The Robert Blake Saga: From Little Rascal to Big, Terrifying Rascal

Robert Blake (Michael James Gubitosi) came into the world in Nutley, New Jersey on January 18, 1933.  When he was three years old, his parents (who had their own song and dance act) put Mickey (as he was originally known) into a kiddie act with his siblings called The Three Little Hillbillies.

In 1939, at the age of six, he was cast in his first film role, that of Toto in the movie Bridal Suite with Robert Young and Annabella. At around the same time Hal Roach cast him in the Our Gang series, where he played the role of Mickey from 1939 through 1944, which was the end of its run. By the final years, Mickey had gone from being a sometime bully to the main kid in the series. He was 11 when production ended.

The talented child star then stepped into yet another film series, playing the role of Little Beaver in 22 Red Ryder westerns from 1944 through 1946.  Westerns would be a staple of his career through the 1960s in both film and television. His rough-hewn exotic looks got him frequently cast as Native Americans or Mexicans, or other non-Anglos. In actuality (and this is too seldom mentioned, maybe because of his misleading pseudonym) he was one of the first Italian-American movie stars.

Much like fellow Little Rascal Jackie Cooper, Blake managed to keep his career going through childhood, adolescence and adulthood, a rare feat for a former kiddie star. He’s in The Big Noise (1944) with Laurel and Hardy; The Horn Blows at Midnight (1945) with Jack Benny, and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948) as the Mexican Boy selling lottery tickets. In 1947, he co-starred in The Return of Rin Tin Tin, the third incarnation of the popular film series, but unlike the first two, it didn’t continue past this one film. (It later came back yet again as a tv series).

In 1950, Blake was drafted and served in the army for two years. When he returned to the business it was now as an adult actor. He worked constantly on television throughout the 1950s, mostly on western and war series. Throughout the sixties, he continued the tv work but also got more film roles. His notable movies include: Pork Chop Hill (1951), The Purple Gang (1959), Town Without Pity (1961), PT 109 (1963), The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965), This Property is Condemned (1966), In Cold Blood (1967), and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here (1969).

In retrospect, In Cold Blood appears as a kind of career benchmark. Based on Truman Capote’s earth-shaking bestseller, the first “non-fiction novel”, it tells the true story of petty criminals Dick and Perry (Blake and Scott Wilson) who brutally murdered a Kansas family during an armed robbery/ home invasion. Shot in black and white (which had become rare by 1967), the film and the book it was based on has always seemed to me an odd foreshadowing of the Tate-LaBianca murders in 1969, an effect enhanced by the fact that Blake bears a physical resemblance to Charles Manson, who was just beginning to form his “Family” at the time In Cold Blood came out. Like Eye of the Devil (1967) and The Fearless Vampire Killers (1967) (Both Sharon Tate horror films, the latter one directed by and co-starring Roman Polanski), and Kenneth Anger’s Lucifer Rising which featured Bobby Beausoleil, and the many westerns shot on the Spahn Ranch, In Cold Blood would be a key component in any good Charles Manson film festival (unlike a good many of the films made about the actual events). H’m…I may have to do this! And, of course, the cold blooded murder that has overshadowed Blake’s last several years is not irrelevant either. We’ll get back to that in a minute. Because next we have Blake’s best known role!

Blake as Baretta. Does he or he not look more than a little Mansonesque?

Blake had famously turned down the role of Little Joe on Bonanza back in 1959. He did not make the same mistake when he was offered the lead in a retooled version of the series Toma (1973-1974) which had starred Tony Musante. When Musante left after a single season, the character was renamed Baretta and the part was offered to Blake. Baretta was a chameleon-like undercover cop in a gritty unnamed city. The show was full of colorful touches. Baretta had a pet cockatiel named Fred for a mascot, and his confidential informant was a pimp named Rooster (Michael D. Roberts). The theme song, sung by Sammy Davis Jr., featuring the legendary lyrics “Don’t do the crime, if you can’t do the time.” And Baretta had these catchphrases, “You can take dat to the bank!” and “Dat’s de name o’ dat tune”. The series ran from 1975 through 1978, and Blake was a frequent presence on tv talk shows during these years, acting all cocky and jerky, almost like he and Baretta had merged into a single monster somehow.

Machismo was a thing in the ’70s, and guys like Robert Conrad and Burt Reynolds got a lot of press by running off their mouths, acting like tough guys and making jokes about the women’s movement and so forth. I associate Blake with that pop trend. Also, the guy clearly worked out. That also became a thing around this time — Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name was beginning to creep into popular culture as a champion bodybuilder. So, needless to say, from the ages of 10 to 13, I was way into this show, along with Starsky and Hutch, which it much resembled, it was one of my favorites.

When Baretta went off the air, Blake starred in three tv movies as another detective named Joe Dancer from 1981 to 1983.  He worked steadily through the mid 1980s. He co-starred with Randy Quaid in a tv version of Of Mice and Men (1981). He played Jimmy Hoffa in the tv movie Blood Feud (1983) which got an enormous amount of attention at the time. He starred as a tough priest in the series Hell Town (1985). After this, just a couple of things. He played the title character (yet another sick killer) in Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993), for which he was nominated for an Emmy and which we mentioned in this earlier post. And he was the Mystery Man in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997).

In 1999, Blake’s life changed drastically. That was the year when he met and began dating Bonnie Lee Bakley, a woman with a track record as a scam artist, pornography distributor, and stalker of celebrities. In 1996 she had begun dating Christian Brando after he emerged from prison for murdering his sister’s boyfriend. In 2000 she gave birth to a daughter, whom she initially named Christian Shannon Brando. When a DNA test showed that it was Blake’s child, he married Bakley, and the child was renamed Rose Lenore Sophia Blake. The marriage was made for legal and social reasons; Blake treated Bakley warily, seemingly in full awareness that he had been played. The two lived in separate houses, and Blake hired a private eye to spy on her, like something out of one of his own shows.

In May, 2001, Bakely was shot dead while sitting in Blake’s car around the corner from the Italian restaurant where they had just eaten dinner. The circumstances were strange to say the least. Blake claimed he walked back to the Italian restaurant to leave off a gun (another gun) for safekeeping. It later came out that he had attempted to hire hit men to eliminate her. He was eventually acquitted of her murder due to lack of hard evidence but was sued for wrongful death by Bakley’s three older children in 2005 and held liable, with a judgment of $30 million against him. I don’t know if he did the crime, but he did do some time. These days he doesn’t look quite so adorable as he once did.

For more on the alum of Our Gang, please check out my 100th anniversary podcast episode here.