LOS ANGELES — Robert Blake, the Emmy-winning actor who rose from acclaim for his acting to infamy when he was tried and acquitted of his wife’s murder, died Thursday at age 89.
A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died of heart disease surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake, star of the 1970s TV show Barrett, once hoped for a comeback but never recovered from a long ordeal that began with the May 4 slaying of his wife, Bonnie Lee Beckley, outside a Studio City restaurant. , 2001. The story of their strange marriage, child birth and violent end was a Hollywood tragedy played out in court.
Once recognized as one of the best actors of his generation, Blake became more famous as the defendant in a real-life murder trial, a story stranger than any he’s acted in.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while he was in jail awaiting trial, he lamented his changing status with his fans around the country: “It hurt because America is the only family I have was”.
He was adamant that he did not kill his wife, and the jury eventually acquitted him. But a jury found him responsible for her death and ordered him to pay $30 million to the Beckley family, forcing him into bankruptcy.
It was an ignominious end to a life lived in the spotlight since childhood. In his youth, he starred in the comedies Our Gang and appeared in the classic film Treasures of the Sierra Madre. As an adult, he was acclaimed for his portrayal of real-life killer Perry Smith in Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.
The peak of his career was the police series “Baretta” of 1975-78. He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of cross-dressing. It was typical of his specialty, portraying tough guys with soft hearts, and his iconic line, “Don’t do a crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.
In 1975, Blake won an Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Barrett, although behind the scenes the show was marred by controversy involving the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of the best actors in Hollywood, but one of the most difficult to work with.
In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in Doomsday: The John List Story, where he played a soft-spoken, church-going man who murdered his wife and three children.
His personal saga was as dramatic as any of the characters he portrayed, and he later admitted that he had his own struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his early life.
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 of 2, Blake participated in a family vaudeville act called “The Three Little Hills” with his brother and sister.
When his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, his mother found work for children as extras in movies, and little Mickey Gubitosi was picked out of the crowd by producers who cast him in the comedy Our Gang. He starred in the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.
He continued to work with Hollywood legends, playing a young John Garfield in 1946’s Comedies and the little boy who sells Humphrey Bogart an important lottery ticket in Treasures of the Sierra Madre.
In adulthood, he got serious roles in movies. The biggest breakthrough came in 1967 with “In Cold Blood”. Later films were made, including Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here and Elektra Glides in Blue.
In 1961, Blake and actress Sondra Kerr married and had two children, Noah and Delina. They divorced in 1983.
A fateful meeting with Beckley took place in 1999 at a jazz club, where he went to escape loneliness.
“I was 67 or 68 years old. My life stopped. My career has stopped,” he said in an interview with AP. – I was alone for a long time.
He said he has no reason to dislike Beckley: “She got me out of the stands and back into the arena. I had something to live for.”
When Beckley gave birth to a girl, she named Marlon’s son Christian Brando as the father. But DNA tests pointed to Blake.
Blake first laid eyes on the little girl, named Rosie, when she was two months old, and she became the center of his life. Married Buckley because of the child.
“Rosie is my blood. Rosie calls me,” he said. “I have no doubt Rosie and I are going to ride off into the sunset together.”
Prosecutors say he planned to kill Beckley to gain sole custody of the child and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence was confusing, and jurors rejected that theory.
On the last night, Blake and his 44-year-old wife dined at nearby restaurant Vitello’s in the Studio City area of Los Angeles. He claimed she was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had inadvertently left behind. The police were initially baffled and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime.
Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense and ended up living on Social Security and a Screen Actors Guild pension.
In a 2006 interview with the AP, a year after his acquittal, Blake said he hoped to resume his career.
“I would like to give a better performance,” he said. “I would like to leave Rosie a legacy of who I am. I’m not ready for the dog and the rod yet. I wish I could go to bed every night desperate to wake up every morning and create some kind of magic. “