," a native American boy in 23 short films of the Red Ryder Western series for RKO Studios.  (He continued to use the name Mickey Gubtosi in the Our Gang series).

Blake as Mickey in the Our Gang comedies

Robert Blake as "Little Beaver"

Blake also performed in The Big Noose (1944), one of Laurel and Hardy's later films, and in Warner Brothers movies such as Humoresque (1944), portraying John Garfield's character as a child.  He also played a Mexican boy alongside Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).

robert blake movies and tv shows was one of the first child actors to transform successfully into adult roles.  American author Michael Newton described his career as "one of the longest in Hollywood history."  Despite his success as a child actor, Blake had a miserable childhood.  His father, James, was an alcoholic and Blake accused both his parents of physically and sexually abusing him.  He claimed he was frequently locked in a closet and forced to eat off the floor as a punishment.  Not surprisingly. Robert Blake was expelled from several schools as a teen.

It isn't clear whether Blake was actually drafted into the United States Army or whether he enlisted.  He claimed he was drafted in 1950.  However, an  item in the Stateman-Review, dated March 30, 1953, states otherwise:

“Filmland’s Little Beaver has traded moleskins for khaki. Bobby Blake, 19-year-old former player in the Red Ryder Western series and Our Gang comedies, entered the army today.” – Little Beaver in Army, Los Angeles, May 29, The Stateman-Review, March 30."

Robert Blake spent most of his military service in Alaska,  In 1992, he told the Los Angeles Times that he was a sergeant in the Special Services,, and a performer.  Blake stated that he fell in love for the first time, with a 16-year-old girl, while stationed in Alaska. He claimed that he was placed under military detention while awaiting a court martial.  

Robert has been quoted as saying that he planned to kill the girl's father, but a priest arranged a settlement between the girl's family and the Army in which Blake agreed never to see her again.  As a result, he was honourably discharged from military service.

Upon leaving the Army, Blake returned to Los Angeles, He found himself without job prospects, which led to a two-year period of depression and substance abuse.  He became addicted to  cocaine and heroin, and he also became a drug dealer.  Nevertheless, he managed to pull himself together and re-establish himself as an actor. He began taking acting classes with black-listed actor Jeff Corey.  He was no longer a cute kid and he struggled to find work, but unlike many former child stars, he managed to become a successful adult actor.

Robert Blake starred in numerous motion pictures as an adult, including The Purple Gang (1950), a gangster movie.  He was also featured roles in Pork Chop Hill (1959) and A Town Without Pity (1961), as well as all 25 episodes of the well-received but short-lived The Richard Boone Show (1963-1964).  
He guest-starred in numerous episodes of TV series such as Have Gun-Will Travel (1960-1962, 3 episodes), Ben Casey (1962), Rawhide (1965, 2 episodes), The F.B.I. (1965-1966, 2 episodes), 12 O'Clock High (1966) and Death Valley Days (1966).

Blake won critical acclaim for his performance in the 1967 film In Cold Blood, based on Truman Capote's novel about a real- life murder case. He delivered a chilling portrayal of killer Perry Smith in the film.  However, his role in In Cold Blood, took its toll on him.  He later revealed to People that after working on the film, he suffered from depression, required psychiatric help, and was unable to work for two years.

From 1975 to 1978, Robert Blake delighted TV audiences as Anthony "Tony" Baretta, a plain-clothes detective, on the hit ABC series.  Baretta.  His character was known for two notable catch phrases - "That's the name of that tune,"  and "You can take that to the bank."  

Tony Baretta was a bachelor who lived in an apartment in an unnamed American city.  When frustrated, he occasionally spoke to his late father, Louie Baretta.  He drove a rusted blue 1966 Chevrolet Impala four-door sports sedan nicknamed "The Blue Ghost", and he referred to his many girlfriends as "cousins."

On April 27, 1977. Robert Blake announced his intention to leave Baretta after completing his  contractual obligation for the season.  In a 1996 interview with Tom Snyder, Blake said that he loathed being committed to the series and that Baretta was "terrible experience."  He further stated, "You do a series so that you can work with giants (in film).  

Still, robert blake movies and tv shows won the 1975 Emmy Award for Outstanding Leading Actor in a Drama Series for his role as Tony Baretta (and was nominated again in 1977.  He also earned the 1976 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series (tied with Telly Savalas for Kojak).  

Below is a photo of Robert Blake as Tony Baretta with his pet cockatoo, Fred.

