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Robert Blake, actor acquitted in wife’s killing, dies at 89


Robert Blake, the Emmy-winning actor who gained notoriety for his acting after he was tried and acquitted of his wife’s murder, died Thursday at age 89.

A statement released on behalf of his niece, Noreen Austin, said Blake died of heart disease surrounded by family at his Los Angeles home.

Blake, star of the 1970s TV show “Baretta,” once hoped to make a comeback, but he never recovered from a long ordeal that began with the May 4 shooting death of his wife, Bonnie Lee Buckley, outside a Studio City restaurant. , 2001. The story of their strange marriage, the child she bore, and its violent end was a Hollywood courtroom tragedy.

Once considered one of the best actors of his generation, Blake became more famous as the center of a real-life murder trial, a story stranger than any he’s ever starred in. Many remembered him not as the rugged, dark-haired star of Baretta, but as the spectral, white accused of murder.

In a 2002 interview with The Associated Press while he was in jail awaiting trial, he lamented his change in status to his fans across the country.

He was adamant that he did not kill his wife, and a jury eventually acquitted him. But a civil jury would indict him for her death and order him to pay $30 million to Buckley’s family, forcing him into bankruptcy. Her and Buckley’s daughter Rose Lenore was raised by other relatives and went years without seeing Blake until they spoke in 2019.

It was a humiliating finale to a life spent in the spotlight since childhood. As a young man, he starred in the comedies Our Gang and appeared in the film Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As an adult, he won acclaim for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in Truman Capote’s bestselling true-crime film In Cold Blood.

His career peaked in the 1975-78 television police series Barretta. He starred as a detective who carried a pet cockatoo on his shoulder and liked camouflage. It was typical of his profession of tough guys with soft hearts, and its tagline, “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.

Blake won an Emmy in 1975 for his portrayal of Tony Barretta, although the show was marred by behind-the-scenes disputes with the temperamental star. He gained a reputation as one of the best actors in Hollywood, but one of the most difficult to work with. He later admitted to struggling 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,” playing a soft-spoken, church-going man who murdered his wife and three children.

Blake’s career had slowed long before the trial. After the mid-1980s, he appeared on screen only a few times; his last project was David Lynch’s Lost Highway, released in 1997. According to his niece, Blake spent his later years “enjoying jazz music, playing guitar, reading poetry and watching lots of Hollywood classics.”

He was born Michael James Gubitos on September 18, 1933 in Nutley, New Jersey. His father, an Italian immigrant, and mother, an Italian American, wanted their three children to succeed in show business. By the age of 2, Blake was performing with his brother and sister in a family vaudeville act called Three Little Hills.

When his parents moved the family to Los Angeles, his mother found work for the children as film makers, and little Mickey Gubitosi was plucked from the crowd by the producers who cast him in the Our Gang comedies. He appeared in the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.

He went on to work with Hollywood legends, playing a young John Garfield in 1946’s Humoresque and the little boy who sells Humphrey Bogart an important lottery ticket in the Oscar-winning Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As an adult, he got serious movie roles. The biggest breakthrough came in 1967 with the film In Cold Blood. Films followed, including Tell Them Willie’s Boy Is Here and Electra Glide in Blue.

In 1961, Blake and actress Sondra Kerr married and had two children, Noah and Delina. They divorced in 1983.

Her fateful meeting with Buckley took place in 1999 at a jazz club where she went to escape loneliness.

“Here I was 67 or 68 years old. My life had stopped. My career was on hold,” he said in an AP interview. “I was alone for a long time.”

He said he had no reason to dislike Buckley. “He got me out of the stands and back into the arena. I had something to live for.”

When Buckley had a daughter, she named Christian Brando, Marlon’s son, as the father. But DNA tests pointed to Blake.

Blake first saw a little girl named Rosie when she was two months old, and she became the focus of his life. She married Buckley because of the child.

“Rosie is my blood, Rosie is calling me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I will ride off into the sunset together.”

Prosecutors will allege she planned to kill Buckley to gain sole custody of the child and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence was mixed, and the jury rejected that theory.

On his last night alive, Blake and his 44-year-old wife dined at a neighborhood restaurant, Vitello’s. He claimed he was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had inadvertently left behind. Police were initially baffled, and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime.

Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense and ended up living on Social Security and a Screen Actors Guild pension.

In a 2006 interview with the AP, a year after his acquittal, Blake said he hoped to resume his career.

“I would like to give my best speech,” he said. “I would like to leave a legacy to Rosie about who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and a fishing rod yet. I would love to go to bed every night so I can wake up every morning and create some magic. “


Deutsch, the lead author of this obituary, left The Associated Press in 2014.

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