Robert Blake, the controversial actor who won a Lead Actor Emmy for Baretta and starred in films including In Cold Blood and Lost Highway before a murder trial ended his career, died today of heart disease in Los Angeles. He was 89. His niece, Noreen Austin, confirmed the news.
Blake’s long career ranged from a childhood stint in “Our Gang” at age 5 through major films and television before he was acquitted of murder in the 2001 death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.
Over the course of 60+ years of working in Hollywood, Blake appeared in such classic films as Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) alongside Humphrey Bogart; In Cold Blood (1967) with John Forsythe; as well as a range of studio Westerns using the stage name of “Bobby Blake” during the 1940s. His final feature film role was in Lost Highway (1997), directed by David Lynch.
In television, Blake was best known for his role as streetwise New York City undercover detective Tony Baretta in Baretta, which aired for four seasons on ABC from 1975-78. He was an Emmy Award For Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1975 and was nominated again for the role in 1977. He also earned two other Emmy noms during his career, for lead actor in the miniseries Blood Feud (1983) and Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993).
Baretta was created by prolific TV writer/creator Stephen J. Cannell and featured the memorable theme song “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” sung by Sammy Davis Jr. It was a spinoff from another ABC crime darma, Toma, that debuted in 1973. But its star, Tony Mustane, grew weary of the weekly production grind, so ABC brass decided to recast Blake in the role and retitle the series Toma Starring Robert Blake. But a few format tweaks later, Baretta was born.
The series debuted as a replacement show in January 1975 and finished its first season in Top 25 among primetime shows. It leapt into the Top 10 for Season 2 — fueled by the lead characters catchphrases including “And that’s the name of that tune” and “You can take that to the bank — but would be canceled in 1978 after 80-plus episodes.
Several years later, Blake was cast as the lead of NBC drama Hell Town. He played Father Noah Rivers, aka Hardstep, who pretty much was Baretta in priestly garb, trying to bring hope to the East L.A. parish of St. Dominic’s. The series lasted only a handful of episodes in 1985.
On television, fans also watched Blake on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he was a recurring guest who appeared in funny skits with longtime friend Johnny Carson and other featured celebrities.
He is also remembered as a pitchman in commercials for STP, Geico and others.
But there was also a darker side to the Blake story.
Bakley, Blake’s second wife, was found shot to death outside of Vitello’s restaurant in the San Fernando Valley in 2001, after the couple had dined there.
Blake was charged with Bakley’s murder in 2002, along with solicitation of murder, conspiracy and special circumstances of lying in wait. But a jury found him not guilty of the crimes in 2005 after a sensational trial. And though Bakley’s children brought a wrongful-death suit against Blake shortly thereafter, her killing officially remains unsolved.
The highly publicized, three-month trial saw Blake weep into the shoulder of his lawyer after the jury acquitted him. The seven men and five women found him not guilty of soliciting a former stunt double whom he met on “Baretta” to kill his wife.
Bakley, 44, died from a gunshot wound to the head on May 4, 2001, as she sat in a car outside a Studio City restaurant where she had just had dinner with Blake. He claimed to have escorted her to their car, but went back inside the restaurant to retrieve a gun he accidentally left behind. He claimed he found her wounded when he returned.
In the course of the trial, their unhappy marriage details became sensational news fodder.
Bakley, it was revealed, had at least a dozen aliases and 10 former husbands. The defense contended she had trapped Mr. Blake into an unloving marriage by becoming pregnant with his child. Thus, the motive for Blake, who referred to his wife as “pig,” was established. But the jury didn’t believe the stuntman’s testimony, thanks to his history of drug abuse.
The judge ordered that Mr. Blake be given back his passport and $1.5 million bail.
In his later years Blake wrote his memoir, The Life of a Rascal, and lived quietly in the Los Angeles area, enjoying jazz music, playing his guitar, reading poetry, and watching many Hollywood classic films.
A private memorial service will be held to honor his life. In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations be made to City of Hope.