History & Headlines

Robert Blake Turns 83, Part 2

Robert Blake, Part 2: Baretta to Murder Charges & Retirement (1969-2016)

robert blake 1976, american actor, 1970s television series, baretta, fred the cockatoo, former child star(Robert Blake & Fred the Cockatoo, 1976 Baretta Photo: ABC TV | Wikimedia Commons)

Recovered from his depression, and with the success of In Cold Blood on his resume, former child actor Robert Blake found starring and co-starring movie roles beginning in 1969 with the Native American crime drama Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969). In Tell Them Willie Boy is Here, Robert Blake starred as the title character Willie Boy, on the run and pursued by Robert Redford (his co-star from This Property is Condemned) as Deputy Sheriff Cooper. Actress Katharine Ross played his on-screen girlfriend Lola.

Robert Blake was nominated for a Golden Globe Award as Best Actor in a Motion Picture – Drama for his performance in the crime film Electra Glide in Blue (1973); the next year, he co-starred with Elliott Gould in the crime comedy Busting (1974). 

robert blake 1975, american actor, former child star, baretta, cockatoo fred, 1970s tv series, senior citizen(Robert Blake as Detective Tony Baretta, with his pet cockatoo Fred 1975 Photo: ABC Television)

Baby boomers may remember Robert Blake best from his starring role on television as undercover New York Detective Tony Baretta in Baretta (1975-1978). Wife Sondra Blake guest-starred twice on Baretta. His performances in Baretta were critically acclaimed throughout the series 3-year run, and Robert Blake won the 1975 Emmy Award for Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series (and was nominated again in 1977), as well as winning the 1976 Golden Globe Award for Best Actor in a Television Series (tied with Telly Savalas for Kojak).

In a series of talk show appearances to promote Baretta, Blake bared his soul and his previous drug abuse, telling Merv Griffin “I’ve sold dope, used it, snorted it, done everything you can do to it.”  

Blake took a few years off after filming on Baretta ended, before returning to the movies and television work in 1980 with a role in the big-screen romantic comedy Coast to Coast (1980), co-starring with Dyan Cannon, Quinn Redecker, and Michael Lerner. In the comedy Second-Hand Hearts (1981) Robert Blake co-starred with Barbara Harris; his wife Sondra Blake also appeared.

On television, he helped create and played the role of hard-boiled private detective Joe Dancer in TV movies The Big Black Pill (1981), The Monkey Mission (1981), and Murder 1, Dancer 0 (1983).

Blake served as executive producer on the Joe Dancer movies, as well as on the TV movie Of Mice and Men (1981). Robert Blake played drifter George Milton to Randy Quaid as Lenny Small in Of Mice and Men; others in the cast included Ted Neeley as Curley, and Pat Hingle. Blake’s wife Sondra Blake appeared in each of these movies. The following year, Sondra and Robert Blake separated (1982) and were divorced in 1983.

In 1983, a now 50+ Robert Blake starred in the TV movie Blood Feud as Jimmy Hoffa. A dramatization about Senator Robert Kennedy’s pursuit of Jimmy Hoffa, the large cast of Blood Feud included Ernest Borgnine as J. Edgar Hoover, Danny Aiello, Edward Albert, Brian Dennehy, Jose Ferrer, and Michael Lerner (his co-star from Coast to Coast). Robert Blake was nominated for both a Golden Globe and Emmy Award for Lead Actor for his performance as Jimmy Hoffa in Blood Feud.

After another couple of years away from film, Robert Blake created, wrote, and starred in the TV movie Hell Town (1985), which may have been partially inspired by his experience in the Army in Alaska. Blake played Catholic priest Father Noah ‘Hardstep’ Rivers in the movie.

The TV movie inspired the 1985 TV series of Hell Town, which Blake also starred in. His co-stars in the television series included his old acting teacher Jeff Corey, and Vonetta McGee as Sister Indigo. Hell Town was cancelled after 13 episodes when Blake abruptly quit, suffering a nervous breakdown. 

He told the Los Angeles Times that the stress from the aftermath of his divorce and work on the series, as well as other film projects, was more than he could handle. 

I’d be so uptight I could hardly breathe…My heart hurt, my soul hurt. I’ve always been a fierce competitor and a perfectionist, but during ‘Hell Town’ I only remember being terrified. One morning I realized I was only days–maybe hours–away from sticking a gun in my mouth and pulling the trigger.”

Robert Blake took 7 years off after his breakdown, got psychiatric help with a new therapist, and finally returned to film in the TV movie Judgement Day: The John List Story (1993), a true crime drama about churchgoing John List, whose wife and three children are killed in their house. Robert Blake starred as John List, and Beverly d’Angelo played his wife Helen List; two of their daughters were played by Carroll Baker (Alma List) and Melinda Dillon (Eleanor List), and David Caruso appeared as Police Chief Bob Richland. Judgement Day: The John List Story has been Robert Blake’s last television credit. Below, Robert Blake, Beverly D’Angelo, and David Caruso are featured in a promo clip for Judgement Day: The John List Story.

He made two big-screen feature films before he became a senior citizen in 1998; in the crime comedy Money Train (1995), Robert Blake co-starred with Wesley Snipes, Woody Harrelson, Jennifer Lopez, and Chris Cooper. His last feature film credit was in the David Lynch thriller Lost Highway (1997), starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette.

The movie trailer for Lost Highway features a heavily made up Robert Blake, Bill Pullman, and Patricia Arquette.

