Robert Blake was a child star that stood the test of time. However, his dark personal life transformed his status from famous to downright infamous. In 2001, the LAPD accused Blake of taking his wife's life. What followed was a media circus that finally saw its conclusion on the stage of the 2023 Academy Awards.
The question still remains: Did he, or didn’t he? Let these facts help make up your own mind.
Robert Blake had a much longer name when he was born on September 18, 1933, in New Jersey. It was Michael James Gubitosi. For a while, his father worked at a car manufacturing factory, that is, until both of his parents found a surprising way to bring home the bacon.
They started a song-and-dance act—and this changed Blake's life forever.
In 1936—when Blake was just a three-year-old kid—his parents got him and his two siblings onto the stage and called them “The Three Little Hillbillies”. When the act saw some success, Blake's parents pulled up the tent stakes and moved to Hollywood. It seemed like a fresh beginning—but there were darker times in store for him.
In 1938, Blake and his siblings landed their first jobs in Hollywood as extras. However, when he wasn’t hanging around film sets, Blake faced some chilling adversaries.
He didn’t begin school until he was 10 years old, so the other kids made fun of him. This led to Blake getting involved in fighting and eventually getting kicked out. Life at school was rough, but at home, it was so much worse.
Blake’s parents had some particularly cruel punishments for Blake. When he misbehaved, they threw him in a closet and locked the door. They also made him eat his meals straight off the floor. But believe it or not, these punishments were not the worst part of Blake’s childhood.
Blake’s father had a problem with drinking and this led him to physically torment poor young Blake. Later in his childhood, his mother joined in. Blake even reported that both his parents shared a perversion: They liked to exploit children. Blake was living a nightmare and he knew only one way out.
Blake lived through those tough years by focusing on his career as he’d already started getting roles by the age of six. He didn’t get credit, but he was in Bridal Suite alongside Robert Young. No one, not even Young, recognized that Blake was in trouble and needed to escape his deranged home life.
In 1939, MGM was making the Our Gang short films about a group of poor children. As their child stars aged, the studio had to replace the actors with younger ones. Blake got a shot at playing Porky—the little brother of one of the main characters.
His name in the credits for the show appears as Michael Gubitosi and he appeared in 40 episodes between 1939 and 1944. But by the time the show ended, Blake had moved up—becoming the lead character.
Somehow, during his run on Our Gang, Blake's character became Mickey Blake and he started using the name Bobby Blake as an actor. But his roles were about to take a curious turn.
After Our Gang, Blake got another job on a film series called Red Ryder. The makers of Red Ryder saw Blake's dark features and decided he could play "Little Beaver"—a Native American character. His next role would again take advantage of his dark features: He went from Native American to Mexican.
It was 1948 and the film was The Treasure of the Sierra Madre. This wasn’t some serialized low-budget feature. This was a real film, and it even starred Humphrey Bogart. In the film, Blake plays a Mexican boy, and who sells a lottery ticket to Bogart’s character, who later throws a glass of water into his face.
Young Blake knew this was an important film, and he even snatched the glass that Bogart used in the scene. Blake steadily climbed the slippery Hollywood ladder—but it would all come to a sudden standstill.
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Right when Blake was ready to appear in a film as an adult, the worst thing happened: Uncle Sam called his name. He was just 17 when he joined the army and was 21 when he finally got out. The years of service were hard on Blake, and when he exited he turned down the wrong path.
His idle hands led him into a shady world, where he dealt and used illicit substances. He knew he needed to break his cycle of destructive behavior.
Robert Blake eventually signed up for acting class and decided to clean up his life. Following his education as an actor, he got a role in the western TV series 26 Men, where he used Robert Blake as his acting name for the first time.
There were a lot of TV Westerns on the air and Blake seemed to be in most of them. But there was one show that he did miss out on—and it was his own fault.
In 1959, Blake received an offer to play Little Joe Cartwright in the TV western Bonanza. This show ran for an incredible 14 seasons and would have given Blake very steady work. The part eventually went to Michael Landon who went on to do other long-running series: Little House on the Prairie and Highway To Heaven. And the reason Blake didn’t get the role?
He just didn’t want it. What was he thinking?
Maybe Blake said no to Bonanza because he wanted to get out of television. In 1960, he got his first lead role in a movie. It was The Purple Gang, which was the story of a group of very nasty bootleggers in Detroit. The film wasn’t well received by critics, but Blake had tasted what it was like to be in the spotlight and he wanted more.