After Baretta ended, Blake appeared in several TV movies such as Of Mice and Men (a 1981 TV adaptation of the John Steinbeck novel in which he played George Milton); Blood Feud (1983), in which he played Jimmy Hoffa; Heart of a Champion: The Ray Mancini Story (1985) and Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993)   

In 1985, Robert Blake starred as Father Noah "Hardstep" Rivers. in the NBC series Hell Town.  He played a hard-living Catholic priest in a crime-ridden, impoverished neighbourhood of East Los Angeles.  Father Rivers was a rather unorthodox clergyman, but he fit in perfectly.  He was an ex-convict and he knew all the petty crooks and gangs in the area.  He was able to help the street kids.

Robert Blake in Hell Town

Robert Blake quit Hell Town abruptly when his personal demons became overwhelming.  He told the Los Angeles Times that he was behaving erratically and having suicidal thoughts.  The stress from his divorce from his first wife and his work on Hell Town, as well as other projects, were too much for him to handle.  As a result, only ten episodes of the series were ever made.  After his breakdown, Blake sought psychiatric help and he didn't return to work for a period of seven years.  

Blake's final screen credit was David Lynch's 1997 neo-noir horror film  Lost Highway, in which he played the "Mystery Man."  His 2002 arrest for murder effectively ended his acting career.  

Robert Blake was married three times.  In 1961, he wed actress Sondra Kerr.  The marriage ended in divorce in 1983.  The couple had two children, actor Noah Blake (born February 1,1965) and Delinah Blake (born 1966).

In 1999, Blake met Bonny Lee Bakley at a jazz club.  Bekley was a woman with a checkered past.  When she met him, she was operating a business that specialized in swindling money out of lonely hearts.  She was also involved with Christian Brando, son of actor Marlon Brando.  Christian had been released from prison in 1996 after serving 6 years of the 10-year sentence he'd received for pleading guilty to voluntary manslaughter in the death of his half-sister Cheyenne's boyfriend (Cheyenne, a fashion model, committed suicide in 2005 at the age of 25).

In 2000, Bonny Lee gave birth a baby girl named Rose Lenore, nicknamed "Rosie."  A paternity test revealed that Robert Blake, not Christian Brando, was the father of the child.  Bakley and Blake married in November of that year.  Benny Lee had been married multiple times before.  In fact, Robert Blake was her tenth husband.

On May 4, 2001, Robert Blake and  Bonny Lee Bakley had dinner at Blake's favourite restaurant, Vitello's in Studio City.  Blake told L.A. police that they were walking to their car when he suddenly had to return to the restaurant to retrieve a revolver he had left at the table (That gun was not the murder weapon).  According to Blake, when he returned to the car, he found his wife sitting in the vehicle with gunshot wounds to the head.  The murder weapon was found in a dumpster and could not be traced to the actor.

Los Angeles police considered several suspects during their investigation, including Christian Brando and other men with connections to Bonny Lee.  However, they eventually targeted Robert Blake.  On April 18, 2002, Blake was arrested and charged with murder, conspiracy to commit murder and two counts of solicitation in connection with the death of of his 44-year-old-wife.  He and his defence lawyers tried to implicate Christian Brando.

Robert Blake's bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrented and charged with conspiracy in connection with the murder.  On April 27, 2002, Caldwell was released with $1 million bail, but parole for Blake was denied.  A judge dismissed the criminal charge against Caldwell.  The jury in the civil case also concluded that he did not collaborate with Blake.

On May 1, 2002, 68-year-old Robert Blake pleaded for his freedom before a Los Angeles Superior Court judge.  "I can't read," he told the judge.  "I spent grade school and high school sitting in back of the classroom with the children who couldn't talk English . . . I got straight D's."  The problem, he revealed, was dyslexia and he said that his condition was only diagnosed in the last 15 years.  He also said that he had appeared in a calendar for the L.A. branch of the International Dyslexia Association. and that he had learned his lines for his roles with the help of several assistants.  Nevertheless, the judge denied Blake's request for parole, but agreed to consider the matter after a preliminary hearing.

Robert Blake spent a year in prison.  On March 13, 2003, he was freed to await trial with a $1.5 million parole.  Blake continually denied killing Bonny Lee Bakley.  However, two stuntmen testified that they had been solicited to committed the murder. Their testimony lacked credibility, though, because they admitted to using drugs that may have caused delusions.  After a 12-week trial, the jury deliberated for nine days before before reaching a verdict.  On March 16, 2005, Robert Blake was acquitted of his wife's murder.

Despite his acquittal, further difficulties still lay ahead or the troubled actor.  He lost a civil suit brought forth by by his slain wife's three children.  On November 18, 2005, a civil jury found Blake liable for the wrongful death of Bonny Lee Bakley, and he was ordered to pay Bakley's family $30 million in damages.  Blake's attorney launched an appeal.  In 2006, the verdict in the civil case was upheld, but the penalty was reduced to $15 million.  Blake filed for bankruptcy with debts of $3 million for unpaid legal services.  

