Robert Blake

Active - 1938 - 2014  |   Born - Sep 18, 1933   |   Genres - Drama, Western, Action, Crime, Comedy

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Wide-eyed little Bobby Blake began his acting career as an Our Gang kid and eventually matured into one of Hollywood's finest actors. Born Michael Gubitosi, the boy was two years old when he joined his family vaudeville act, "The Three Little Hillbillies." The act was doomed to failure, as were most of the pipe dreams of the Gubitosi family. Relocating from New Jersey to California, Michael's mom found work for her kids as extras at the MGM studios. The young Gubitosi impressed the producers of the Our Gang series, and as a result the six-year-old was elevated to star status in the short subjects series. Little Mickey Gubitosi whined and whimpered his way through 40 Our Gang shorts, reaching an artistic low point with the execrable All About Hash (1940). During his five-year tenure with the series, the boy anglicized his professional name to Bobby Blake. Freelancing after 1944, Blake's performing skills improved immeasurably, especially when he was cast as Indian sidekick Little Beaver in Republic's Red Ryder series. He also registered well in his appearances in Warner Bros. films, playing such roles as the younger John Garfield in Humoresque (1946) and the Mexican kid who sells Bogart the crucial lottery ticket in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948). Though sporadically happy in his work (one of his most pleasurable assignments was the otherwise forgettable Laurel and Hardy feature The Big Noise, 1944), Bobby Blake was an unhappy child, weighed down by a miserable home life. At 16, Blake dropped out of sight for a few years, a reportedly difficult period in his life. Upon claiming a 16,000-dollar nest egg at age 21, however, Blake began turning his life around, both personally and professionally. He matriculated into a genuine actor rather than a mere "cute" personality, essaying choice dramatic roles in both films and TV. He starred in the Allied Artists gangster flick The Purple Gang (1960), played featured roles in such films as PT 109 (1963), Ensign Pulver (1964), and The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), and guest starred on dozens of TV shows. In 1963, he was one of 12 character actors amalgamated into the "repertory company" on the weekly anthology series The Richard Boone Show; he spent the next 26 weeks playing everything from agreeable office boys to fevered dope addicts. His true breakthrough role came in 1967, when he was cast as real-life multiple murderer Perry Smith in Richard Brooks' filmization of In Cold Blood. Even after this career boost, Blake often found the going rough in Hollywood, due as much to his own pugnacious behavior as to typecasting. He did, however, star in such worthwhile efforts as Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969) and Electra Glide in Blue (1973). Blake achieved full-fledged stardom at last with his three-year (1975-1978) starring stint on the TV cop series Baretta, adding to his already sizeable fan following via several lively, tell-all guest appearances on The Tonight Show, The Merv Griffin Show, and several other video chat fests. Despite his never-ending battles with the ABC executives during the Baretta run, Blake stuck out the series long enough to win an Emmy, and even got to direct an episode or two.

Forming his own production company, Blake made several subsequent tries at TV-series success: Hell Town (1985), in which he starred as a barrio priest, lasted 13 weeks, while the private-eye endeavor Jake Dancer never got past its three pilot films. He has been more successful with such one-shots as the TV miniseries Hoffa (1983), in which he played the title character with chilling accuracy, and the 1993 TV biopic Judgment Day: The John List Story, which earned him another Emmy. His later film appearances were in hard-nosed character parts, such as 1995's The Money Train, and he landed a plum (albeit terminally odd) lead role in David Lynch's postmodern thriller Lost Highway (1997), as a clown-faced psychopath who plays bizarre mind games with a suburban couple. Though he's managed to purge some of his personal demons over the years, Robert Blake remains as feisty, outspoken, and unpredictable as ever, especially when given an open forum by talk show hosts.

In 2001, Blake generated headlines once again, though this time off-camera and in an extremely negative vein. The mysterious murder of wife Bonnie Lee Bakely sent the tabloids into a furious frenzy of speculation and accusation. Arrested for the murder of Bakely in April 2002, Blake's future looked increasingly grim as evidence continued to mount against him. Nevertheless, in March 2005 the actor was completely exonerated of all accusations surrounding Bakely's death and narrowly escaped a life sentence in prison. His on-camera activity remained extremely infrequent, however. Late in 2005, the press reported the outcome of a civil trial involving Bakely's homicide, in which Blake was required to pay an estimated $30 million to her children.

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