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'Baretta' Actor Robert Blake, Who Was Charged And Later Acquitted In Wife’s Murder, Dies At 89

Robert Blake, whose portrayal of streetwise TV detective Tony Baretta, earned him an Emmy, was tried and acquitted for his wife Bonny Lee Bakley's 2001 murder.

By Dorian Geiger
Robert Blake on Baretta

Emmy-winning actor Robert Blake — and one-time murder suspect — known for his gruff characters and roles in “Baretta” and “Lost Highway” — died on Thursday. He was 89.

Blake died at his home in Los Angeles, the Associated Press reported. His niece, Noreen Austin said Blake had died from heart disease. He was surrounded by family at his time of death, she added.

Blake’s turbulent life and the acclaim he found in Hollywood, however, were ultimately overshadowed by his acquittal in the 2001 murder of his wife Bonny Lee Bakley, who was mysteriously gunned down outside a Los Angeles restaurant.

Who Was Robert Blake?

Blake, whose real name was Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi, was born in Nutley, New Jersey, in 1933, per a New York Times obituary. He propelled himself to fame at the age of 5 as a child actor starring as Little Beaver in the “Red Ryder” TV series and as Mickey in the “Our Gang” comedy shorts, which later became “The Little Rascals.” He appeared in at least 70 films in the 1940s and 1950s. In 1956, he adopted the stage name Robert Blake. 

Robert Blake on the Johnny Carson Show

Blake, however, endured horrific abuses in his youth, sustaining lasting trauma that would haunt him until his death. In a 2012 CNN interview, Blake said his mother twice attempted to abort him using a coat hanger. As a child, his alcoholic father allegedly sexually abused Blake, locked him in closets and forced him to eat food off the floor. 

RELATED: The Jury Speaks: Robert Blake

Over the course of his career, Blake brought to life a diverse cast of characters, which he imbued with his own trademark chutzpah. He scored roles alongside Humphrey Bogart in films like “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” and was a regular on Johnny Carson’s talkshow. He cemented his legacy in the role of loquacious, disguise-wearing, cockatoo-owning detective Tony Baretta in the 1970s ABC crime drama “Baretta.” Blake was also widely praised for his portrayal of mass killer Perry Smith in the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s groundbreaking true-crime novel, “In Cold Blood.” 

Did Robert Blake Kill His Wife Bonny Lee Bakley?

Blake’s life was up-ended on May 4, 2001 when his 44-year-old wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was shot and killed outside a Los Angeles Studio City restaurant. 

Bakley, who was found unresponsive in the couple’s parked car, had been shot twice with a German-made Walther P-38 automatic .9 millimeter pistol, according to investigators. One of the bullet wounds was to her head.

Minutes before her murder, Blake and Bakley had just finished dining at Vitello's Restaurant. At the time, Blake had claimed he’d left his wife in their vehicle and had gone back into the restaurant to retrieve a firearm he’d coincidentally left in a booth. The gun, investigators later learned, was not the murder weapon; police later recovered the automatic pistol used to kill her from a nearby dumpster. Blake told investigators he’d returned to the car to find his wife had been shot.

Robert Blake in court

Blake, then 68, was charged with one count of murder, special circumstances, two counts of solicitation of murder and one count of murder conspiracy. He pleaded not guilty.

At trial, however, prosecutors had compiled a case against Blake that at times, was so sensational, it could have been pulled straight from the pages of a Giallo script or a pulp magazine. They accused Blake of orchestrating Bakley's murder — and plotting other failed hit jobs against her — after their marriage had soured. 

"It's just awful. I feel just terrible," Bakley’s younger sister, Margerry Bakley, told CNN at the time regarding the allegations. "I can't believe my sister's gone. I can't believe they planned this. I knew it, but I just can't believe it."

Prosecutors contended the former TV detective had contracted three movie stuntmen to carry out the murder of his spouse. Prosecutors said Blake, however, fatally shot Bakley himself, after two of the hitmen backed out of the murder-for-hire scheme. 

The stuntmen, who testified at Blake’s trial, however, were unable to convince the jury of Blake’s guilt; they ultimately found the men, who admitted to being drug users, to be unreliable witnesses.

Blake was acquitted in the deadly shooting in 2005.

"I've had God on my side since I was in the womb,” an emotional Blake said following the verdict.

He was, however, ordered to pay Bakley's estate $30 million following a civil wrongful death lawsuit in 2005. He declared bankruptcy the following year. In 2008, an appeals court ordered the civil penalty halved to $15 million, though it upheld the overall verdict, according to Reuters.

Bakley’s murder remains unsolved today. Blake’s trial was the subject of Oxygen special series “The Jury Speaks.”

What Happened To Robert Blake?

Blake embraced a solitary existence — and largely disappeared from public view — following his acquittal in Bakley’s murder.

In a 2018 interview with CNN, Blake claimed he’d been sustaining himself on a diet of Twinkies. He grew a beard and occasionally wandered into pool halls to shoot a game of nine ball.  

“I was born lonely, I live lonely, and I’ll die lonely,” Blake said.

The troubled actor was survived by two children from his first marriage, Noah and Delinah Blake, as well as Rose Blake, the daughter he had with Bakley. His final acting credit came in David Lynch’s 1997 psychological thriller “Lost Highway.”

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