Robert Blake, actor who was tried over wife’s killing, dies at 89

Robert Blake in Baretta, 1975

Robert Blake, actor who was tried over wife’s killing, dies at 89

Emmy winner for Baretta was acquitted of 2001 shooting of Bonny Lee Bakley but found liable by a civil jury

Robert Blake, the Emmy award-winning performer who was tried and acquitted in the killing of his wife, has died 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’s career never recovered from the long ordeal that began with the shooting death of his wife Bonny Lee Bakley outside a Studio City restaurant on 4 May 2001.

He was adamant that he had not killed his wife, and a jury ultimately acquitted him. But a civil jury would find him liable for her death and order him to pay Bakley’s family $30m, a judgment that sent him into bankruptcy.

The daughter he and Bakley had together, Rose Lenore, was raised by other relatives and went for years without seeing Blake, until they spoke in 2019. She would tell People magazine that she called him Robert, not Dad.

In his youth, Blake starred in the Our Gang comedies and acted in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, a movie classic. As an adult, he was praised for his portrayal of the murderer Perry Smith in the movie of Truman Capote’s true crime bestseller In Cold Blood.

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. It was typical of his specialty, portraying tough guys with soft hearts, and its signature line “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time” was often quoted.

Blake outside court in 2004

Blake was nominated for an Emmy in 1977 for his portrayal of Tony Baretta, although behind the scenes the show was racked by disputes involving the temperamental star. He later admitted to struggles with alcohol and drug addiction in his early life. In 1993, Blake received another Emmy nomination for the title role in Judgment Day: the John List Story

In 1993, Blake won another Emmy for the title role 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 Lost Highway, released in 1997.

According to his niece, Blake spent his recent years “enjoying jazz music, playing his guitar, reading poetry and watching many Hollywood classic films.”

Blake married the actor Sondra Kerr married in 1961 and they had two children, Noah and Delinah. They divorced in 1983.

His fateful meeting with Bakley came in 1999 at a jazz club where he went to escape loneliness. “Here I was, 67 or 68 years old. My life was on hold. My career was stalled out,” he said in a 2002 interview. “I’d been alone for a long time.”

He said he had no reason to dislike Bakley: “She took me out of the stands and put me back in the arena. I had something to live for.”

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 focus of his life. He married Bakley because of the child. “Rosie is my blood. Rosie is calling to me,” he said. “I have no doubt that Rosie and I are going to walk off into the sunset together.”

Prosecutors would claim that he planned to kill Bakley to get sole custody of the baby and tried to hire hitmen for the job. But evidence was muddled and a jury rejected that theory.

On her last night alive, the couple dined out. He claimed she was shot when he left her in the car and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a handgun he had inadvertently left behind. Police were initially baffled and Blake was not arrested until a year later.