Next, Blake appeared in a few films in the early 1960s, but nothing that would be a breakout role. What he needed was a role that would make him stand out. In 1967, a silver lining appeared.
Columbia Pictures wanted to make Truman Capote’s true crime novel In Cold Blood into a movie. They needed two actors to play the notorious men who slaughtered a family. This was the kind of role that could catapult Blake to the next level in Hollywood. Then Blake heard the bad news.
The studio wanted acclaimed stars Paul Newman and Steve McQueen to play the roles. There was, however, some good news. The director of In Cold Blood didn’t agree with the studio. He didn’t want any big names for the roles of the doomed men. That knocked Newman and McQueen quite literally out of the picture.
The director then decided to audition 500 men for the two roles. That’s a lot of competition and one of them happened to be the future star, Danny Devito. Luck and talent, however, were on Blake’s side: He got the role.
Making In Cold Blood turned out to be a trying time. Richard Brooks, the director, was prone to acting out. He flew into rages and screamed at the cast and crew. He appeared to have done something right, however, as the film was a huge success and Brooks received a nomination for Best Director.
Strangely, there were no nominations for any of the acting roles. It didn’t matter, as critics and audiences applauded Blake’s performance. It was clear that Blake was capable of playing someone who could commit murder. This was an eerie omen of what would come later in Blake’s life.
The truth about Blake was that he was very, very short. In most films, directors tried to hide this fact, but in 1973’s Electra Glide in Blue, it became part of his character. The director was passionate about the project, so passionate that he received only one dollar for his efforts. Blake, in turn, got only $20,000 for taking the starring role.
Blake famously complained about this, but television executives liked his performance—and so they made him an offer.
The TV executives at ABC wanted Blake to fill the shoes of a show already in production. It was Toma, starring Tony Musante as a detective who actually existed in real life. But there was one problem.
Blake didn’t want to replace someone in an existing show. If they wanted Robert Blake, they had to make a show just for him. Well, apparently they wanted him enough because that’s exactly what they did.
ABC developed a show that was just for Blake. They called the show Baretta and Blake would finally play a character that shared his culture: an Italian American. The character was a nontraditional plainclothes detective working in a fictional city.
To make Baretta stand out from the other detectives at the time, they decided to give Baretta a sidekick: a cockatoo. They also gave him more than one catchphrase.
Baretta became known as the guy with the catchphrases. First, there was: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time". Other favorites included: “You can take that to the bank,” and “That’s the name of that tune”.
He drove a blue Chevy Impala that was rusty and even his car had a nickname ”The Blue Ghost”. In short, Baretta was cool. But Blake himself could quickly get hot under the collar.
Character actor Dana Elcar played Baretta’s on-screen chief and Blake did not get along with him. When season two started, Elcar was gone. Blake also had a problem with Tom Ewell. However, Blake and Ewell had such intense chemistry that they couldn’t let him go—even though Blake didn’t like working with him.
Blake was getting a reputation as a guy who was hard to work with. But though he may not have got along with some of his fellow actors, he did have someone else’s back.
The opening song for Baretta was an instrumental song called “Keep Your Eyes On the Sparrow”. In season one, the song plays on Baretta's car radio, and Baretta tries to sing along. Blake plays it like he’s making the words up as he goes.
The truth is, there were words to the song and guess who sang them? None other than Sammy Davis Jr. So why weren’t the words in the opening of the show? For an alarming reason.
The executives at the network didn’t want Davis Jr’s vocals on the song because they didn’t want audiences to think this was a Black show. Blake didn’t like the sound of that, so he went to the top to fight for Davis Jr. Because Blake stood up for his friend the singer, the executives put the lyrics back in the song.
By 1977—after 82 episodes—Blake was through with playing Baretta. He said that he was happy with the show and that he’d managed to make social commentary in a detective series. Later, however, he said it had been a “terrible experience”.
It turned out that Blake had commitment issues: He didn’t want to play the same character over and over again. He desperately needed a role he could sink his teeth into...and then he found one.
Blake's excitement surged when he heard that 20th Century Fox was thinking about making a TV film about disappeared union leader Jimmy Hoffa. He thought he was perfect for the role and began to campaign to get it.
Somehow Blake got wind that the producers were wary of his problematic behavior on set. It seemed he’d had one too many disagreements with other actors. Blake decided to address this problem head-on.
