Actor Robert Blake, Part 1

In part 1 of an exclusive two-part conversation, the Emmy-winning actor talks about the ghosts that haunt the living when they “get old,” the days he spent in jail before his acquittal on murder charges and the plan he believes God has for his life.

Robert Blake began his acting career at age 5 in MGM's Our Gang series and went on to appear as a powerful adult performer in leading and character roles. Following his breakthrough role as real-life multiple murderer Perry Smith in the film adaptation of In Cold Blood, he reached stardom with his Emmy-winning three-season star turn on the popular TV cop series Baretta. He also played the title character in the TV miniseries Hoffa and won another Emmy for his performance in the TV biopic Judgment Day: The John List Story. In recent years, Blake has maintained a very low profile.


Tavis: Before his sensational murder trial that made headlines around the world, Robert Blake was best known for his starring role in the classic ’70s detective series, “Baretta.” Long before his adult fame he was little Bobby Blake starring in the popular “Our Gang” series from MGM, better known as “The Little Rascals.”

But in 2001 Blake’s life was changed forever following the murder of his wife, Bonnie Lee Bakley.

One year later, Blake was charged with his wife’s murder and later acquitted, but in 2005 Blake was found liable in a wrongful death suit which resulted in a multimillion dollar penalty. Less than a year later he was bankrupt.

Tonight, in his first conversation in years, Blake speaks about his murder trial, his acquittal and the civil judgment that left him bankrupt.

But he started our conversation by talking about his very personal history with our historic Hollywood studio.

[Previously recorded Robert Blake interview]

Robert Blake: You have no idea of how weird this is.

Tavis: Uh-huh?

Blake: I’ll just give it to you very briefly. This studio here, I started working here back in 1938 or ’39, but in the ’50s I must have made 15 or 20 pictures here, all of them in one week. “Revolt in the Big House,” “Rumble on the Docks,” “The Purple Gang,” “Miami Expose,” “The Tijuana Story,” “The Korean Story,” and I just found out that when we finish today they’re going to close this joint.

So it’s like I came out of the La Brea Tar Pits (laughter) to come here like the ghost from lot three roaming around.

Tavis: Yeah.

Blake: I can’t believe it, man. I just – it’s really weird. I was walking around, saying, “I got in a fist fight right there with Timothy Carey and he started crying because I broke his Mickey Mouse watch.” “Over there, I was backstage with a girl, doing what I wasn’t supposed to be doing, when they was looking for me to do what I was supposed to be doing.” (Laughter) This whole studio is really strange like that. The ghosts come pouring in. But then that’s what happens when you get old, there’s ghosts everyplace.

Anyway, that’s the story of that.

Tavis: When I was told that you were coming to the studio lot about an hour early just to kind of walk around and see the place, I realized then that this lot was not that unfamiliar to you, and it is interesting and strange that on our last day taping on the – we’ve been here for eight or nine years now.

We’re moving to a brand new studio for our ninth season here on PBS, so you’ll see a brand new studio, a brand new set, brand new everything for our ninth season. But our last day taping here, you come back and you spent all the time on this lot back in the ’30s.

Blake: My whole life is pretty weird to start with. Somebody asked me, I was saying, “You know, I can’t imagine what it must be like to be me.” I can’t get caught up with that. I take a little piece of it here, a little piece of it there, but when I wrote that thing and then I started looking at it and saying, “Damn, did I do all that?” Yeah, I’m 78 years old, but even that’s like 150 years worth of stuff.

All the times when I should have been dead and could have been dead and wanted to be dead and all that, and God always said, “No, not just yet. We’re going to take you up and set you here because I got something else for you to do. You’ve got to go sit down and talk to that guy.” (Laughs)

Tavis: I am glad you came to talk to this guy, and there is – when I got a chance to read this book, and you sent me the book and we made a deal that I would go through the book before you came on, which I like to do for most of my guests anyway.

