Robert Blake, a child actor who grew into roles playing characters on both sides of the law, including a murderous drifter in “In Cold Blood” and a master-of-disguise detective in the 1970s series “Baretta,” but then became the center of a real-life whodunit after being tried and acquitted in the slaying of his wife, died March 9 at his home in Los Angeles. He was 89.
The cause was heart disease, according to a statement by a niece, Noreen Austin.
Mr. Blake’s screen credits spanned six decades starting with the “Our Gang” cast in the late-1930s as the mischievous Mickey. In a brief moment opposite Humphrey Bogart in “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” (1948), Mr. Blake played a Mexican boy who sells a winning, but fateful, lottery ticket to a down-and-out prospector.
Later, Mr. Blake built his career around a hardscrabble, tough-guy image that he said reflected his difficult road through life: recounting tales of an abusive father and moments as an adult in which he contemplated suicide. “A lot of things about this world deserve hating,” he told an interviewer in 1975.
Directors and actors described Mr. Blake as notoriously unpredictable. He became known for benders of alcohol and drugs and spent time in the 1990s living in his van parked in the Hollywood Hills. He was so temperamental that other actors refused to work with him, including being banned from “Saturday Night Live” after a guest appearance in 1982.
“You just had to strap in real tight,” the creator of “Baretta,” Stephen J. Cannell, told People magazine.
At the height of his fame in the 1970s, Mr. Blake appeared to bask in his live-wire reputation. He carried a streetwise snarl into talk show interviews — one time insulting filmmaker and actor Orson Welles on “The Tonight Show” for being fat, another time going monosyllabic on “The Merv Griffin Show” with mostly just “man” and “cool” as replies. He often wore skintight T-shirts that showed off his compact 5-foot-4 frame.
Sometimes, he would be accompanied by a white cockatoo, Fred, who was his sidekick on “Baretta,” which ran on ABC from 1975 to 1978. Baretta’s catchphrase, “You can take that to the bank,” was both a pat-on-the-back for solving a case and a commentary on life’s enduring miseries.
He had largely faded from the public eye by May 2001 when he and his second wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, went to dinner at Vitello’s, an Italian restaurant in Los Angeles’s Studio City district. After the meal, Bakley was fatally shot at point-blank range inside their car in the parking lot.
Mr. Blake told investigators that he had gone back to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he had left behind. (A different gun used in the murder was found in a trash bin.)
Nearly a year later, on April 18, 2002, police arrested Mr. Blake at his home in Hidden Hills, a gated community in the Santa Monica Mountains. The three-month trial, beginning in late-2004, became a spellbinding mix of rise-and-fall celebrity and salacious details.
Bakley — who had a string of fraud-related crimes on her rap sheet, went by various aliases and had nine former husbands — had met Mr. Blake in 1999 at a nightclub and had sex with him in his car, according to court testimony. She later gave birth to a daughter, Rose. Tests confirmed that Mr. Blake was the father, despite Bakley’s earlier belief the baby was the child of Christian Brando, the eldest son of Marlon Brando.
Mr. Blake married Bakley in 2000, but witnesses described their marriage as turbulent and said Mr. Blake had said he wanted to “snuff” her. Bakley lived on a separate home on the property. “This was hardly a marriage made in heaven,” Los Angeles County’s deputy district attorney, Shellie Samuels, told the jury. “He hated her.”
Mr. Blake was charged with “murder with special circumstances,” a capital offense, but prosecutors did not seek the death penalty. Mr. Blake pleaded not guilty.
During the trial, two stuntmen testified that Mr. Blake had tried to hire them for the killing. Outside the courthouse, he sometimes strummed a guitar and sang “Over the Rainbow” and “Amazing Grace.” A jury in March 2005 decided that the prosecutors had not proved Mr. Blake’s guilt. In post-trial interviews, some jurors said the stuntmen had credibility problems because of acknowledged drug addictions.
Ms. Bakley’s four children later won a $30 million civil judgment for wrongful death. The amount was reduced to $15 million. Mr. Blake filed for bankruptcy.
In an interview in 2006 near the anniversary of his acquittal, Mr. Blake flashed his trademark mix of darkness and volatility as he tried to rebuild his life. He was then working as a stable hand at a ranch in Malibu, Calif.
