CORRIDOR OF MYSTERY
VOL. 2, No. 26
Ron Miller THE DARK
LEGACY of ROBERT BLAKE
Blake seeks divine guidance as Father Noah "Hardstep" Rivers in NBC's "Hell Town" series
Yet another shadow over
Blake's haunted life
By RON MILLER
On Thursday, April 18, 2002, police arrested actor Robert Blake and charged him with suspicion of murdering his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. This column was first published May 27, 2001, shortly after the murder.
NOW LIVING in seclusion while mystery swirls around the bizarre murder of his wife, actor Robert Blake once again is a much sought-after star--but perhaps not exactly the way he had hoped he'd be sought after in his dreams of celebrity regained.
So far nobody in law enforcement is saying Blake is a suspect in the killing of Bonny Lee Bakley by a gunshot to the head on May 4. Still, the tabloids and the TV talk shows aren't leaving much doubt that detectives are looking at him very closely as the possible killer, no matter what their spokesmen may be telling the public.
For Blake, the sensational murder case and the scandalous activities that surround it amounts to yet another dark shadow hanging over his turbulent life, which already has included reports he was an abused child, that he has been addicted to drugs, that he has been a "difficult" character that some producers consider "poison" and wouldn't work with ever again.
Though Blake had been out of the headlines for many years, the current murder mystery has brought out information suggesting his life hasn't been one of quiet retirement. Why, for instance, did he need to employ a gun-wielding bodyguard? And how did he ever get involved with a woman who apparently sold nude pictures of herself on the Internet, operated schemes to bilk men out of money and purposely set out to get herself pregnant by well-known Hollywood personalities?
And this may be the biggest question of all: Why was Blake carrying a gun the night his wife died? She was shot in the face while she waited in their car outside a restaurant they had just left. Blake told police he had rushed back into the restaurant to retrieve his handgun, which he had left behind.
The tangled web of mystery around the murder has mesmerized millions, especially those who know Blake from "Baretta," his wildly-popular ABC series from 1975-78, in which he played unorthodox police detective Tony Baretta. I've been mesmerized, too, but mainly because I used to live near Robert Blake in the 1980s and once spent an afternoon with him in the living room of his Studio City home, talking about the dark corridors of his life and his efforts to leave them behind.
I'd been warned that Blake could be a rough interview. He was profane, they said, and prone to angry outbursts. He might terminate the interview at any moment. He might refuse to answer all kinds of questions. He had a habit of staying in character, I was told, which gave me a certain anxiety since Blake had just finished playing tough labor boss Jimmy Hoffa in "Blood Feud," a new TV movie about to premiere that April in 1983.
Blake didn't disappoint me. He was certainly foul-mouthed and his moods raced up and down the scale like a mean-tempered monkey on a stick. And, at one point, when I was trying to lead him into a discussion of his movie career before "Baretta," Blake looked me in the eye, leaned toward me and said, "Unfortunately, what makes you a pain in the ass is that you really are a film buff. You expect me to be someplace that I'm not. I was there 15 years ago!"
Well, I've certainly been called worse things in my life than a pain in the ass and I don't recall feeling my life was now in jeopardy. In fact, I was cheeky enough to think Blake was just testing me the way schoolyard hooligans used to test me when I was a snot-nosed kid in grade school. If I didn't burst into tears when he bumped up against me and called me names, he might even let me alone and gain some respect for me.
I think that's sort of what happened because Blake didn't throw me out of the place and he started to open up a little about what we both referred to as his "troubles," the collection of professional and personal problems that included his bum reputation for being "difficult," his substance abuse and his mental woes.
"I fucked up a lot of times in my life," he admitted, "but somehow I always wound up on my feet. Don't ask me how."
His fortunes dipped so low at one time, he told me, that he had to do some humiliating things to get jobs, like, for instance, the one he had just done: Jimmy Hoffa.
"You tell 'em they don't have to pay you until the job is finished," he said. "Then you tell 'em they don't have to pay you at all if they don't like what you do."
Though he seemed plenty pugnacious to me that afternoon, I had to wonder how much more pugnacious he must have been in the past. My pals in the business who had worked with him before generally described him as hell on wheels. He had been arrogant to a fault. Combined with his heavy drinking, it wasn't a pretty picture.
Blake was so positive that nobody else had been the sort of pariah he'd been that I decided to pop that particular balloon by bringing up Jerry Lewis, whose erratic and arrogant behavior had also made him pretty much of a poisonous name around Hollywood. I told him how the stagehands at one theater where Lewis had played a long engagement had put photos of him in the urinals, so they could express how they felt about him several times a day.
But Blake wasn't having any of that. He sounded like he wanted to be the most disliked guy in Hollywood and jealously guarded his title. He twisted up his face and growled at me, "He didn't do what I did. He didn't go around destroying himself. He didn't go around giving the world the finger and telling everybody they're full of shit!"
Well, I had to admit he had a point there. In fact, the only time I ever met Jerry Lewis, he was very nice to me and answered every question fully and with good humor. He made Blake look like a junkyard dog in comparison.
