45 Years Ago: ‘Baretta’ Premiere Echoes Robert Blake’s Dark Future
Robert Blake, an actor who rose to his widest fame playing a street-smart detective in TV's Baretta, returned to headlines in 2001 when his wife was gunned down after dinner at an Italian eatery in Sherman Oaks, Calif.
Unfortunate similarities with the premiere episode of Baretta, which aired on Jan. 17, 1975, didn't help his defense. Nevertheless, Blake was eventually cleared in the murder of Bonny Lee Bakley, who was shot twice while sitting in a car parked near Vitello's restaurant. The actor said he went back inside to get a forgotten handgun. No one else was ever charged.
"Obviously, as a Robert Blake fan, I don't want to believe he had any involvement in it," Carl Hose, a Missouri man who created the first website devoted to detective Tony Baretta, told Newsweek in 2001. "Frankly, it sounds like an episode of Baretta. There was one in which he was going to get married – to the only girl he ever loved – and as they were coming out of a restaurant, a black car drove by with some mafia people in it and they open fire on him. But they got her instead and she ended up dying."
Titled "He'll Never See Daylight," that episode actually introduced the world to a straight-talking, cockatoo-loving master of disguise whose catchphrase was "Don't do the crime if you can't do the time." Blake seemed to fully inhabit the character's brash, impulsive nature, even off-screen, and that further complicated his defense.
"I designed Baretta as my ideal self; it was a lot of things that I wanted to be," Blake admitted in a 2019 interview with ABC News. "But people thought that was me, and they expected to find that when they met me. ... And it just ... wasn't true."
Tony Baretta vows revenge in "He'll Never See Daylight," ignoring protocol while seeking out the mobster (Joseph Mascolo's Frank Cassell) who ordered the hit that killed Baretta's girlfriend Sharon Fowler (Madlyn Rhue). In real life, Blake made no such pronouncements, only maintaining he was innocent of charges that he hired a former stunt double, whom he first met on the set of Baretta, to kill Bakley. Prosecutors said he wanted their only child for himself.
Sean Stanek, who lived near Vitello's at the time of the murder, called 911 after a frantic Blake began banging on his door. He raced to the car. "I open the door, I sit in next to her and I pull her up," Stanek told ABC. "I tell [Bakley] to squeeze my hand but all she's doing is gurgling, and there's just massive amount of blood everywhere."
That's when he noticed that Blake was holding a weapon. "I thought to myself, 'We're in deep shit," Stanek added. "This was a murder. This is your quintessential Hollywood murder noir story. This is it. Doesn't get bigger than that."
Police later determined that Blake's gun was not used in the shooting. Two main witnesses against him weren't seen as credible by jurors. But the damage was already done: Blake's lengthy career came to a sudden halt.
Listen to the Theme From 'Baretta'
Born Michael Gubitosi on Sept. 18, 1933, in Nutley, N.J., Blake began acting in the Our Gang series at age six. He also appeared in Red Ryder before garnering a memorable part in the 1948 Humphrey Bogart film Treasure of Sierra Madre. Blake moved to television after that, though movie parts continued to come to his way, notably in 1967's In Cold Blood. Baretta was considered a comeback after a string of films, including 1974's Busting, were largely ignored at the box office.
"I tried to make a human being out of a cop, and I tried to do a cop show and make social comment," Blake told The New York Times in 1977. "I had made four or five films that hadn't gotten me anyplace; I wanted as an artist to get a few things said to the American people. Only a few million people saw my movies, 20 to 30 million saw Baretta."
Still, trouble loomed. The mercurial Blake won a 1975 Emmy for Baretta, but – in a call back to earlier issues – battled constantly with the show's managers. He'd reportedly punched a TV director in the face years before. He also lost a chance at James Caan's role in Funny Lady when he became angry that Barbra Streisand made him audition.
Everything came to a head in 1977. As Baretta soared into the Top 10, Blake announced he wouldn't return. Universal promptly reworked his contract with an offer of more money and control over basically every element of the show. Blake returned, only to see ABC move Baretta to a different night. Ratings plummeted, and the show was canceled.
Blake's marriage dissolved too. By the time the now-divorced father of three met Bonny Lee Bakley in a Los Angeles nightclub in 1999, he'd endured a series of flops – including TV's short-lived Hell Town, which was basically Tony Baretta as a priest. Blake was reduced to bit parts in 1995's Money Train and 1997's Lost Highway.
Trial testimony claimed Bakley had been running a mail-order scam, conning older men and pursuing famous people for a number of years before connecting with Blake. When she became pregnant, Bakley initially said the child was fathered by someone else, before testing proved Rose – born in June 2000 – was Blake's. They hastily married, but Blake always believed that Bakley was killed by someone she'd earlier bilked.
"She led that kind of life, where she made a lot of enemies and somebody – somebody whose father was taken for a ride or something like that," Blake told Barbara Walters in 2005. "I don't know. I don't know."
Meanwhile, investigator Scott Ross remained certain Blake orchestrated the entire thing. "I do not believe for one second that he pulled the trigger," he told NBC News in 2016. "But yes, I do believe that he was involved." Whatever happened, Blake said he emerged from the trial penniless and unemployable. "If you want to know how to go through $10 million in five years, ask me how," he told The New York Times in 2005. "I was a rich man. I'm broke now."
Blake was then found liable for Bakley's death in a wrongful death case brought by her children in civil court, where the burden of proof is significantly lower. He appealed the decision and lost. The judgment initially ordered him to pay millions, before Blake reached an undisclosed settlement agreement.
He ended up living in a small apartment near the freeway, subsisting on Social Security and a stipend from his Screen Actors Guild pension – but still hopeful that more work would eventually come his way. "I've woken up some nights and wanted to drive till the car goes off a cliff – and an hour later, poetry is coming to me," Blake told the Associated Press a year after his acquittal. "I want to go act. I want to go teach. I want to dance."