Blake knew he had to make nice with the executives at Fox in order to get the part of Jimmy Hoffa. He decided to offer them a deal—one they couldn’t refuse.
Blake said he would not have any conflicts during the filming of Blood Feud. If he did, Blake set out his own punishment: They could fire him and not pay him anything for his work.
But was the confident actor promising something he couldn’t deliver?
The guys at Fox took Blake up on his offer, and it was a big payoff for all involved. The two-part TV movie was a big hit and, according to the critics, it was mostly because of Blake.
Critic John Corry wrote in The New York Times that whenever “Blood Feud rises to drama, it’s almost always Mr Blake’s doing”. Come awards season, Blake got what he’d wanted: an Emmy and a Golden Globe for his acting.
Ten years later, Blake was back on TV again. He played the title character in the TV movie Judgement Day: The John List Story. This is a movie based on the chilling true story of John List, a man who brutally took the lives of his entire family.
This mostly forgotten made-for-TV movie, however, was an unsettling foresight of what would happen in Blake’s own life—just a few years later.
After playing the role of a vicious husband, Blake’s real-life marriage ended. He’d been married to Sondra Kerr since 1961, and they’d had two children. As a single man, Blake just threw himself into more movie-making. One film that stands out is David Lynch’s Lost Highway. This film was incredibly artistic and Blake knew it.
He even told Lynch that he wouldn’t be giving criticism about the writing of the film for a simple reason: Blake didn’t understand it. Sure the film was hard to understand—but the eerie omen it contained was as plain as day.
Director and co-writer Lynch later said that something in the news had had an impact on him while he was writing the script for Lost Highway. It was the infamous OJ Simpson trial. The trial involved the murder of Simpson’s wife and Lost Highway included a similar incident.
Of course, the casting of Blake in this film made it even more creepy. In just a few short years, Blake would be in Simpson’s shoes.
Lost Highway ended up being Blake’s final film. Two years after its release Blake met Bonny Lee Bakley in a jazz club and the two hit it off. Besides the spelling of their surnames, they had some more things in common.
Both had troubled home lives as children and both had received the ridicule of classmates at school. Soon a romance developed, and then Bakley came to him with an astonishing revelation: She was pregnant and carrying his baby.
What Blake didn’t know was that Bakley was also dating another celebrity at the same time. This was Marlon Brando’s son Christian Brando, who had recently gotten out of prison for the murder of his half-sister’s boyfriend. In fact, Bakley had met Brando by sending naughty pictures of herself to him in prison. But that wasn't the weirdest part.
Bakley was also telling Brando that he was the father of the child. When she gave birth to a girl, Bakley named her Christian Shannon Brando, which suggested that Brando was indeed the father. You’d think that Blake would be thanking his lucky stars...but that’s not what happened.
When Blake found out about the child and Brando, he wanted to get to the bottom of things. He ordered a DNA test so they would know the father of the child once and for all. The tests came back and Blake was the winner. This was enough for Blake to propose to Bakley.
However, there was something strange about his new wife—something that should have been a huge warning sign.
It turned out that Blake’s new wife had a strange fixation with celebrities. She had once chased singer Jerry Lee Lewis and even claimed to be carrying his baby. When the baby was born, DNA tests proved that Lewis was not the father. Before Bakley met Blake, she’d also been stalking Dean Martin.
There was, however, something more: Bakley had previously been in trouble with the law.
Most of Bakley’s illicit activities were mail-order cons. She would send out inappropriate pictures of herself to lonely men and then hit them up for cash for traveling purposes or rent money. But that wasn't all.
She also got in trouble for writing bad checks, holding false IDs, and possessing illicit substances. Did Blake actually know what he was getting into?
Another red flag that Blake might have noticed was Bakley’s marriage history. Bakley had already walked down the aisle an astonishing nine times before meeting Blake. One of Bakley’s marriages only lasted one day.
Okay, so maybe she liked getting married. It certainly didn’t mean she deserved what happened to her next.
The Blake/Bakley marriage seemed to go under the radar for the next few months. On May 4, 2001, however, that completely changed. The couple went out for dinner at Blake’s favorite Italian restaurant: Vitello’s in Los Angeles.
After dinner, the couple walked to their car. Blake suddenly stopped and told his wife that he’d left something in the restaurant. When Bakley asked what he’d forgotten, his reply was shocking. He said he’d left his pistol in the restaurant.