But I wanted to go through it and I want to get to that rich history, because you are 78 now and you’ve lived more life than most people in this town. (Laughter) I want to get to all that, but I want to start, so we can address this and move on, I want to start with the thing that so many people, whether you like it or not, and I suppose you probably don’t, whether you like it or not, so many people are going to remember you when you’re no longer here, whenever that is; I hope no time soon, they’re going to remember you, of course, for this murder trial.

I want to address that first and then get to all the rest of the richness that is your life, because I don’t think that any of us ought to be defined by one thing in our lives, but obviously, your life cannot be talked about without addressing that issue.

Blake: My good man, you don’t have to go anyplace else. I ain’t here to sell the book. I don’t have a record contract. I just – it was cool that you took my phone call, and that’s why I’m here. It was simple and it was easy, and I was up for murder and I spent a year in a cement box and everybody said, “How did you do that?”

But you could ask me that about anything in my life, because that biography is really a biography about God, because I ain’t smart and I ain’t tough, and I’m not a lot of things, but God has always had some kind of plan for me. I was not even supposed to be born. The coat hanger didn’t work. That’s how I got here and I’ve been here ever since.

I haven’t done anything since I was acquitted. When I was acquitted, Barbara Walters put me on a plane, I went to New York and I spent 20 minutes with her on her show, and since then I’ve just been wandering around, wandering around the country.

Tavis: Let me ask you, to your point now, since you were acquitted and since you sat down and talked to Barbara Walters, to your point you’ve not done anything. You’ve not talked to anybody, no interviews all these years later. Why now? Why decide to open up now?

Blake: It’s been a process. I felt terrible about being in this town. The other day I saw the location roster that’s – in show business, when somebody dies, you’ll say, “Oh, Peter Falk? Yeah, he’s on location. He’ll be back.” That’s how you deal with it.

Every year, there’s Peter Falk and Elizabeth Taylor, and I said, “When I croak, will they put me on the roster or don’t jailbirds belong there?” and I don’t care one way or the other. God has been on my shoulder since I got here. I couldn’t handle anything after the trial. I was $30 million in debt from some crazy civil trial which I should have never done in the first place.

I was suicidal. I didn’t give a damn what I was – if I drove off a cliff, it would be fine with me. Something in me put me in my car and I started driving, and as soon as I got out of this town I found out that there was a whole gang of people out there that loved me. They were like my family.

I could wind up in Moab, Utah, and walk in a pool room and somebody’d say, “Hey, Robert, grab a stick.” I stayed out there, and I stayed out there for a lot of years, broke. What happened was a strange thing – somebody – I live in a little cracker box apartment in the Valley, and next to me lives a woman who’s a computer nut.

She could do anything on the computer. She wrote the book for me. She put all the stuff together. She said, “Robert, you don’t have to travel around out there. You can stay here and deal with the people. Get a Facebook.” What the hell is a Facebook? I thought it was, like, something they fix your face with, I don’t know. (Laughter)

Tavis: Yeah, yeah.

Blake: She built this thing for me, and pretty soon here were these people in Duluth, Minnesota –

Tavis: In your house.

Blake: – saying Robert, what was it like – was Froggy a good guy? Was he a friend of yours? Did you and Buckwheat really steal – and I started talking to them. But not back-and-forth talk.

I said, well, okay, you want to know about “The Little Rascals?” so I wrote three or four or five pages and I gave it to them. Pretty soon, it got weird, because they started talking to each other and commenting on what I was saying and it was back-and-forth.

Now, I don’t have any people skills. I don’t have any social skills. All I’ve done since I was two years old is work. Everything else, I’m faking it. I couldn’t deal with that, because I didn’t know who the hell I was really talking to – whether it was somebody from Peoria or whether it was just – so I said, “Shut this thing down, I can’t do it, I’m going to get on the road again,” but I didn’t.

I kept on writing. I had no intentions ever in my life of writing a biography, and I’ve turned down a lot of money for other people when I was a big shot on “Baretta.” People said, “Here, we’ll give you a half-million dollars, we’ll write it. You ain’t got to do nothing.” (Unintelligible) But I kept writing.

