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Robert Blake, actor acquitted in wife’s murder, dies

Emmy-winning actor Robert Blake, whose career triumphs were later overshadowed by a trial in which he was acquitted of murdering his wife, has died aged 89.

March 10, 2023
By Linda Deutsch
10 March 2023

Robert Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, has died aged 89.

A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died on Thursday from heart disease, surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.

The star of the 1970s TV show Baretta, Blake had once hoped for a comeback but never recovered from the long ordeal which began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on May 4, 2001.

The story of their strange marriage, the child it produced and its violent end was a Hollywood tragedy played out in court.

Blake was adamant he had not killed his wife and a jury ultimately acquitted him, but a civil jury found him liable for her death and order him to pay her family $US30 million ($A45 million) – a judgment that sent him into bankruptcy.

It was an ignominious finale for a life lived in the spotlight from childhood. 

As a youngster, he starred in the Our Gang comedies and acted in a movie classic, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in the movie of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

His career peaked with the 1975-78 TV cop series, Baretta.

Blake starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises, with the show’s signature line “don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” often quoted.

Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was wracked by disputes involving the temperamental star.

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.

Born Michael James Gubitosi on September 18, 1933, in Nutley, New Jersey, Blake’s father, an Italian immigrant, and his mother, an Italian American, wanted their three children to succeed in show business. 

At 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 little Mickey Gubitosi was plucked from the crowd by producers who cast him in the Our Gang comedies. 

He appeared in the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.

His breakthrough came in 1967 with In Cold Blood before roles in 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 and second wife Bakley met in 1999 at a jazz club.

“She took me out of the stands and put me back in the arena. I had something to live for,” he said.

When Bakley gave birth to a baby girl, Rosie, she named Christian Brando – son of Marlon – as the father but DNA tests pointed to Blake.

Blake first saw Rosie when she was two months old and married Bakley because of the child.

Prosecutors would claim that he planned to kill Bakley to get sole custody of the baby and tried to hire hit men for the job. 

But the evidence was muddled and a jury rejected that theory.

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. 

Police were initially baffled and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime occurred.

Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defence and wound up living on social security and a Screen Actor’s Guild pension.

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