By Bruce Haring
Robert Blake, the controversial actor who won a Lead Actor Emmy for Baretta and starred in films including In Cold Blood and Lost Highway before a murder trial ended his career, died today of heart disease in Los Angeles. He was 89. His niece, Noreen Austin, confirmed the news.
Blake’s long career ranged from a childhood stint in “Our Gang” at age 5 through major films and television before he was acquitted of murder in the 2001 death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley.
Over the course of 60+ years of working in Hollywood, Blake appeared in such classic films as Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) alongside Humphrey Bogart; In Cold Blood (1967) with John Forsythe; as well as a range of studio Westerns using the stage name of “Bobby Blake” during the 1940s. His final feature film role was in Lost Highway (1997), directed by David Lynch.
In television, Blake was best known for his role as streetwise New York City undercover detective Tony Baretta in Baretta, which aired for four seasons on ABC from 1975-78. He was an Emmy Award For Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series in 1975 and was nominated again for the role in 1977. He also earned two other Emmy noms during his career, for lead actor in the miniseries Blood Feud (1983) and Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993).
Baretta was created by prolific TV writer-creator Stephen J. Cannell and featured the memorable theme song “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” sung by Sammy Davis Jr. It was a spinoff from another ABC crime drama, Toma, that debuted in 1973. But the show’s star, Tony Mustane, grew weary of the weekly production grind, so ABC brass decided to recast Blake in the role and retitle the series Toma Starring Robert Blake. But a few format tweaks later, Baretta was born.
The series debuted as a replacement show in January 1975 and finished its first season in the Top 25 among primetime shows. It leapt into the Top 10 for Season 2 — fueled by the lead character’s catchphrases including “And that’s the name of that tune” and “You can take that to the bank” — but would be canceled in 1978 after 80-plus episodes.
Several years later, Blake was cast as the lead of NBC drama Hell Town. He played Father Noah Rivers, aka Hardstep, who pretty much was Baretta in priestly garb, trying to bring hope to the East L.A. parish of St. Dominic’s. The series lasted only a handful of episodes in 1985.
On television, fans also watched Blake on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson, where he was a recurring guest who appeared in funny skits with longtime friend Johnny Carson and other featured celebrities.
He is also remembered as a pitchman in commercials for STP, Geico and others.
But there was also a darker side to the Blake story.
Bakley, Blake’s second wife, was found shot to death outside of Vitello’s restaurant in the San Fernando Valley in 2001, after the couple had dined there. Blake told police that he had gone back into the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he’d left on the floor of their booth.
Blake was charged with Bakley’s murder in 2002, along with solicitation of murder, conspiracy and special circumstances of lying in wait. But a jury found him not guilty of the crimes in 2005 after a widely watched three-month trial saw Blake weep into the shoulder of his lawyer after the jury acquitted him. The seven men and five women found him not guilty of soliciting a former stunt double whom he met on the Baretta set to kill his wife.
And though Bakley’s children won a wrongful-death suit against Blake shortly thereafter, her killing officially remains unsolved.
During the course of the trial, their unhappy marriage details became sensational news fodder.
It was revealed that Bakley had at least a dozen aliases and 10 former husbands. The defense contended she had trapped Blake into an unloving marriage by becoming pregnant with his child — after first saying the father was Christian Brando, son of Oscar winner Marlon Brando. Thus, the motive for Blake, who referred to his wife as a “pig,” was established. But the jury didn’t believe the stuntman’s testimony, thanks to his history of drug abuse.
The judge ordered that Blake be given back his passport and $1.5 million bail.
In his later years, Blake wrote his memoir, The Life of a Rascal, and lived quietly in the Los Angeles area.
A private memorial service will be held to honor his life. In lieu of flowers, his family requests that donations be made to City of Hope.
Erik Pedersen contributed to this report.
Subscribe to Deadline Breaking News Alerts and keep your inbox happy.
Comments On Deadline Hollywood are monitored. So don’t go off topic, don’t impersonate anyone, and don’t get your facts wrong.
Rest in Peace
So very sorry, I loved watching him in Hollywood.
My sincere apologies….God will be taking care of him, and he will be very happy.
May Robert Blake RIP
I think he meant well and caring. I appreciated his persona.
He carried himself well.
My deepest condolences to his family.
He also carried a gun.
Oh how sad we of the early 70’s are. Robert made all we women’s hearts jump. I loved his cockatoo he sported on his shoulder! Goodbye Robert. RIP. We will miss you.
I liked baretta,but my favorite movie of his was Electra glide in Blue!
I wish they would play the series Baretta it was a good show I am also glad he wasn’t guilty As in the show “Don’t do the crime if you can’t face the time” he was a good actor
RIP You were a phenomenal actor & my favorite movie will always be “Electra Glide In Blue” the ending OMG, it still stays with me.
Robert Blake name was mud after the murder trial involving his wife.It was bizarre that he was going back into that restaurant to get his gun when his wife was shot.
The Hollywood industry pretty much wanted to forget him after his acquittal.I bet his life was very quiet after the trial.He just became another Norma Desmond hiding out living his life out.May he RIP.
I have loved Robert Blake since I was 13. I wrote him a fan letter and he wrote me back. This was 1974
Rest in peace, Gubi.
So long Mr Blake. One cool dude.
So long Mr Blake . One cool dude.
Cant believe they have never solved that murder…or that he didnt admit to it on his death bed.
Say what you like about the murderer, but he was scary as fuck in Lost Highway.
Signup for Breaking News Alerts & Newsletters
Get our latest storiesin the feed of your favorite networks
We want to hear from you! Send us a tip using our annonymous form.
Sign up for our breaking news alerts
Deadline is a part of Penske Media Corporation. © 2023 Deadline Hollywood, LLC. All Rights Reserved.
Robert Blake Dies: Actor In ‘Baretta’ And ‘In Cold Blood’ Was 89, Beat Real-Life Murder Rap
By Bruce Haring