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 on Thursday (9 March) at age 89.
Once hailed as among the finest actors of his generation, Blake became better known as the centre of a real-life murder trial, a story more bizarre than any in which he acted - in 2001, Blake’s second wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was fatally shot in the head. After being arrested and charged with Bakley’s murder, Blake was ultimately acquitted in 2005.
Who was Robert Blake?
Blake was an American actor best known for his roles in the 1967 film In Cold Blood and the TV show Baretta which aired in the 1970s. As a youngster, he starred in the Our Gang comedies and acted in a movie classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
He was born Michael James Gubitosi on September 18 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey. His father, an Italian immigrant and his mother, an Italian American, wanted their three children to succeed in show business. At the age two, 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 Los Angeles, his mother found work for the kids as movie extras and Blake was plucked from the crowd by producers who cast him in the Our Gang comedies. He appeared in the series for five years and eventually changed his name to Bobby Blake.
He went on to work with Hollywood legends, playing the young John Garfield in Humoresque in 1946 and the little boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a crucial lottery ticket in the Oscar-winning The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In adulthood, he landed serious movie roles, the biggest breakthrough of which was in 1967 with In Cold Blood. He was praised for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s true crime best seller. Later there were films including Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Electra Glide in Blue.
In 1961, Blake and actress Sondra Kerr married and had two children, Noah and Delinah. They divorced in 1983.
Blake’s career peaked with the 1975-78 TV cop series, Baretta. He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises. Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, and gained a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actors - but also one of the most difficult to work with. 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.
Blake’s career had slowed down well before the Bonny Lee Bakley trial and 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”.
What was the Bonny Lee Bakley trial?
Blake met Bonny Lee Bakley in 1999. After she fell pregnant, Bakley named Christian Brando, the son of Marlon Brando, as the father - she and Brando had also been dating at the same time as she and Blake. However, DNA tests revealed Blake to be the father, and he and Barkley married on 19 November 2000.
Blake and Barkley remained married until the day she was murdered on 4 May 2001.
On her last night alive, Blake and his 44-year-old wife dined at a neighbourhood restaurant, Vitello’s. He claimed she was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he had inadvertently left behind. The pistol in question was determined by police not to be the murder weapon.
Initially, police were baffled and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime occurred, on 18 April 2002. His longtime bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection to Bakley’s murder.
Blake spent almost a year in jail before he was granted bail, set at $1.5 million, and was placed under house arrest whilst he awaited the trial. During a pre-trial hearing, the judge dismissed the conspiracy charges against both Blake and Caldwell.
Prosecutors in the trial claimed that he planned to kill Bakley to get sole custody of the baby and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But evidence was muddled and a jury rejected the theory.
On 16 March 2005, Blake was found not guilty of murder and not guilty of one of the two counts of solicitation of murder - the other count had been dropped after it was revealed that the jury were deadlocked 11-1 in favour of an acquittal.
Bakley’s killing officially remains unsolved, and the daughter that Blake and Bakley had together, Rose Lenore, was raised by other relatives and went for years without seeing the actor, until they spoke in 2019.
What happened after he was acquitted?
While Blake was acquitted for the murder of Bakley, a civil jury found him liable for her death and he was ordered to pay Bakley’s family $30 million (£25.2 million) - a judgement which sent him into bankruptcy.
The civil suit was brought against Blake by Bakley’s three children and a jury ruled in their favour on 18 November 2005.
On 3 February 2006, Blake filed for bankruptcy and the following year, on 28 February 2007, M Gerald Schwartzbach, Blake’s attorney, appealed the court’s decision. The appeals court upheld the verdict in 2008, but cut the amount that Blake was ordered to pay in half.
Following the trial, Blake kept a relatively low profile, however he started to make his way back into the public eye in 2012. That year, Blake was interviewed by Piers Morgan on his CNN show Piers Morgan Tonight and in 2019 he was interviewed by 20/20 in which he discussed his life and the murder.
In September 2019, Blake created a YouTube called “Robert Blake: I ain’t dead yet, so stay tuned”. He released 26 videos on the channel talking about his life and career, with the last one posted on 11 June 2022.
When did he die?
Blake died on 9 March 2023, at the age of 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.