Then pretty soon I went into my closet and I had three or four boxes that I hadn’t opened since I was – and they were all pictures. So I took the writing and I took the pictures –

Tavis: And bam.

Blake: – and I stuck them together and that was that. You want to talk about the murder trial –

Tavis: I want to ask you a specific question about that.

Blake: Go ahead.

Tavis: Let me jump in. I fully believe you when you say that as you got around for the time that you were out you ran into people who were clearly fans of yours. I grew up a fan of yours. My father watching this show right now was the biggest “Baretta” fan in the world, and because of my father – and I didn’t get a chance to spend – my father worked so much I didn’t get a chance to spend a lot of one-on-one time with my father and I’m one of 10 kids.

But the one thing my dad and I would do religiously was watch “Baretta.” So I grew up a Robert Blake fan, so I totally get that. But there are also a lot of people in the court of public opinion, not to be confused with your not guilty verdict in the courtroom.

Blake: The (unintelligible).

Tavis: So in the courtroom you’re found not guilty. In the court of public opinion, there’s still a lot of people who think that Robert Blake did something that he shouldn’t have done, that he may have even killed someone. How do you process people feeling that way about you?

Blake: I don’t know that I process it at all. I have never lived a life based on people’s opinions of me at all. It’s real simple with me. What you think of me ain’t none of my business, and what I think of me ain’t none of my business. What God thinks of me is everything.

If I’m right with the creator – and we don’t have to call it God; we could just call it – somehow or other, Robert Blake, somehow or other, Mickey Gubitosi got here. If they would have had $15 for Frank Sinatra’s mother, I wouldn’t have got here. If the coat hanger worked, I wouldn’t have got here. I hit the floor running when I was two years old, and God was on my shoulder.

I was dancing on the streets for nickels and dimes, and I’ve been that way all my life.

Tavis: So you are at peace with God about what you did and did not do on that night?

Blake: You’re getting a little weird now.

Tavis: No, I’m just asking questions.

Blake: Yeah, but that’s a weird question.

Tavis: No.

Blake: Like you’re supposing that maybe I did something but I’m at peace with God, because maybe I did something?

Tavis: No, I’m not – no, I’m not suggesting that. I’m just suggesting –

Blake: I didn’t do nothing. You know that, I know that, the cops knew that. That’s why they put me in jail for a year, because I was supposed to die in there and they were all going to get their book deals. But God outfoxed them, and I didn’t die. You want to try doing a year in a cement box by yourself with nobody, with nothing?

Tavis: Let me ask this question another way, then. If you are, to your point – and I didn’t mean to suggest anything by that – but if you are, in fact, at peace with God, whatever did or didn’t happen, why do you think, then – because I’ve asked myself these questions about my own life; not in this instance, but these kinds of questions.

Blake: Yeah.

Tavis: Why, then, do you think that the god that sits on your shoulder allowed you to go through that?

Blake: I don’t think he allowed me to go through it.

Tavis: He allows everything, either in his –

Blake: No, we have a difference of opinion.

Tavis: Go ahead, okay.

Blake: I believe that there is evil in the world.

Tavis: We agree on that.

Blake: I believe that there is an evil force.

Tavis: Absolutely.

Blake: That stuff floats around, man, and sometimes it lands on you, and when it does, you’d better hunker down, because you don’t know how long it’s going to be there. I have no real conviction why a beautiful little six-year-old child should die of cancer. I have no real conviction why tragedy is the lot of some and not of others, except to say that if all there was was God, we would have heaven on Earth a million years ago, when we first got here.

There must be evil forces. It’s just not natural that six million people need to get cooked.

Tavis: Let me ask this another way, then, because so far you’ve not said anything that I disagree with, but I do believe that when God allows us to go through things, there are lessons to learn. If he’s all-powerful and all-knowing and can do anything whenever he wants to, if you and I believe that, then there must have been a reason, and I’m just curious as to whether you’ve thought about it, whether or not –

Blake: I’ll give you a reason right now.

Tavis: Why do you think you went through that, why did you survive it, why did you endure it? What are the lessons learned?