If it sounds as if Blake was really giving me a bum interview, though, that's not the way I was feeling at the time. I had spent too much time lately in the company of vacuous starlets and well-coached TV stars who mouthed the public relations gospel. I was enjoying the hell out of Blake and hoped I could get him to do what he rarely ever did: Talk about his turbulent childhood as the son of an alcoholic dad and a mother he refused to have anything to do with as an adult.
"Wild" Bill Elliott as "Red Ryder" with "Bobby" Blake as his sidekick, "Little Beaver," in "Cheyenne Wildcat" (1944)
By now, everybody knows Blake first appeared as one of the "Our Gang" kids under his real name, Mickey Gubitosi. That was in the late 1930s. I was more interested in asking him about his work as "Bobby Blake" in the 1940s, when he played the Indian boy "Little Beaver" in the "Red Ryder" films opposite my favorite cowboy star of that era, "Wild" Bill Elliott.
But the minute I went in that direction, dark clouds began to gather around Blake and his answers became grunts and snarls. He just wouldn't wax nostalgic about it. In fact, I don't think he gets sentimental about anything before the previous weekend, even probably to this day. What he did tell me, though, is that he played in those movies as a kid actor because it kept him away from his home.
"It saved my life," he said of the juvenile acting. "I had a very shitty homelife and going to the studio became a substitute family. I wasn't gettin' nothin' where I shoulda got it, so I went where I could get it."
The most he would say about his home life is that "it sucked." And when I asked him how he would feel if one of his kids decided to try acting, he bluntly said, "I don't give a fuck what my kids do."
(I subsequently learned one reason why his mood was extra stormy is that his daughter had wound up in some kind of trouble at school that day. She's now a graduate student in psychology.)
Once he reached young adulthood, though, Blake found Hollywood wasn't interested in a short, not particularly charismatic or handsome former child star. He scrounged for work and when he didn't get any, he drank and did drugs.
"After being a drunk and a junkie and all kinds of other shit and having all kinds of jobs and going through the Army and trying college, I realized I wasn't much good at anything," Blake told me. "Then I tried to learn how to act."
What really put him back on the map again was his chilling portrayal of a killer in the film version of Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood" in 1967. His performance brought character and even sympathy to the part and many critics believed Blake had reached into his own tormented childhood to find a key to the part. He earned rave reviews and, for awhile, had other picture offers.
But it was ABC's "Baretta" that really gave him an image to peddle around Hollywood for the first time. Though Blake originally was just going to replace Tony Musante in the role of real-life detective Dave Toma in the "Toma" series, the network decided instead to re-invent the character, building him around Blake's own soulful, but pugnacious persona. As "Baretta," he was really a star for the first time--and he couldn't handle it.
That day Blake told me he had only agreed to play Baretta because he was $50,000 in debt and had two kids to raise. Whatever the reason, Blake's emergence as Baretta was some sort of magic. He began to take on the "street" sound of the urban cop and his swaggering style. When I met him, "Baretta" had been over with five years already, but Blake was still wearing the character. He talked exactly like Baretta and you could almost see Fred, the cockatoo, perched on his shoulder, ready to "caw" at you if Blake thought it would help.
Blake probably thought he'd shed Baretta by then, but he admitted the tough little guy had taken over his personality for a time.
Blake as Baretta. Media critic Jeff Greenfield said Blake "turns in what may well be the best acting on any series as the lead."
"When you're that far into a character, it fucks with your personality," he said. "When I got through with 'Baretta,' I was having a nervous breakdown."
His friends should have recognized what was happening to him and kept him off all those TV talk shows of the early 1980s, Blake told me, especially "The Tonight Show," where host Johnny Carson regularly coaxed Blake into saying ever-more outrageous things that helped cement his rep as a Hollywood whacko.
"When you're a public figure, you can alienate the whole fucking planet in one week," he sighed. "I should not have been out on the streets."
That was 18 years ago. Since then, Robert Blake has worked sporadically in TV with series like NBC's "Hell Town," in which he played a Baretta-like priest with a prison record, and in a handful of TV and theatrical films. When he has a sizeable role that requires a real performance, Blake has frequently shown he can be a remarkably insightful actor. Some believe he's now playing his greatest role: An innocent man many think is a killer.
Personally, I don't know what to make of Blake's current situation. I don't want to believe he's capable of murdering someone. For all his volatility and rudeness, I kind of liked the guy that day we spent together in his humble home in Studio City. I tried to look behind the egocentric behavior. I wanted to see a sensitive, vulnerable guy, who suffered from lack of self-esteem even after all the fame and public attention. I'm not sure that's what really was there, but that's the way I wanted it to be.
Now, with all the rumors swirling around him, I can't forget what Blake told me when I asked him to sum up his life for me.
"Sometimes it's great," he told me that day, "and sometimes it's hard to get to sleep."
© 2001 by Ron Miller. The photo from "Hell Town" is © 1985 by NBC. The photo from "Cheyenne Wildcat" is © 1944 by Republic pictures. The photo from "Baretta" is © 1975 by ABC.
You can comment on this column or contact Ron Miller with an email to: firstname.lastname@example.org
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