66-year-old senior citizen Robert Blake met 43-year-old failed actress, failed model, and successful con artist Bonnie Lee Bakley in a jazz club in 1999, and they began dating. By the time they met, Bonnie Lee Bakley had already acquired a long list of arrests for nude picture and lonely hearts mail-order scams, as well as drug possession and passing back cheques since the 1980s. In 1998 she was arrested for having 5 driver’s licenses and 7 Social Security cards, all under different names.

Bonnie Lee Bakley was obsessed with meeting celebrities and her goal was to marry one; she pursued singer Jerry Lee Lewis in the early 1990’s and claimed a child she had was his, until DNA tests disproved it. Other celebrities she pursued and claimed to have known included Dean Martin, Gary Busey, and Frankie Valli.

Before she met Robert Blake, Bonnie Lee Bakley was married 9 times, deserting one of her husbands within an hour (DeMart C. Besley) after getting married. She was also in a long-time relationship with Christian Brando (Marlon Brando‘s son). Bakley had begun writing Brando letters and sending pictures of herself to him while he was serving a 10-year prison sentence starting in 991 for murdering his sister’s boyfriend. Upon Christian Brando’s prison release in 1996, he and Bakley began a sexual relationship. Bakley got pregnant in 1999 and gave birth to a daughter she named Christian Shannon Brando in 2000, then told Robert Blake that he might be the father. A paternity test confirmed it, and the child’s name was changed to Rose Lenore Sophia Blake.  

In November of 2000, Robert Blake married Bonnie Lee Bakley after she agreed to a pre-nup that gave Blake temporary custody of Rose and monitored visits for Bakley. Bakley lived in a small guest house beside Blake’s house in the San Fernando Valley. Blake hired a private detective to gather information on Bakley, and discovered that she was still running her lonely hearts mail order scam. On May 4, 2001, Robert Blake and Bonnie Lee Bakley went to dinner at Vitello’s, a restaurant that Blake often ate at. The couple went out to Blake’s car on a side street around the corner from the restaurant, and Blake said he returned to the restaurant to get a gun he had left there. He said he returned to the car to find Bakley still sitting in the passenger seat, shot in the head. 

In April 2002 Robert Blake was arrested and charged with first degree murder with special circumstances and 2 counts of solicitation of murder of his wife; he was held in jail without bail until his murder trial ended. Blake’s bodyguard Earle Caldwell was charged with murder conspiracy, and Blake paid his legal bills. During Blake’s criminal trial, it was found that the gun he said he retrieved from the restaurant wasn’t the one that killed Bakley. In March 2005, a jury found septuagenarian senior citizen Robert Blake not guilty of murder and 1 of the counts of solicitation; they were deadlocked 11-1 in favor of acquittal on the other count so the charge was dropped. All charges against Caldwell were dismissed. 

In November 2005, a civil trial against Robert Blake and Earle Caldwell cleared Caldwell but found Robert Blake liable for Bakley’s death. Bakley’s family sued for damages in 2005 and Blake was ordered to pay $30 million, an amount that was reduced to $15 million after the civil suit appeal verdict was upheld in April 2008. Meanwhile, Robert Blake filed for bankruptcy in February 2006, claiming debts of $3 million for unpaid taxes and legal fees.

Below, an older Robert Blake talked to CNN’s Piers Morgan in 2012 about the death of his wife Bonnie Lee Bakley.

Since his release from jail in 2005, Robert Blake has (mostly) stayed out of the limelight, although he did write and self-publish an autobiography Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love in 2012. He has said he would like to have one more great role, and that he might return to work for financial reasons.

Below, a look at Robert Blake during some key phases of his career, from left to right: As Detective Tony Baretta in the 1970’s tv series Baretta (Photo: ABC Television) 1970s); guest-starring on an episode of 26 Men in 1957; and as child actor Little Beaver from the 1940’s Red Ryder western films.

robert blake 1970s, american actor, 1957, 1950s television series, guest star, 1940s child actor, red ryder movies, little beaver(Robert Blake Montage: Senior City

*Images are public domain or Creative Commons licensed & sourced via Wikimedia Commons, Vimeo, YouTube, or Flickr, unless otherwise noted*

Previously: Robert Blake, Part 1: Child Actor on Little Rascals to In Cold Blood (1933-1967)

Anita Hamilton

50+ World editor & baby boomer writer Anita Hamilton has always been interested in the "real people" stories behind the characters that create and inhabit the world of music, books, movies, television shows, current events, history, etc. A lifelong love of research (ok, nosiness) and writing, combined with a loving and supportive family complete with 3 mini-dachshund minions, keeps her busy.


Mary DiOrio July 30th, 2017 at 3:27pm

I always wanted to meet Mr Blake. I never believed he killed his wife, I still dont. Something about him, his openness and honesty about his own life, his emotional character, and just the fact that he MARRIED Bonnie! He didn't have to.
Anyway, every time I see anything about him (I've been curious about the baby with Bonnie) and read "the man accused of killing..." Why? It isn't fair and certainly isn't kind to his daughters.

D.D. October 12th, 2016 at 11:50am

Fascinating. I live in LA. I remember this case quite well. I also remember the John List Case (book and movie) and In Cold Blood (book and movie). All of his roles were Memorable.

I happened to look at an article about child actors who died after fame, including one buried at a Potter's Field. I wondered how this former child actor was doing. In my mind anyone can lead a reasonably content life - provided you never touch drugs or alcohol.

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