Blake: I love my father with all my heart. He killed himself when he was 48 years old. I took care of him as best I could all my life. But when I was a kid, he used to lock me in closets in the dark when I was a year old, two years old. Maybe that’s why I survived in that cement box, and maybe that’s why I’m sitting here.

They put me in a cement box with no bail for a year, and they all had their book deals in place. Because anybody who dies in jail is guilty. They knew I was innocent. All their stuff, all their technical stuff proved I was innocent, but they all had their book deals.

We had tapes where the guy says, “Well, on the OJ deal, those guys got their book deals and they got famous. This is my turn. Blake is my guy,” but I didn’t die. I got out, and of course I was acquitted, because I was innocent, and you can’t get a book deal when a guy is innocent.

Tavis: Mm-hmm. To your point, the record is clear. You were found not guilty by a jury. The jury said in interviews afterwards they did not think the prosecutor made their case. The prosecution did not make their case.

Blake: They had no case to make.

Tavis: All right, so I’m just saying what the jury says. They didn’t make their case, they found you not guilty. Now, after, which you already referenced in this conversation earlier, there’s a civil case, and you are ordered to pay $30 million.

Blake: Yup.

Tavis: What did you make of that, and how’s that (unintelligible)?

Blake: I’ll tell you specifically. When the criminal trial was over, I got my heart broken. I got my soul broken. I wanted to die. Matter of fact, I tried to kill myself. And don’t ask me what it was, because I’m not going to tell you, but it’s something I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.

I was broke at the end of the criminal trial, but the whole world loved me, because they all knew that I was innocent. Everybody – when I walked out of the courthouse there were 9,000 people all waiting there, and I had to wait for 20 minutes for them to stop cheering. I was the king of the world.

But I committed suicide. When you have no money, you don’t go through a civil trial. I had to borrow $250,000. You don’t go through a civil trial. You say to the judge, “Judge, I don’t care. You make up your mind. I plead nolo contendere. Whatever you say, Judge, fine with me.”

God once again, his wonders to perform, to this day I don’t owe anybody anything, and I ain’t paid anybody a quarter. That’s another story and it’s a dull one, but it’s true. I don’t owe $30 million. I don’t owe nothing.

Tavis: Do you regret now in retrospect having gotten on the stand in that trial?

Blake: It wouldn’t have made any difference. I would have lost anyway. I would have lost if I had to punch the judge.

Tavis: But you wouldn’t have been out a quarter million dollars additional.

Blake: Oh, you mean if I didn’t hire a lawyer?

Tavis: Yeah.

Blake: No, if I didn’t hire a lawyer, no judge would have found me guilty. I was found guilty because if you’re on a jury, how are you going to get your name in the paper if you find Robert Blake not guilty? They already found him not guilty. The only way you can get someplace is to find him guilty, so everybody had their moment in the sun.

There shouldn’t have been any trial. There was no reason for me to go to trial. I was broke. Had no intention of ever doing anything else. I’m broke now, I don’t care. I’m broke now.

Tavis: Let me ask you another question about this, because you’ve said a few things here, and again, I don’t disagree with you on this but I want to get your take on it a little bit further.

I suspect there are folk right now watching who may not agree with you on certain things –

Blake: About what?

Tavis: About the verdict –

Blake: Go ahead, disagree with me.

Tavis: I’m not – listen –

Blake: Take their point of view, whoever they are.

Tavis: No, let me – that’s not my point. That’s not my point. Let me ask my question. What your view really is now of our criminal justice system, now that you’ve had to go through it a couple of different times. What do you make of our criminal justice system?

Blake: I think it’s pretty much like the rest of humanity right now, unfortunately. It is the best and the worst of us, and because people are in so much trouble right now and so frightened and so lost and things are going so wrong, it affects everything, whether it’s the banking system or the criminal justice system.

There is no morality. The point is to get through college as quick as you can, no matter how many tests you cheat on. I know a guy right now that’s going through college and his wife is taking his test.