“I’ve woken up some nights and wanted to drive till the car goes off a cliff,” he told the Associated Press. “And an hour later, poetry is coming to me. I want to go act. I want to go teach. I want to dance.”
He then almost stopped the interview and snapped at the AP journalist.
“You ask too many questions,” he barked. “Don’t you know not to interrupt an actor when he’s on a roll?”
Performing at age 2
Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi was born in Nutley, N.J., on Sept. 18, 1933, and described his childhood as a pitiless struggle. Many of his accounts could not be corroborated, but there was no doubt that he saw himself as bearing emotional scars.
He told CNN in 2012 that his mother attempted to abort him with a coat hanger. He accused his father, described in articles of the time as a blacksmith, of sexual abuse and locking him in a closet even as he sought to profit from his children during the Depression.
Mr. Blake said that when he was just 2, he joined his older brother and sister in a song-and-dance act, “Three Little Hillbillies,” in parks while his father played guitar. “Fear,” Mr. Blake recalled the feelings in those days as a child performer. “We had to eat, and my parents saw it as a good way to go.”
The family uprooted to California in 1938 and soon the young Michael (whose name evolved into Bobby Blake and then Robert Blake by the 1950s) was hired as an extra, and then a regular, on “Our Gang” film shorts, which were later aired on television as “The Little Rascals” with characters such as Spanky, Alfalfa and Buckwheat.
Mr. Blake found steady work as a child, emphasizing his soulful chestnut eyes and mop of dark hair. In 1942, he had the title role in “Mokey” as a boy adjusting to his new stepmom played by Donna Reed. He had a small part in a drama about concentration camp escapees, “The Seventh Cross” (1944), with Spencer Tracy.
Mr. Blake was conscripted into the Army in 1950 after failing to register for the draft. He was stationed in Alaska for several years. He returned to acting, but work was infrequent, and he drifted into long spells of drug use.
His breakthrough role came in “In Cold Blood,” the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s true-crime account of the killing of the Clutter family in Kansas. Mr. Blake’s portrayal of one of the killers, Perry Smith, received major acclaim for his sociopathic starkness.
“I thought Mr. Clutter was a very nice gentleman,” Mr. Blake’s character says in the film. “I thought so right up to the time I cut his throat.”
Reviewer Roger Ebert called Mr. Blake and Scott Wilson (playing the other killer, Richard Hickock) “so good they pass beyond performances and almost into life.”
Mr. Blake’s next films passed with little notice, including “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969) as a Native American hunted by lawman Robert Redford, and “Busting” (1974), a crime story co-starring Elliott Gould. Mr. Blake told Playboy that he considered suicide and sought psychiatric treatment. (His father took his own life in 1955 at age 48.)
Mr. Blake often spoke of his disdain for TV as unworthy of his talents. When the chance came along for “Baretta” — a character Cannell named after the Italian-made firearm, Beretta — Mr. Blake said the steady paycheck and potential for millions of viewers each week was too much to pass up.
Mr. Blake received an Emmy in 1975 for outstanding lead actor in “Baretta,” about a detective who lived a fleabag life and relied on clever disguises to solve crimes. The show took shape as a tweaked version of the cop drama “Toma” after star Tony Musante quit. Mr. Blake said he had a hand in writing and directing many “Baretta” episodes but never asked for credit.
In the 1980s, he appeared in a made-for-television movie, “Blood Feud” (1983), as Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa, and in 1985 in an NBC series he created, “Hell Town,” playing a rough-but-kind priest in Los Angeles. Mr. Blake said that, once again, thought of suicide bubbled up.
“One morning I realized I was only days — maybe hours — away from sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1992.
His last prominent acting role was in David Lynch’s 1997 movie “Lost Highway,” about a man accused of killing his wife. Mr. Blake’s character, called “Mystery Man” in the credits, is an ashen-faced wanderer seen as a manifestation of the killer’s mind and guilt.
Mr. Blake’s first and third marriages, to actresses Sondra Kerr and Pamela Hudak, respectively, ended in divorce. In addition to his daughter with Bakley, survivors include two children from his first marriage.
In 2011, Mr. Blake wrote a memoir, “Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love,” detailing his career and life. Shortly after, he appeared on CNN, where he told British journalist Piers Morgan he did not want to discuss Bakley’s death, noting that it was “not the most significant thing in my life.”
Timothy Bella contributed to this report.