Actor Robert Blake, whose decades-long film and television career was marred by an infamous murder trial, has died at the age of 89.
Blake died in Los Angeles, his niece Noreen confirmed to CBS News on Thursday. She said he died after a battle with heart disease, adding that he “passed away peacefully with family and friends.”
The Los Angeles County Coroner’s Office told CBS News that it had “no report” on Blake’s death.
“Due to his age and medical history, his death may not fall within our jurisdiction,” the coroner said in a statement.
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Before being tried and acquitted in his wife’s murder, Blake was best known for the 1970s television series Baretta, for which he won a Best Actor Emmy in 1975, and for his final screen role, the film Lost Highway” from 1997.
Actor Robert Blake leaves the Burbank County Courthouse after appearing in court on the lawsuit filed against him for wrongful death of the children of his murdered wife Bonnie Lee Bakley August 24, 2005 in Burbank, California. /Getty Images
However, on May 4, 2001, Blake’s wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, was shot and killed in Blake’s car near a restaurant in the Studio City neighborhood of Los Angeles.
Blake was arrested for murder in April 2002.
The case eventually went to trial in late 2004, and Blake was acquitted by an LA jury in early 2005.
The jury of seven men and five women returned the verdicts on the ninth day of trial after a four-month trial involving a number of characters, including two Hollywood stuntmen, who said Blake tried to hire them to kill his wife.
However, no eyewitness, blood or DNA evidence connected Blake to the crime. The murder weapon, found in a rubbish bin, could not be traced back to Blake, and witnesses said the tiny amounts of gunshot residue found on Blake’s hands could have come from another weapon he was said to be carrying for protection.
Blake has had hundreds of film and television credits. His career began as a preschooler with the role of Mickey in the 1930s-1940s children’s comedy series Our Gang, which was repeated on television for decades.
He earned critical acclaim for his portrayal of real-life murderer Perry Smith in the 1967 film In Cold Blood. In 1993, Blake won another Emmy for the title character in Judgment Day: The John List Story, in which he portrayed a soft-spoken, clergyman who murdered his wife and three children – also based on the true story of a convicted murderer.
He was born Michael James Gubitosi on September 18, 1933 in Nutley, New Jersey. His father, an Italian immigrant, and his mother, an Italian-American, wanted their three children to be successful in show business. At the age of 2, Blake performed with a brother and sister in a family variety show called The Three Little Hillbillies.
When his parents moved the family to LA, his mother found work for the kids as extras, and little Mickey Gubitosi was pulled out of the crowd by the producers who cast him in the comedy Our Gang. He appeared on the series for five years and changed his name to Bobby Blake.
He went on to work with Hollywood legends, playing young John Garfield in 1946’s Humoresque and the little boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a crucial lottery ticket in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
In adulthood, he landed serious film roles. The biggest breakthrough came in 1967 with “In Cold Blood”. Later there were movies like Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Electra Glide in Blue.
In 1961, Blake and actress Sondra Kerr married and had two children, Noah and Delinah. They divorced in 1983.
His fateful meeting with Bakley took place in 1999 at a jazz club where he went to escape loneliness.
“Here I was, 67 or 68 years old. My life was put on hold. My career stalled,” he said in an interview with The Associated Press. “I was alone for a long time.”
When Bakley gave birth to a baby girl, she named Christian Brando – son of Marlon – as the father. But DNA tests pointed to Blake.
Blake first saw the little girl named Rosie when she was two months old and she became the center of his life. He married Bakley because of the child.
“Rosie is my blood. Rosie is calling me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I will be walking into the sunset together.”
Prosecutors would claim he planned to kill Bakley to get sole custody of the baby and was trying to hire hitmen for the job. But the evidence became muddled and a jury rejected that theory.
On their last night alive, Blake and his 44-year-old wife ate at a neighborhood restaurant, Vitello’s. He claimed she was shot as he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a pistol he accidentally left behind. Police were initially dumbfounded and Blake was not arrested until a year after the crime.
Once a wealthy man, he spent millions on his defense, eventually living on Social Security and a Screen Actors Guild pension.
In an interview with the AP in 2006, a year after his acquittal, Blake said he hoped to resume his career.
“I want to show my best performance,” he said. “I want to leave Rosie a legacy of who I am. I’m not ready for a dog and a fishing rod. I want to go to bed every night and wake up every morning and create some magic. “