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Robert Blake, ‘Baretta’ and ‘Lost Highway’ star acquitted in wife’s murder, dies aged 89

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 second wife, has died 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, star of the 1970s TV show Baretta, had once hoped for a comeback, but he never recovered from the long ordeal which began with the shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, outside a Studio City restaurant on 4 May 2001.

Once hailed as among the finest actors of his generation, Blake became better known as the center of a real-life murder trial. Many remembered him not as the rugged, dark-haired star of Baretta, but as a spectral, white-haired murder defendant. A jury ultimately acquitted him but a civil jury would find him liable for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30 million, a judgment which sent him into bankruptcy. Blake always maintained his innocence.

Robert Blake after the trial – the actor always maintained his innocenceAP Photo

Born on 18 September 1933 in Nutley, New Jersey, Blake began performing at the age of 2 in a family vaudeville act called The Three Little Hillbillies.

As a youngster, he starred in the Our Gang comedies and acted in the 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.’

Director Richard Brooks (right) with actors Scott Wilson and Robert Blake (center) during filming of the adaptation of the book ‘In Cold Blood’William P. Straeter / AP

His 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. His signature line: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” was often quoted.

Robert Blake as Tony BarettaNBC Universal Television

Blake won a 1975 Emmy for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, and won another Emmy in 1993 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 surrealist neo-noir Lost Highway, released in 1997, in which he had a disturbingly memorable role as ‘Mystery Man’.

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

“I’d like to give my best performance,” he said. “I’d like to leave a legacy for Rosie about who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and fishing pole yet. I’d like to go to bed each night desperate to wake up each morning and create some magic.”


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