Robert Blake (actor)
Blake in 1977
|Born||Michael James Gubitosi
September 18, 1933
Nutley, New Jersey, USA
|Other names||Bobby Blake
Lyman P. Docker
With Bonnie Lee Bakley:
Blake began performing as a child, with a lead role in the final years of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer's Our Gang (Little Rascals) short film series from 1939 to 1944. He also appeared as a child actor in 22 entries of the Red Ryder film franchise. In the Red Ryder series and in many of his other roles as an adult, he was cast as a Native American or Latino character.
After a stint in the Army, Blake returned to acting in both television and movie roles. He was married to Sondra Kerr, his first wife, with whom he had two children, from 1964 until their divorce in 1983. He continued acting through 1997's Lost Highway for a career that author Michael Newton called "one of the longest in Hollywood history."
Blake was born Michael James Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey. His mother, Elizabeth Cafone (b. 1910), was married to Giacomo (James) Gubitosi (1906–1956). In 1930, James worked as a die setter for a can manufacturer. Eventually, James and Elizabeth began a song-and-dance act. In 1936, the three children began performing, billed as "The Three Little Hillbillies." They moved to Los Angeles, California, in 1938, where their children began working as movie extras.
Blake had an unhappy childhood and was allegedly abused by his alcoholic father. When he entered public school at age 10, he was bullied and had fights, which led to his expulsion. Blake states that he was physically and sexually abused by his parents while growing up and was frequently locked in a closet and forced to eat off the floor. His father committed suicide in 1956. At age 14, he ran away from home, leading to several more difficult years.
Gubitosi then began appearing in MGM's Our Gang short subjects (a.k.a. The Little Rascals) under his real name, replacing Eugene "Porky" Lee. He appeared in 40 of the shorts between 1939 and 1944, eventually becoming the series' final lead character. James and Giovanna Gubitosi also made appearances in the series as extras. In Our Gang, Gubitosi's character, Mickey, was often called upon to cry, for which he was criticized for being unconvincing. He was also criticized for being obnoxious and whiny. In 1942, he acquired the stage name Bobby Blake and his character in the series was renamed "Mickey Blake." In 1944, MGM discontinued Our Gang, releasing the final short in the series Dancing Romeo. In 1995, Blake was honored by the Young Artist Foundation with its Former Child Star "Lifetime Achievement" Award for his role in Our Gang.
In 1942 Blake appeared as "Tooky" Stedman in Andy Hardy's Double Life.
In 1944, Blake began playing a Native American boy, "Little Beaver," in the Red Ryder Western series at the studios of Republic Pictures (now CBS Radford Studios), appearing in 23 of the movies until 1947. He also had roles in one of Laurel and Hardy's later films The Big Noise (1944), and the Warner Bros. movies Humoresque (1946), playing John Garfield's character as a child, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), playing the Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a winning lottery ticket and gets a glass of water thrown in his face by Bogart in the process. In 1950, at age 17, Blake appeared as Mahmoud in The Black Rose and as Enrico, Naples Bus Boy (uncredited) in Black Hand.
Career as an adult
In 1950, Blake was drafted into the Army. After returning to southern California, he entered Jeff Corey's acting class and began working on improving his personal and professional lives. He eventually became a seasoned Hollywood actor, playing notable dramatic roles in movies and on television. In 1956, he was billed as Robert Blake for the first time.
In 1959, in what was considered a career blunder, he turned down the role of Little Joe Cartwright, a character ultimately portrayed by Michael Landon, in NBC's western television series Bonanza. Blake did appear that year as Tobe Hackett in the episode "Trade Me Deadly" of the syndicated western series 26 Men, which dramatized true stories of the Arizona Rangers. Blake also appeared twice as "Alfredo" in the syndicated western The Cisco Kid and starred in "The White Hat" episode of Men of Annapolis, another syndicated series. Blake appeared in three distinctive guest lead roles in the CBS series Have Gun Will Travel. He also guest starred on John Payne's NBC western The Restless Gun, Nick Adams's ABC western The Rebel, the NBC western series The Californians, the ABC adventure series Straightaway, and the American Western television series Laramie, which aired on NBC from 1959 to 1963.
Blake performed in numerous motion pictures as an adult, including the starring role in The Purple Gang (1960), a gangster movie, and featured roles in Pork Chop Hill in 1959 and, as one of four US soldiers participating in a gang rape in occupied Germany, in Town Without Pity in 1961. He was also in Ensign Pulver (1964), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and other films.
At 33, Blake played Billy the Kid in the 1966 episode "The Kid from Hell's Kitchen" of the syndicated western series, Death Valley Days, hosted by Robert Taylor. In the story line, The Kid sets out to avenge the death of his friend John Tunstall played by John Anderson.
