Did you see Robert Blake on the “Piers Morgan Show” last week? You can catch up with it on the CNN website, even if it’s now become a series of bites or takes, with bleeps here and there. It was the movie of the week, where you couldn’t take your eyes off the screen and didn’t know what to believe. What more can you ask for?
First, the contestants: Piers Morgan is 47, six-feet-one and barely shy of 200 pounds, I’d guess. He has a plush, self-satisfied poker face, not too far from David Cameron. Rupert Murdoch appointed him editor of the News of the World, and he then moved on to run the Daily Mirror. In 2011, CNN brought him to America to fill the Larry King slot. He is smart on live television, and tougher than his the pretty-boy face would suggest. But he doesn’t know whether he is Edward Murrow or David Frost. He may guess how that dilemma crushed Frost, but still he can’t make up his mind.
Blake v. Morgan was not a fair fight. Blake is 78, five-feet-four, maybe 150 pounds and held together by a scowl of narcissism and self-loathing. He is also known as “Bobby Blake” and Mickey Gubitosi. He was a professional actor from the age of five in the Our Gang series. He had a vivid bit part in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (he sells Bogart the lucky lottery ticket); he was John Garfield as a boy in Humoresque; he would have lead roles in In Cold Blood and Tell Them Willie Boy is Here; and he had a hit TV show in the mid-70s, “Baretta” (created by Stephen J. Cannell, a touchstone of quality), where he was an eccentric, rascal, undercover cop. If you aren’t haunted by the face of Robert Blake, just look at his “Mystery Man” cameo in David Lynch’s Lost Highway (1997).
When that man, with another 15 years and the experience of murder, wearing a sleeveless vest and a black cowboy hat , stared into the groomed pulp of Piers Morgan’s face, it was never a fair fight. But Morgan was able to handle himself: He let Blake ramble, roam and roar. He played a suave Fool to this unexpected Lear.
Blake took offense wherever he could glimpse or smell it. He said he had been insulted. He cursed. He said Morgan had called him a liar. He wondered why the insignificant murder case had to be brought up. And then he slunk into inwardness and admitted he had a thin skin—that was why he didn’t usually like to be with people. But he “loved” Morgan and trusted him, and anyway he was there to sell a book, Tales of a Rascal: What I Did for Love (Black Rainbow), which is #150 on Amazon.
Do I have to talk about the murder? Very well. On May 4, 2001, Blake took his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley, to Vitello’s Restaurant in Studio City. He had met Bonnie Lee two years earlier. He didn’t love her, he says now; he suspected she was a scam artist; but she gave him the greatest gift—a baby daughter, named Rose. She did tell him she wasn’t sure whether the girl was his daughter or the child of Christian Brando, one of Marlon’s sons. DNA tests confirmed Blake was the dad, and so the couple married. His second, her tenth.
Bakey left Vitello’s that night to sit in a parked car round the corner. Blake said he went back to the restaurant to get a gun he had left there (you now how easily that’s done), a .38. When he returned to the car, moments later, Bakey was dead, shot in the head with a 9 mm pistol. Robert Blake was charged with murder with special circumstances. He spent nearly a year in jail awaiting trial, but on March 16, 2005 he was found not guilty. Then, within months, three of Bakey’s children filed a civil suit against Blake, accusing him of being responsible for his mother’s death. There was inconclusive testimony that he might have hired the killer. He was found liable on the wrongful death charge and ordered to pay $30 million*. On appeal that sum was reduced by half. Still, Blake filed for bankruptcy, and was hit by a tax lien from the state of California. He has not worked since Lost Highway, but now he has written his book.
Piers Morgan asked whether Blake was insane. It did not seem an unreasonable question, though Blake could have won the TV court over by chuckling and saying, no, he was just an actor. An instant later, with a snarl, he might have claimed insult, no matter that the ugly words were largely his own. On the air, Blake was pungent, revealing (in the way actors are hired to reveal truths), colorful, frightening, lovable and always speaking in the deep-etched sincerity of “lines.” This is not uncommon in elderly actors who have long since confused their professional scenarios with the way they handle life.
The greatest farce in the “Morgan Show” was its stale assumption that this was investigative journalism, where the pious Piers claimed no agenda except seeking the truth. Morgan was building ratings just as Blake was trying to sell a book. I’m sure they both came out of it with satisfaction, and Blake managed to be so camera-ready he may get other offers—if not quite as distinguished as the one from David Lynch.
We have been this way before. O.J. had his stunning silent season (an event that helped keep the camera and film equipment rental business in Los Angeles alive for a year) and then the obligatory sequel, the civil rights wrongful death re-make that put him in prison eventually and took away every trace of confidence. Simpson looks like a mooch now, whereas Blake is a furious goblin who talks the talk and walks the walk. In his most respectable movie role, Perry Smith in In Cold Blood (1967), he was a killer, the one with more heart—two later films on that story, Capote and Infamous, have turned Perry into a tragic figure, and in Infamous he was actually played by Daniel Craig (you knew that, you buffs). Whereas the name of the victim family in Holcomb, Kansas, may not come up as quickly in the daily contest of trivia and dementia. That name was Clutter.
I wouldn’t believe much Robert Blake said, not because of his madness or lying, but because he is a chronic actor now, a pinball skittering from one chiming story to another. But he believes in every word and hesitation. He’s a natural unnatural, not just mysterious but body-snatched. I’d cast him like a shot.
*An earlier version of this piece stated that Blake was convicted on a wrongful death charge. We regret the error.