Take a deep dive into the former TV star’s life, which was pretty crazy before he was put on trial for his wife’s murder and ultimately acquitted.
Contrary to popular belief, Robert Blake is not spending his twilight years in prison. He is, however, suffering the next worst fate that can befall an actor — a total absence from the spotlight.
Blake was found not guilty of murdering his second wife in a heavily sensationalized criminal trial in 2004. And yet thanks to his loss in a civil trial over the death of Bonnie Lee Bakley, years of bad publicity, and perceived instability, Blake is an outcast, condemned to a short chapter in the book of lurid Hollywood mysteries. His life and the case that will ultimately define his legacy was re-examined in a largely sympathetic "20/20" special on ABC Friday night, re-contextualizing the rise and fall of a once-bright Hollywood star.
Here are the basics: He and his wife went out to dinner at an Italian restaurant in LA. Once they got to their car a few blocks away, he says he realized that he left a gun he was carrying for protection in the restaurant. Blake went back to retrieve it, and in the meantime, someone shot and killed Bakley. Because their marriage was strained (and ill-conceived from the start), and because Blake was literally going to get a gun, he became the prime suspect. But his gun didn’t match the weapon that killed Bakley, and there was no hard evidence tying him to the killing, so he was acquitted in the murder trial a few years later.
There were a few fireworks in Blake’s interview, most of which were teased ahead of time in commercials. He is still very angry about the year he spent in jail, and taunted the cops who arrested him. "I’m still here, you bastards. I’m still here, I didn’t die in that box," he said. "I’m still here. I’m 85 years old, I’m beat up all the hell and gone, but I’m still here and you’re still pounding a beat. Smoke that."
The interview was done in his modest two bedroom house in LA, which he has covered in drawings and scribbles, his only real creative outlet now. He says he was worth $40 million when Bakely was murdered in 2001; the ordeal, with lawyer fees and civil trial settlements, cost him everything, and he had to declare bankruptcy.
While there were no bombs dropped during the two-hour broadcast, it did offer a fresh look at the all-around tragic and bizarre circumstances that led to that still-unsolved murder. Here are the most important things we learned about Blake, his late wife, the murder case, and the aftermath. Because this case is so new to so many people, we’re going to give you a cliff’s notes breakdown of the chronological highlights.
Blake’s bad beginnings
Robert Blake was born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey, and entered the world under a cloud of shame. His mother, Elizabeth, had an affair with her husband James’s brother, and got pregnant with his child. James never wanted Michael and treated him accordingly, physically abusing him from the time they lived in New Jersey straight through their move to Hollywood and into Michael’s budding career as a child actor. "I was his punching bag," he said in the special.
After working his way from background actor to the star of later episodes of "The Little Rascals," Michael was seen as a rising star at MGM, and so the studio decided to change his name to something a lot more white bread American: Michael Gubitosi became Bobby Blake, who was then given his first leading role in "Mokey," a kids’ flick about a troublemaking eight-year-old. It wasn’t a memorable movie for anyone but the little star, who said in the "20/20" special that the hug he received on camera from co-star Donna Reed "was the first time I felt loved."
His career was on the rise — until his uncle/dad picked a fight with legendary MGM founder Louis B. Mayer, not only getting himself kicked off the lot, but more or less getting Blake banished from big studio projects. The young actor was subsequently loaned out to B-movies and other low budget dreck, and it took him years to work his way back to mainstream success.
Bonny Lee Bakley was a born scam artist
It’s not nice to speak ill of the dead, but few people in the special have many nice things to say about Blake’s late wife. Even her kids and sisters, who loved her, openly admitted that she ran scams and schemes for a living.
Like Blake, Bonnie too was from New Jersey and spent her early years performing for others. Her experiences with showbiz were a little bit different, however — she began a lifetime of posing naked in photographs when she stumbled upon a nudist colony-run swimming pool as a teenager. In her 20s, she married her first cousin and had two children, a union that lasted five years and would prove the most stable relationship of her life.
When you peak at marrying your cousin, that probably means your low points are very low.
She was married 10 times, but was financially self-sufficient, though her income depended on the vulnerability of others. In an interview with "20/20" her daughter described her career as such: "She sold pictures of naked women, did a little bit of pornography, and spent time on the phone asking for plane tickets or whatever she wanted."
Bakley would take out ads in men’s magazines with made-up stories about a variety of manufactured hardships, then would send her marks nude photos in exchange for cash. Much easier to pull off in the days before the internet.
Hollywood was Hell Town
Blake’s career took off again with his star turn in the big screen version of Truman Capote’s "In Cold Blood," but he made some very poor choices, turning down parts in eventual hits like "The Wild Bunch" and "Midnight Cowboy." He got another break with his role as the titular renegade cop on the TV series "Baretta," and won an Emmy for what would prove to be his most iconic role.