In 1967, he experienced a career breakout playing real-life murderer Perry Smith, to whom he bore a chilling resemblance, in In Cold Blood. Richard Brooks received two Oscar nominations for the film: one for his direction, and one for his adaptation of Truman Capote's book.
Blake played a Native fugitive in Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), a TV movie adaptation of Of Mice and Men (1981), and a motorcycle highway patrolman in iconoclastic Electra Glide in Blue (1973). He played a small-town stock car driver with ambitions to join the NASCAR circuit in Corky, which MGM produced in 1972. The film featured real NASCAR drivers, including Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough.
Blake may be best known for his Emmy Award-winning role of Tony Baretta in the popular television series Baretta (1975 to 1978), playing an undercover police detective who specialized in disguises. The show's trademarks included Baretta's pet cockatoo "Fred," his signature phrases — notably "That's the name of that tune" and "You can take that to the bank."
After Baretta ended, NBC offered to produce several pilot episodes of a proposed series titled Joe Dancer, in which Blake would play the role of a hard-boiled private detective. In addition to starring, Blake also was credited as the executive producer and creator. Four episodes aired to poor reviews in 1981 and 1983, and the series never ultimately sold.
He continued to act through the 1980s and 1990s, mostly in television, in such roles as Jimmy Hoffa in the miniseries Blood Feud (1983) and as John List in the murder drama Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993), which earned him a third Emmy nomination. Blake starred in the 1985 television series Hell Town, playing a priest working in a tough neighborhood; and he also had character parts in the theatrical movies Money Train (1995) and played the chilling and sinister Mystery Man in David Lynch's Lost Highway (1997).
Marriages and children
Blake and actress Sondra Kerr were married in 1961 and divorced in 1983. It was his first marriage, from which came two children: actor Noah Blake (born 1965) and Delinah Blake (born 1966).
In 1999, Blake met Bonnie Lee Bakley, formerly of Wharton, New Jersey, who reportedly had a history of exploiting older men—especially celebrities—for money. She was dating Christian Brando, son of Marlon Brando, during her relationship with Blake. Bakley became pregnant and told both Brando and Blake that her baby was theirs. Initially, Bakley named the baby "Christian Shannon Brando" and stated that Brando was the father. Bakley wrote letters describing her dubious motives to Blake. Blake insisted that she take a DNA test to prove the paternity. Blake and Bakley were married on November 19, 2000, after DNA tests proved that Blake was the biological father of her child, who was renamed Rosie. It was his second marriage and her eleventh.
Arrest and trial for murder
On May 4, 2001, Blake took Bonnie Lee Bakley out for an Italian dinner at Vitello's Restaurant at 4349 Tujunga Avenue in Studio City. Bakley was shot, and subsequently died from a gunshot wound to the head, while sitting in the vehicle, which was parked on a side street around the corner from the restaurant. Robert Blake claimed that he had returned to the restaurant to collect a gun which he had previously left at the restaurant and claimed that he had not been present when the shooting took place. The gun that Blake claimed he had left in the restaurant was found and later determined by police not to be the murder weapon that killed Bakley.
On April 18, 2002, Blake was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife. His longtime bodyguard, Earle Caldwell, was also arrested and charged with conspiracy in connection with the murder. A key event that gave the LAPD the confidence to arrest Blake came when a retired stuntman, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, agreed to testify against him. Hambleton alleged that Blake tried to hire him to kill Bakley. Another retired stuntman and an associate of Hambleton's, Gary McLarty, also came forward with a similar story.
According to author Miles Corwin, Hambleton had agreed to testify against Blake, only after being told that he would be subject to a grand jury subpoena and a pending misdemeanor charge. Hambleton's motives for testifying were called into question by Blake's defense team during the trial.
On April 22, 2002, Blake was charged with one count of murder, with special circumstances, an offense which carries a possible death penalty. He was also charged with two counts of solicitation of murder and one count of conspiracy to commit murder. Blake pleaded not guilty to all charges. Caldwell was charged with a single count of conspiracy to commit murder, and also pleaded not guilty. Three days later, the Los Angeles District Attorney's office announced that they would not seek the death penalty against Blake should he be convicted. However, prosecutors would seek a sentence of life in prison without the possibility of parole.
Blake posted $1 million bail for Caldwell, who was then released, but a judge denied bail for Blake himself. On March 13, 2003, after almost a year in jail, Blake was granted bail, which was set at US$1.5 million, and he was allowed to go free to await trial. Blake was placed on house arrest during this time. On October 31, in a major reversal for the prosecution, the judge dismissed the conspiracy charge against Blake and Caldwell during a pre-trial hearing. The junior prosecutor who handled the case, Shellie Samuels, was interviewed by CBS reporter Peter Van Sant for the CBS program 48 Hours Investigates. During the interview, broadcast in November 2003, she admitted that the prosecutors had no forensic evidence implicating Blake in the murder, that they could not tie him to the murder weapon, that they did not have any witnesses, and that they had virtually nothing in the way of hard evidence.