Let me go back for one minute to how I survived, really. I was in there for a year. Now, there was a judge who kept me in there. He could have put me on the ankle bracelet. I was on the ankle bracelet for three years. I did a year in the can and three years under house arrest. He could have put me on house arrest the first day I was in there.

Why did he keep me? Why did he say no? I’m not a criminal. I never did a day. I was honorably discharged from the military, the cops all loved me because I was “Baretta” and I did electric light and all that. Why did that young judge say, “No, you’re going to stay in there? You’re going to stay in there. I say so.” Now what happens?

Barbara Walters, through a miracle of events, got in the jail and did an interview with me. Through a miracle of events, I could talk to you about 12 hours about that one issue, how God got her in the jail when nobody else could get in there. Barbara Walters got in there, did the interview, it was on the air.

The next day the judge put me on the ankle bracelet. Why? Because he took one look and said, “That guy is going to die and I don’t want to be his executioner. I don’t mind doing what the cops want me to do, but I ain’t going to kill that old (unintelligible).”

He let me out the next day. After Barbara Walters’ show was on the air, the next day he put me on the ankle bracelet and said, “Get him out of here.” Now, if that ain’t God, brother, you tell me what it is, because I not only was going to die, I wanted to die. I didn’t care anymore.

Tavis: In retrospect, how would you – what would you say to me about –

Blake: I wouldn’t change one thing about my life. There is no retrospect in my life.

Tavis: Well, that’s not my question.

Blake: Okay.

Tavis: My question is how would you describe what this part of your life, I’m talking now about the time in jail, the three years on the ankle bracelet, the criminal trial, the civil trial, how has this impacted the life of Robert Blake? How have you navigated your way through this?

Blake: I don’t believe I’ve ever navigated myself through anything. Like I said, if stress was going to kill me, I’d have never got out of the womb alive. I’m 78 years old. I’m not supposed to ride a motorcycle. I’m not supposed to eat red meat. I drink raw eggs. I drink a quart of milk a day. I do all kinds of things. God has been watching over me since I was conceived.

Now, this period of 10 or 12 years that I’ve been through, the good news is that you can’t kill a soul. You can kill a man, and you can cook him and eat him, but you’ll choke on his soul, and every day for the rest of your life you will choke on his soul.

Those cops and that judge – now don’t get me wrong, because Judge Darlene Shemp, who went through the criminal trial, saved my life. The first judge tried to kill me. The second judge saved me. So I have no qualms about humanity in total.

Yeah, you run into garbage all the time in life, and so far – it’s easy enough for me to say, “Oh, yeah, I’m tough; I made it through the jail. Oh, yeah, I’m wise, I picked the right lawyer. Oh, I did this.” I ain’t never done none of those things. I don’t know how to do anything except perform. I’m not even good at this.

I’m much better at entertaining you than I am at talking with you. I don’t have those kind of skills. Whatever plan God has for me, that plan is still in effect, and like I said, those 10 or 12 years, it breaks my heart, it breaks my heart that I can’t get it back again, but I would rather be me than the guys who did what they did to me.

They’ve got to choke on my soul. I sleep good. Every night I talk to the boss. I say, “Boss, did we do the best we could?” He said, “Yeah, go ahead, go to sleep. You don’t need any dope, you don’t need any hugging. Go to sleep. We’re okay,” and the next day.

But those people who put me in that cement box, the people who wanted to get their book deals, what are you holding in your hand? You’re holding my book, not their book, and that’s worth everything in the universe to me, because that means that me and the boss were on the right side all the way along or I’d never got out of that cement box.

I would have died in there. Just when I was going to die, the boss said, “You ain’t dying. Barbara Walters is coming, wake up. It ain’t time yet.” I’ve been on the edge of that abyss a million times in my life. Nobody would believe my life.”

[End previously recorded Robert Blake interview]

Tavis: Tomorrow, more of our exclusive conversation with Robert Blake, including his life as a child star and the TV fame of “Baretta.”

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Last modified: December 22, 2011 at 7:57 pm