Blake went back into the restaurant and then came back out to find something shocking. His wife was in the car but there was blood everywhere around her lifeless body. Blake began pounding on the windows to see if he could revive Bakley, but it didn’t work. Blake then got a passerby to call for an ambulance and officers.
When they got to the hospital, Blake realized that the worst had happened: His wife didn't make it.
In a garbage can near the restaurant, officers found the weapon that ended Bakley’s life. It was a collector’s item and the owner had scraped off the identifying number—so there was no evidence there. To make matters even more confusing, a busboy at the restaurant said that Blake had lied.
There was no pistol on or near the table that Blake had returned to. The LAPD had their hands full. It was going to be a big media circus.
Detectives spent a year gathering evidence to figure out who was responsible for this horrifying incident. On April 18, 2002, they made an announcement: They were going to charge Blake. The trial went forward, and it did not look good for the actor.
It came out that he desperately wanted out of his marriage to Bakley, and that he allegedly tried to hire two stuntmen to off his wife. There was also residue on Blake’s hands that indicated that he had held a pistol and fired. It looked like an open and shut case. Or was it?
The jury came back to deliver their verdict, and Blake was likely terrified. What would life in prison be like for a TV and movie star? As it turned out, Blake didn’t have to worry about it: He got an acquittal. How was this possible?
Well, the residue on his hands was an insignificant amount. Also, the jury thought the stuntmen he’d allegedly tried to hire were not reliable witnesses. It was as simple as that: Blake was a free man. But the story doesn't end there.
According to Robert Blake’s defense, Christian Brando was the real culprit. They said that he had threatened Bakley over the phone. He had a motive as he was angry at her for saying her child was his and then finding out it was Blake’s. Brando also had a history of murder—remember his half-sister’s boyfriend?
The fact that Brando wasn't even in LA at this time didn’t seem to matter. To Blake’s attorney, Brando was the guilty party. For the time being, Blake was off the hook—but not completely.
Though Blake wasn't going to end up behind bars, he was still in jeopardy. Bakley’s children got together and mounted a civil suit against the actor. The suit couldn't lock him up, but it could take a large chunk of what was left of his fortune. And that’s what happened.
The civil suit found Blake guilty and ordered him to pay a whopping $30 million in damages.
When Blake appealed the civil court ruling, he lost again. The court did think, however, that the fine was exorbitant and reduced it to $15 million. While it was half of the original, it was still way more than Blake had—leading him to file for bankruptcy in February of 2006.
Blake kept a low profile following all this unwanted attention. Eventually, though, he’d have to speak out.
In 2012, Blake lost it while talking to Piers Morgan on CNN. He called the interview an interrogation. Seven years later, he appeared on 20/20 and had calmed down. He went on about Hollywood culture and even opened up about his tragic childhood.
As it turned out, the daughter Blake had with Bakley had grown into an adult—and she was also ready to start speaking out.
Blake's daughter, Rose Lenore, lived her formative years with her half-sister and husband. When she was ready, she met up with Blake and talked about everything. Of course, she has no idea if Blake is guilty of taking her mother's life, but she’s open to knowing the truth.
Lenore now lives in LA with her boyfriend and—like her half-brother Noah Blake—is pursuing a career as an actor.
It turned out that Robert Blake was still in the market for a wife. In 2017, he got engaged to Pamela Hudak whose claim to fame was playing “Co-ed #2” in 1984’s Windy City. Hudak was a longtime friend of Blake’s and apparently didn’t care about his controversial history.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the marriage was not bliss. Only a year later, they divorced.
On March 9, 2023, Blake, who suffered from heart disease, spent his last day surrounded by family. He was 89 years old. Three days later, it was time for the Oscars. While he’d never won an Oscar, surely the awards show would include him in the “In Memoriam” montage for his body of work.
While a jury had acquitted Blake, the civil court found him guilty. For this reason, Blake didn’t make the cut. This gave host Jimmy Kimmel an idea for a joke—one that he’d regret.
While most people agree that the 95th Academy Award ceremony was a little on the safe side, there was one controversial moment. Kimmel thought he’d have some fun at the recently deceased Blake’s expense. He asked viewers to vote on whether the “In Memoriam” montage should include Blake. The phrase Kimmel asked us to text was “GIMME-A-Blake”.
Viewers and audience members found the joke in bad taste, and Kimmel received a lot of criticism. If Kimmel’s at all hurting over his misstep, these words of Baretta’s may be appropriate at this time: “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time".
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