Actor Robert Blake leaves court for the lunch break, Oct. 3, 2005, after his second day of testimony in a wrongful death lawsuit, brought by the family of Bonny Lee Bakley, in Burbank, Calif. Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, died Thursday, March 9, 2023, at age 89.

Actor Robert Blake leaves court for the lunch break, Oct. 3, 2005, after his second day of testimony in a wrongful death lawsuit, brought by the family of Bonny Lee Bakley, in Burbank, Calif. Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, died Thursday, March 9, 2023, at age 89. (Nick Ut/AP)

LOS ANGELES (Tribune News Service) — Robert Blake, the critically acclaimed and Emmy-award-winning actor whose career was derailed by charges he murdered his wife in 2001, has died.

Blake died Thursday in Los Angeles from heart disease, his niece, Noreen Austin, told The Associated Press in a statement. He was 89.

The actor was acquitted in 2005 of the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, in a high-profile criminal trial, but later that year was found liable by a civil jury. While Blake had found a way to rebound after tough times throughout his career, he was never able to fully move forward after beating the murder charges.

His up-and-down career began at age 5 when he appeared in “Our Gang” comedies in the late 1930s. He rose to prominence as an actor when he played murderer Perry Smith in the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and won an Emmy in 1975 for playing the title character in the hit police detective series “Baretta.”

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 one-time popularity and critical acclaim, Blake’s career was overshadowed by the events of May 4, 2001. He and Bakley, who had 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 that Blake was not a suspect. The murder weapon, a Walther P38 9mm pistol, was found in a nearby dumpster. 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 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 — Perry Smith, who slaughtered members of a Kansas family described in Capote’s best seller, and John List, who killed his own 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 locater bracelet, telling reporters he was broke in the colorful jargon 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.

Unlike the criminal trial, a 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.

“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, New Jersey. 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 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 he 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.

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.

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 Los Angeles Times headline was, “Unknown Actor To Play ‘In Cold Blood’ Killer.” His 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” (1969) and “Electra Glide in Blue” (1973), but also 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 1975-1978 ABC series in which he played a master-of-disguise police detective who lived with his pet cockatoo, he not only argued about 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 Los Angeles 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 David Lynch neo-noir film “Lost Highway.”

If he 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 he got a taste of that was in a 2012 appearance on “Dr. Phil” before a sympathetic audience. He flatly stated 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 Los Angeles Times staff writer.

©2023 Los Angeles Times.

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