Murder trial and acquittal
Blake's criminal trial for murder began on December 20, 2004, with opening statements by the prosecution and opening statements by the defense the following day. The prosecution contended that Blake intentionally murdered Bakley to free himself from a loveless marriage, while the defense challenged all of the evidence, claiming that Blake was an innocent victim of circumstantial and fabricated evidence.
Prosecution testimony began with various witnesses detailing the night of the murder and the murder weapon used. Bakley was shot twice while sitting on the passenger side of the parked car and the passenger window was rolled down, indicating that she may have been familiar with her assailant. The murder weapon was revealed to be a semi-automatic Walther P-38 pistol, which was found in a dumpster a few yards away from the parked car where the shooting took place.
On February 7, 2005, Gary McLarty claimed that in March 2001, Blake attempted to contract him to murder his wife; McLarty allegedly declined. McLarty's testimony was subject to an intense cross-examination, which examined his history of mental problems and his difficulty remembering key details of the alleged contract offer. On February 9, testimony came from Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton, who also claimed that Blake tried to solicit him to murder his wife. His testimony was also called into question during cross-examination when his record of past convictions for various petty crimes including drug and gun possession was exposed.
The prosecution rested its case on February 14. The defense began its case with a series of witnesses, including relatives of Gary McLarty, who contradicted various parts of the prosecution's case. On February 19, testimony was heard about the effects of chronic drug use on the mind—specifically, the minds of the two key prosecution witnesses, Ronald "Duffy" Hambleton and Gary McLarty, who were drug users during their stuntman careers. The lack of gunshot residue on Blake's hands was also a key part of the defense's case that Blake was not the shooter. Robert Blake chose not to testify. The defense rested its case on February 23, and after closing arguments were made on March 2–3, the jury retired to deliberate on March 4.
On March 16, 2005, Blake was found not guilty of the murder of Bonnie Lee Bakley and not guilty of one of the two counts of solicitation of murder. The other count, the solicitation of Gary McLarty, was dropped after it was revealed that the jury was deadlocked 11–1 in favor of an acquittal. Los Angeles District Attorney Stephen Cooley, commenting on this ruling, called Blake "a miserable human being" and the jurors "incredibly stupid" to fall for the defense's claims." Blake's defense team, led by attorney M. Gerald Schwartzbach, and members of the jury responded that the prosecution had failed to prove its case. One trial analyst also agreed with the jury's verdict. Public opinion regarding the verdict was mixed, with some feeling that Blake was guilty, though many felt that there was not enough evidence to convict him. On the night of his acquittal several fans celebrated at Blake's favorite haunt, Vitello's.
Bakley's three children filed a civil suit against Blake, asserting that he was responsible for their mother's death. On November 18, 2005, the jury found Blake liable for the wrongful death of his wife and ordered him to pay US$30 million. On February 3, 2006, Blake filed for bankruptcy. Expressing disbelief that Blake was found liable by the jury in the civil trial, Schwartzbach (Blake's attorney in the criminal trial) vowed to appeal the jury verdict.
Civil trial verdict appeal
According to the Associated Press, Schwartzbach filed the appeal brief on February 28, 2007. Fiebelkorn testified that associates of Christian Brando may have been responsible for the murder of Bakley. A defense theory of who may have been involved in the conspiracy to kill Bakley was laid out in a defense motion filed during the criminal trial proceedings.
On April 26, 2008, an appeals court upheld the civil case verdict, but cut Blake's penalty assessment in half to US$15 million. Blake's attorneys had protested that jurors improperly discussed the Michael Jackson and O.J. Simpson verdicts during deliberations of his case, but the appeals judge ruled that such discussions were not improper.
Retirement and 2010 tax lien
Blake has maintained a low profile since his acquittal, and his filing for bankruptcy (he has debts of US$3 million for unpaid legal fees, and state and federal taxes). Although retired from acting for years before the murder of Bakley, due to his legal issues, Blake has said that he might return to acting someday in order to help himself financially. On April 9, 2010, the state of California filed a tax lien against Blake for US$1,110,878 with the Los Angeles County Recorder of Deeds for unpaid back taxes.
In December 2011, Blake appeared on Tavis Smiley. On July 16, 2012, Blake was interviewed on Piers Morgan Tonight. Morgan asked Blake about the night of Bakley's murder. Blake became defensive and angry. Blake said he resented Morgan's questioning and felt he was being interrogated. Morgan responded that he was only asking questions that he felt people were eager to have answered. Blake told interviewers and wrote in his autobiography that he hoped he would be offered one more great acting role before he died. Lost Highway (1997), remains Blake's last acting role to date.
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