Robert Blake, Combustible Star of ‘In Cold Blood’ and ‘Baretta,’ Dies at 89
Robert Blake, who played the crazed real-life killer Perry Smith in Truman Copote’s In Cold Blood and the popular TV cop Tony Baretta before a sensational Hollywood murder trial destroyed his career, has died. He was 89.
Blake, who got his start as a child star in the 1940s in the Our Gang comedy shorts at MGM, died Wednesday at his Los Angeles home after a long battle with heart disease, his niece, Noreen Austin, told The Hollywood Reporter.
On the night of May 4, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley, Blake’s wife of six months and the mother of his young daughter, was fatally shot twice at point-blank range while she sat in their car after they had dined at Vitello’s, an Italian restaurant in Studio City. (The actor said he had gone back into the restaurant to retrieve a revolver he had left behind.)
Nearly four years later, including a year spent in jail, a jury acquitted Blake of murdering Bakley and also found him not guilty of soliciting a former stunt double (whom he first met on the set of his 1975-78 ABC series Baretta) to kill his wife.
“If you want to know how to go through $10 million in five years, ask me how,” he told reporters after the verdict. “I was a rich man. I’m broke now.”
During the trial, Bakley was shown to be a con artist who had dozens of aliases, swindled thousands of men and had been married 10 times previously. Blake wed her in November 2000 after a DNA test confirmed he was the father of their daughter, Rosie. (Bakley had said that Christian Brando, son of Marlon Brando, was the father.)
“Everybody said, ‘Well, hang him. Skin him first. Drive him through town and then hang him,’” Blake told the CBS News program 48 Hours in 2003. “God just kind of said, ‘Robert, sit quiet. Be patient, be patient. Let this mob mentality wear itself out. Because it just isn’t true. And if you sit still and be quiet and wait long enough, the truth does come out.’”
Blake, however, was found responsible for her death in a civil suit and ordered to pay $30 million to Bakley’s four children. He declared bankruptcy in 2006 and never acted again; in fact, his last appearance as an actor was in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997).
The New Jersey native was chillingly convincing as the drifter Smith — one of two men who meet in jail and then wipe out the Clutter family of four in their rural Holcomb, Kansas, home after a botched robbery — in the drama In Cold Blood (1967), directed by Richard Brooks, who also adapted Capote’s 1965 best-selling novel for the screenplay.
“I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman,” his character says in the film. “I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.”
The 5-foot-4 Blake, though, could also be downright charming, as when he played an unconventional detective with a penchant for disguises in Baretta, created by Stephen J. Cannell. His character lived in a run-down hotel with Fred, his pet cockatoo, and Blake won an Emmy in 1975.
He said he also wrote and directed most of the episodes but never took any of the credit.
Later, the actor starred as a priest living in a tough section of Los Angeles in the 1986 NBC series Hell Town. He owned the show and had written the pilot, but after a handful of episodes, he couldn’t go on any longer and quit.
“I was living on sleeping pills and junk food,” Blake told the Los Angeles Times in 1992. “I was overweight. My face was puffy and I had old, sad eyes. I would get in the limo to go to the Hell Town location every morning, and I’d be so uptight I could hardly breathe. My heart hurt, my soul hurt. I’ve always been a fierce competitor and a perfectionist, but during Hell Town, I only remember being terrified. One morning I realized I was only days — maybe hours — away from sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger.”
He went on a self-imposed exile for almost a decade, re-emerging in an Emmy-nominated performance as a real-life accountant who killed his mother, wife and their three children and wasn’t caught for nearly two decades in the 1993 CBS telefilm Judgment Day: The John List Story.
A second-generation Italian American, he was born Michael “Mickey” Gubitosi on Sept. 8, 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey. His parents performed as a song-and-dance team, and he and his brother and sister were known as “The Three Little Hillbillies.”
Blake said he was mistreated as a child, locked in closets, beaten, sexually abused and forced to eat off the floor. (His father committed suicide in 1955 at age 48.)
The family left for California in 1938 and the kids got work as extras at MGM, with Blake appearing in Bridal Suite, a 1939 film starring Robert Young. Also that year, he appeared for the first time as the obnoxious Little Mickey in the studio’s series of Our Gang shorts; he did about 40 of those, and his best pal was Billie “Buckwheat” Thomas.
(In November 1982, Blake hosted Saturday Night Live, where the castmembers played Our Gang characters — Julia Louis-Dreyfus was Darla, Joe Piscopo was Froggy, Mary Gross was Alfalfa and Eddie Murphy was Buckwheat. Blake reportedly was so difficult to work with that he was banned from the show.)
Mickey Gubitosi became Bobby Blake when he was given the title role in Mokey (1942), playing a kid who meets his new stepmom, Donna Reed.
In 1943, he first starred as Little Beaver, the Native-American sidekick to cowboy Red Ryder, the title character in a series of B-movies. He was in The Seventh Cross (1944) opposite Spencer Tracy and played John Garfield as a boy in Humoresque (1946), and in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), he is seen as a Mexican kid who sells a lottery ticket to Humphrey Bogart.
Blake appeared in The Black Rose (1950) starring Tyrone Power and on television’s The Cisco Kid, The Roy Rogers Show and Broken Arrow. He portrayed a young tough in Rumble on the Docks (1956) and a private in Lewis Milestone’s Pork Chop Hill (1959) starring Gregory Peck.
He was a regular on Richard Boone’s 1963-64 NBC anthology show and had parts in PT 109 (1963) and Sydney Pollack’s This Property Is Condemned (1966) before he got the In Cold Blood job.
Later, Blake played an Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), an Arizona motorcycle officer who uncovers a murder in Electra Glide in Blue (1973) and Jimmy Hoffa in Blood Feud, an 1983 ABC miniseries.
He also was married to actress Sondra Kerr from 1961 until their divorce in 1983 and briefly to Pamela Hudak until their divorce was finalized in February 2019. Survivors also include his three children.
In his later years, Blake wrote a 2012 memoir, Tales of a Rascal, enjoyed jazz music, played his guitar, read poetry and watched classic films, his family said. Donations in his memory can be made to City of Hope.
Say what you will, Blake was a survivor. He credited his staying power to an innate ability to perform, noting he never took an acting or dancing lesson. “I was magic by the time I was 2 years old,” he told Tavis Smiley in a 2011 interview. “When it comes to show business, I took a back seat to nobody.”