Robert Blake, a child actor who found fame in movies and TV shows but whose legacy was tarnished by suspicion over the unsolved murder of his second wife, has died at age 89.
A statement sent to USA TODAY on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died from heart disease on Thursday, surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake’s career spanned decades and included memorable roles in the “Our Gang” shorts (which became known as “The Little Rascals”), the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood” and ABC’s 1970s cop show “Baretta,” for which he won an Emmy and a Golden Globe. But Blake’s devotion to acting was eclipsed by the death of Bonny Lee Bakley in 2001. The aspiring actress, then 44, was shot outside a restaurant while at dinner with her husband.
Tom Sizemore dies:‘Saving Private Ryan’ star dead at 61 after brain aneurysm
He was born Michael Gubitosi on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey, the third child of Giacomo Gubitosi and Elizabeth Cafone.
Blake started out as an extra on “Our Gang.” He revealed during an early ’90s appearance on “The Joan Rivers Show” how he earned a speaking role for the series he appeared on from 1939 to 1944. He was credited as Mickey Gubitosi, and his character was also named Mickey.
“One day a little kid couldn’t say a line, and I had seen that if you get in front of the camera and talk, people give you attention,” Blake said to Rivers. “And I said, ‘Man, I can say that! I can say that!’ “
Blake adopted the name stage name Bobby Blake and continued to act in movies and television series, including Westerns like “Have Gun – Will Travel” (1960 to 1962), “Wagon Train” (1961) and “Rawhide” (1965).
His breakthrough role came in 1967 with the Oscar-nominated “In Cold Blood,” based on Truman Capote’s book. Blake portrayed Perry Smith, who with Richard Hickock killed a couple and their two children in a burglary in 1959.
Blake turned from criminal to cop in “Baretta,” which premiered in 1975 and lasted four seasons, as Detective Tony Baretta, but told “20/20” in 2019 that his perfectionism kept him from enjoying the role. “I drove myself crazy,” he said. “Every script had to be better. Every direction had to be better. Every casting had to be better.”
Gary Rossington dead at 71:Lynyrd Skynyrd guitarist was the band’s last founding member
Blake walked away from the series but continued to appear on TV as a frequent panelist on “Hollywood Squares” in the early to mid ’70s and a guest of “The Tonight Show,” making dozens of appearances.
In 1985, Blake starred on the short-lived NBC series “Hell Town,” centered on a priest who heads a church on LA’s East side. Blake told “20/20” the workload for the series he created proved too much. “I thought I was doing God’s work. I was crazy,” he said. “I had a nervous breakdown on camera, and I walked off the set, and I walked off the show.”
Blake also said in the same interview that his parents hated him from conception. Blake claimed he was the result of his mother’s affair with Giacomo’s brother, Tony, who split when Elizabeth became pregnant.
“She hated what was in her stomach because it belonged to Tony, and Tony had deserted her,” Blake said. “Jimmy (Giacomo) hated what was in here (points to stomach) because he knew it was Tony’s, and I knew that both of them hated me.”
In the interview, Blake recalled his “lunatic father” moving the family to Los Angeles when he was 4. Blake’s success in show business only intensified his father’s hatred, the actor told Rivers: “The more success I got, the more he wanted to kill me.”
“My father was a psychotic man. He tried to kill me,” Blake said. “My mother was no better. … They locked me in closets. They beat me up. They made me eat like a dog on the floor.” Blake said in the interview that his mother withheld affection, and the first time he recalled being touched was on the set of 1942’s “Mokey” when his on-screen mother, Donna Reed, hugged him. “I almost died” from the shock, Blake said. “I felt so good, I couldn’t even breathe.”
His troubled self-image continued into adulthood. Blake said on “20/20” that he lost part of his sanity whenever he didn’t have a job. “I was always at least 50% self-destructive, but when I wasn’t working, I couldn’t stand the way I felt. Bipolar? I was tri-polar. I was quad-polar. Who the hell knows what kind of polar I was? I had 35 different feelings in five minutes. I was nuts when I was away from the camera.”
Blake last appeared in David Lynch’s 1997 film “Lost Highway,” starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, according to IMDb.
Blake was married three times, but reiterated his inadequacy to Rivers when reflecting on his first union with actress Sondra Kerr (1961 to 1983), with whom he had two children: Noah, now an actor, in 1965, and Delinah Blake Hurwitz, a psychology professor, a year later.
“She put up with a great deal,” Blake told Rivers. “I never was a good husband. I never was a good father. I never was a good friend. I was never good at anything. I never learned how to be anything. I was nothing until I went in front of the box when I was 2, and that’s all I ever was.”
Blake crossed paths with Bonny Lee Bakley in 1999 at a jazz club. Bakley longed to be known, her longtime friend Christina Scheier told CBS News in 2002, hoping she’d marry into fame and fortune. “She went to see Tom Jones, Frankie Valli, and she really stalked Frankie,” Scheier said. Bakley had a relationship with Marlon Brando’s son Christian. Bakley told Christian he impregnated her, but the child turned out to be Blake’s. Rose was born June 2, 2000. Blake and Bakley were married from November 2000 until her death on May 4, 2001.
That evening, the couple dined at Vitello’s, an Italian restaurant in Studio City, California. After eating, Bakley waited in the car while Blake returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he’d forgotten. When he returned to the car, he said he found Bakley shot. Although Blake could not be connected to the murder weapon, a pair of former stuntmen said the actor tried to hire them to murder Bakley. Blake faced charges of murder with special circumstances and two counts of soliciting murder.
Blake spent nearly a year in custody at the Los Angeles County jail before being released on bail in March 2003.
Blake was acquitted in March 2005, but he was found liable for Bakley’s death months later in a civil suit filed by the victim’s four children. Blake was ordered to pay $30 million, but that judgment was reduced to $15 million in 2008.
Blake became heated when Piers Morgan brought up Bakley during a 2012 interview to promote his memoir, “Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love.” “Why would I marry her if I was going to kill her?” Blake asked. “I could’ve hired somebody to kill her when she was in Tibet or someplace. She drove all over the country. I could’ve hired somebody to follow her for 10 months and make her disappear so nobody would ever find her, for Christ’s sake. I would go out to dinner with her to kill her?”
Blake married a third time in 2017, to Pamela Hudak, an event planner who took the stand on Blake’s behalf during his murder trial. Their union ended the following year.
Blake’s sister, Joan, died in 1985 at 52. His brother, James, died in 1995 at 64.
In September 2019, Blake began uploading a video series titled “Robert Blake: I ain’t dead yet, so stay tuned …” to his YouTube channel. In Episode 33, released Jan. 13, 2022, Blake said he felt at ease thinking about the end of his life.
“When I go, I don’t mind going,” he said. “God gave me 88 years, and I should’ve been dead 80 of those years. Or I should’ve shot my father. Maybe I would’ve lived a better life.”
Blake only had one wish: that his death would be quick.
“When I croak, I hope I do it fast, clean and get it over with,” he said. “The one thing I don’t want to do is spend a lot of time in a hospital somewhere, with people coming to visit me and trying to cheer me up, when I much rather they brought a gun and just popped me in the head when I wasn’t looking at ’em.”
He added: “I’d almost rather be in prison than be in the hospital.”
Contributing: Bryan Alexander