Robert Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who went from acclaim for his acting to notoriety when he was tried and acquitted in the killing of his wife, died Thursday at age 89.
A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died from heart disease, surrounded by family at home in Los Angeles.
Blake, the star of the 1970s TV show “Baretta,” had once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the ordeal that began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on May 4, 2001. The story of their strange marriage, the child it produced, and its violent end was a Hollywood tragedy played out in court.
Once hailed as among the finest actors of his generation, Blake became better known as the center of a real-life murder trial, a story more bizarre than any in which he acted. Many remembered him not as the rugged, dark-haired star of “Baretta,” but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant.
In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press, he was adamant that he had not killed his wife. A jury ultimately acquitted him, but a civil jury would find Blake liable for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a judgment that sent him into bankruptcy. The daughter he and Bakley had together, Rose Lenore, was raised by other relatives and went for years without seeing Blake until they spoke in 2019. She would tell People magazine that she called him “Robert,” not “Dad.”
It was an ignominious finale for a life lived in the spotlight from childhood. As a youngster, he starred in the “Our Gang” comedies and acted in a movie classic, “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.” As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in the movie of Truman Capote’s true crime best seller “In Cold Blood.”
Blake’s career peaked with the 1975-78 TV cop series, “Baretta.” He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and was fond of disguises. It was typical of his specialty, portraying tough guys with soft hearts, and its signature line, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.
Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was wracked by disputes involving the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of Hollywood’s finest actors, but one of the most difficult to work with. He later admitted to struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his early life.
In 1993, Blake won another Emmy as the title character in “Judgment Day: The John List Story,” portraying a soft-spoken, churchgoing man who murdered his wife and three children.
Blake’s career had slowed down well before the trial. He made only a handful of screen appearances after the mid-1980s; his last project was in David Lynch’s “Lost Highway,” released in 1997. According to his niece, Blake had spent his recent years “enjoying jazz music, playing his guitar, reading poetry and watching many Hollywood classic films.”
Once a wealthy man, he wound up living on Social Security and a Screen Actor’s Guild pension.