But he became such an obsessive perfectionist about the show that he wound up ending it, then spent a few years making over 150 appearances on Johnny Carson’s "Tonight Show." He got the itch to return to TV and started his own series, "Hell Town," about a renegade priest out to save people on the streets, but he couldn’t handle the pressure. As he described it in the "20/20" special, he had a literal nervous breakdown while on camera, and just walked off the set, never to return again.
His difficult divorce from his first wife, with whom he had two children, did not help matters.
"Bipolar? I was tripolar, quadpolar, who the hell knows what kind of polar I was," he says. "I had 35 different feelings in 5 minutes. I was nuts."
Bonny goes Hollywood
Meanwhile, Bonny Lee Bakley had her eyes on becoming a celebrity, no matter the cost. First, she moved to Memphis, where she tried to get married to "Great Balls of Fire" singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who was many decades her elder. They became close, but it’s unclear whether they were ever that close; when Bonny got pregnant, she swore up and down that the child belonged to Lewis, but DNA tests said otherwise. Perhaps great blanks were fired.
Soon enough, Bonny decided to move on to Hollywood. She targeted Dean Martin, but didn’t get very far with the old rat packer. So she set her sights lower — much lower — and went after Marlon Brando’s son, Christian Brando, who was then serving time for shooting someone in the face. She had already started up a relationship with the combustible son of the combustible acting legend when she met Blake at a jazz bar.
A fling, then something more
Blake openly admitted that he never intended on getting to know Bakley; he was in a bad place in his life when he met her at the jazz club and saw her as a one-night swing. But even though she was ostensibly dating — or maybe scamming — the younger Brando, she was enough of a "Baretta" fan to know that Blake was loaded, and she hooked on to him from the very start.
Here’s where things get weird(er). Bonny got pregnant and told both Brando and Blake that they were the father. Obviously, this was not biologically possible. Blake did not want her to give birth, but it was too good a financial opportunity to pass up for her, and she had a daughter.
She named the baby Christian Shannon Brando — but it turned out to be Blake’s child, not Brando’s, and the 66-year-old actor renamed her Rosie Lenore. He wasn’t too keen on a scam artist taking care of his child, but also didn’t want to raise his daughter without a mother, so he married Bonny and had her live in his pool house. It was less than ideal.
Of note: Blake reported that he was noticing a sketchy black pickup truck outside their home at weird hours of the day and night. The theory is that it may have belonged to Christian Brando, who was pretty pissed about being scammed.
The night in question and trial
As we previously noted, Blake went to get his gun from the Italian restaurant when Bakley was shot and killed. He reacted like most people would react when finding their wife bleeding to death in a passenger’s seat, running around the neighborhood until he could get someone to call the cops. He was arrested about a year later and then spent a year in jail, isolated nearly the entire time. The whole thing was ludicrous, he insisted.
"I would hire someone to shoot my wife in a car while I was out taking a pee or some bullshit like that?" he says in an interview. "I’ve been in Hollywood all my life."
As interviewees noted in the special, LA was obsessed with celebrity trials, especially in the wake of the OJ Simpson ordeal. But Blake’s trial wasn’t nearly as exciting; the prosecution didn’t really have any evidence to tie him to the murder. Two old stuntmen did come forward to say that he tried to bribe them into killing Bakley, but he countered that he was asking them to chase away that black pickup truck, a fact corroborated by one of the stuntmen’s grown sons.
Plus, they were meth heads, so their testimony came with significant asterisks, anyway. In fact, a theory came out that one of their friends, a drifter addict named Mark Jones who had a gun that matched the murder weapon, was actually the killer. He killed himself a month later, so he was never able to testify (or be charged himself).
So Blake was acquitted, but then Bonny’s family sued in civil trial. Blake, always a bit unstable and by now very bitter over the whole thing, lashed out during his testimony, and the jury, already a collection of kooks, religious nuts, and people just biased against him (they literally admitted to that), did not take kindly to it.
They found him responsible and awarded Bakley’s kids $30 million (it was later cut in and half and negotiated down further) and in the press conference afterward, the lead juror cited his temperament as the main reason they found him guilty. "He could have been a lot nicer to people," he said.
So now Blake is largely broke, living in that two bedroom apartment. And he did not get to raise his daughter, either — she was adopted by his own grown daughter, and now Rosie Lenore is 18-years-old, living out of the spotlight. The murder is still unsolved and Brando died in 2009, so we’ll never know if he was involved. "Baretta" is available to stream on YouTube and DVDs are on Amazon, if you are so inclined.
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