Robert Blake's supporters claimed that there was not enough forensic evidence to convict him of murder and that there were other suspects.  They also pointed to the fact that the murder weapon did not belong to Blake and that there were no witnesses who could say that he was near his vehicle when Bakley was shot.  In essence, they prosecution was unable to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that Robert Blake had hired someone to murder his wife, nor that he had killed her himself.  Blake's detractors, however, contended that he got away with murder and that his case was reminiscent of the 1994 O.J. Simpson trial.

Robert Blake and Bonny Lee Bakley

Rose Lenore was just 11 months old when Robert Blake's murder trial began, and she was raised by relatives.  For years, she did not see her father.  They finally talked in  2019, 18 years after Bonny Lee Bakley's murder, and Rose Lenore spoke out about her mother's death to People magazine.  She also appeared on Good Morning America.  "I felt a bit like there were two parts of me," the then-19-year-old told Good Morning America.  "One of them is, you know, trying to kind of recover from what happened when I was young and trying to sort through the complicated family that I have.  And then one of them is just a normal teenage girl."

In the summer of 2019, Rose Lenore began to confront her past.  She reached out to her father and visited her mother's grave.  She stated that she and Robert Blake reminisced and looked at old photos of her childhood birthday parties.  However, she did not wish to broach the subject of his murder trial with him.   She specifically told him not to talk about it.  "I don't want to know . . . not right now.  I don't think I'm ready," she stated.  She she was still open to learning the truth, "if it's an option."

Rose Lenore in 2019

In the spring of 2017, Robert Blake married for the third and final time.  He wed Pamela Hudak, a woman whom he had known for years. Hudak had also testified on Blake's behalf at his murder trial.  A year after obtaining a marriage licence at Los Angeles City Hall, the couple divorced.

In 2012 Robert Blake appeared on Piers Morgan Tonight on CNN to promote his self-published memoir, Tales of a Rascal: What I Did For Love  (2011).  At times, Blake was incoherent during the interview and he became defensive and irate when Piers Morgan questioned him about the murder of Bonny Bakley.  He launched a tirade against the murder victim, describing Bakley as a "con artist" and a "liar."  He also railed against the L.A. police "who ripped my guts our and left me beside the road to die."


* In 1956, Robert Blake's father committed suicide at the age of 48.  Robert became estranged from his mother and did not communicate with her for 30 yeas.  She died in the late 1980s without reconciling with her son. 

* Despite his Italian background, Robert often played Lantin or Native American character.  He also portrayed detectives or criminals.

* Robert's older brother, actor James Gubitosi (born 1930), died on January 30, 1995,in Staten Island.  New York.  He was 65 at the time of his passing.  

* Robert's younger sister, Joan Blake (born 1932), performed with him in many episodes of Our Gang under the name Giovanna Gubitosi.  She changed her name to Joan Blake when her brother changed his name.  Joan passed away on February 28, 1985 at the age of 52.

* Delinah Blake, Robert's daughter by his first wife, Sondra Kerr, works as a psychology professor.  She is married to Gregg Hurwitz, a producer and scriptwriter.  They have two children.  For a time, Delinah and her husband helped raise her half-siter Rose Lenore in Sharman Oaks, California, a Los Angeles neighbourhood.  According to Alicia Dennis, senior editor of People, "Robert's daughter with a former wife (Delanah) adopted her.  They formed a family unit where rose called them mom and dad."

Delinah Blake

In September of 2019, Blake launched a YouTube channel called "Robert Blake. I ain't dead yet, so stay tuned."  He talked  about his life and career on the channel.

SOURCES:  The Associated Press, "Robert Blake, famous actor who was also accused of killing his wife, has died," March 10, 2023; Reuters, "Actor Robert Blake, star of' 'Baretta' and 'In Cold Blood,' dead at age 89," by Steve Gorman and Bill Trott, March 9, 2023;, "Army vet Robert Blake Lives a Troubled Life in Hollywood," by James Barber, March 10, 2023; New York Post, "Blake: I Can't Read - But He's Denied Bail Despite Dyslexia," by David K. Li, May 2, 2002; Good Morning America website, "Daughter of actor Robert Blake opens up 2 decades after her mother's death," by Angeline Jane Bernabe. October 17, 2019; 50+ World, Biography, Movies, TV: "That Little Rascal Robert Blake," May 10, 2023;, "The Real Reason Robert Blake Was Acquitted Of His Wife's Murder; Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (IMDb)

- Joanne

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