The multiple Emmy winner continues his exclusive conversation with Tavis and reflects on his life as a child star and the TV fame of “Baretta.”
Actor Robert Blake, Part 2
Tavis: Last night on this program I explored the details of Robert Blake’s murder trial and its impact on his life since. Tonight, in part two of our exclusive conversation, Blake opens up about his life before the trial and the new book he’s written about his show business career.
[Begin previously recorded Robert Blake interview]
Tavis: I want to go back to the very beginning. You referenced it earlier and it wasn’t just a statement; this is real. But for the fact that your parents could not afford a $15 payment to the mother of Frank Sinatra –
Robert Blake: They had already paid her twice before that.
Tavis: They paid twice before.
Blake: They had two abortions before me.
Tavis: If they’d had $15 to pay Frank Sinatra’s mother to do what she had done before, you would have been aborted.
Blake: And if the coat hanger worked –
Tavis: And if the coat hanger that – since they didn’t have the money –
Blake: Twice she laid in bed for two weeks, bleeding.
Tavis: Twice they used a coat hanger, trying to do it themselves, and they (unintelligible).
Blake: And you know who was there when I was born? Nobody. I was delivered in the middle of the night by my father. I don’t even have a birth certificate. Nobody knows when I was born. I was born sometime between September 10th and 30 days after that. I didn’t even get a birth certificate until two years later, and it’s a forgery. It ain’t a real birth certificate.
The truth, just very, very, very briefly, and you can cut all this out that you want, because I don’t know what kind of timing we’re on here. Okay, two brothers, Tony and Jimmy. My mother was in love with Tony. She was a virgin. She said, “If you marry me, we’ll have sex.” Tony said, “No, we’re going to have sex now.”
She said no, but she loved him, so what’d she do? She started going out with Tony’s brother, Jimmy, and she married Jimmy and moved right across the street from Tony. Now she has two kids and she’s still waiting for Tony because she loves Tony.
Now she starts going across the street and fooling around with Tony. After two abortions she says, “I want Tony,” so she goes over there and she gets pregnant by Tony. Now she comes home and she says, “Tony, you have to marry me.” Tony says, “To hell with you.” He gets his girl and he moves away and gets married.
That’s my real father, Tony. Now Jimmy, who’s his brother, hates me, because he knows that she was fooling around with Tony. She hates what’s in her belly, because now she hates Tony. But I got here anyway.
I’m talking about a life that is nothing but miracles. You want to know how I got “In Cold Blood” when they wanted Steve McQueen and Paul Newman? You want to know how that bull (unintelligible) artist Jim Guercio, how I made “Electra Glide in Blue” and he took all the credit for it?
Everything in my life has been done; the fine-tuning has always been the boss. Yeah, I’m rowing the boat, there’s no question about that, but the boss is doing the steering. My whole life is that way.
Tavis: There is one word this wonderful acting career that is detailed in this book and that your fans know about, of course, this whole career hinges on one word. It was your ability to say one word as a child that the other child actor couldn’t say that got you –
Blake: “Confidentially, it stinks.” (Laughter)
Tavis: That’s it. Because at two years of age you could say the word “confidentially.”
Blake: Well, the reality is when I was an extra at MGM I knew that if you talked you got more attention. See what it says on the bottom of the book, “What I Did for Love?” My whole life is what I did for love. I took care of my father, a crazy drunk who used to knock me out when I was five or six years old. He would get drunk and I would drink with him. Then he’d teach me how to box and he would knock me out.
Tavis: I should jump in – you started drinking and smoking at age five.
Blake: Before that. They used to put wine on a rag when I was six months old to put me to sleep. Nobody gave a (unintelligible) whether I lived or died. When I got to the sidewalk and started dancing, that’s when I found love. People threw money. When you’re two years old you don’t have to do much to be cute, but I was talented.
Nobody ever had to teach me how to perform. I sang songs and I danced on that sidewalk and people threw money. They also gave money to the monkey, and I should have killed that monkey, because he didn’t have to do nothing. (Laughter) I had to dance my (unintelligible) off. When I got to MGM, I said, “I’m getting in there.”
When they would come out in the morning and say, “We need 20 kids for ‘The Little Rascals,'” I’d say (unintelligible) (singing) “I’m a dancer (unintelligible) shoes. When you play those -” that got me in there.
As soon as I realized that if you talk you got more money and you got attention, I said, “Watch this.”
Tavis: Speaking of “The Little Rascals,” racism obviously was alive and well then, and they tried to keep you away from your friend, Buckwheat.
Blake: No. When I was Mickey Gubitosi, Buckwheat was my best friend.
Blake: Now, I’m not saying I know what it’s like to be Black, but I damn sure know what it’s like not to be white, because at MGM there was white and there was everybody else. They had a couple of token Mexicans at the time because of the good neighbor policy.
Rich folks here were buying up Mexico so everybody was singing, and they had Ricardo Montalban, they had a few of those. When I got there, Buckwheat was my friend because my name was Gubitosi, and we hung out together, got to be very good friends. We did a lot of cool stuff together.
When I became Bobby Blake – now dig this – the boss of the studio was a Russian Jew with an accent. He sat me on his lap and I was going to star in a movie. That’s another story about how I became a star. It only took me three years, and my parents didn’t do it, nobody did it. Me and God did it.
Said, “You can’t have Dan Daly and Donna Reed for a mother and father and be Mickey Gubitosi. Give me some names.” (Unintelligible) He said, “Okay, you’re Bobby Blake. Now you’re one of us.” Those were his words – “Now you’re one of us.”
I moved out of “The Little Rascals” and I moved over to the other place with Elizabeth Taylor. She was my pal. We sang and danced. I loved her with all my heart. And I became a white kid. Now what’s weird is when I was in New Jersey I lived in an Italian community and we were A-number one. Italians were the best people in the world.
Now, Jews were human beings, but they were second-class human beings. They pushed carts and they bought pots and junk and those were Jews. They were – Black people were subhuman. They had all those weird names for them.
I was Italian, so I was it. Those people, those are Jews. My father used to play a game with me when I was dancing and singing. If I did it right, I got to go over to the couch and punch the pillow, and he’d say, “Hit the Jew on the head, hit the Jew on the head.” I didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, but that’s where that was at.
Now I come to MGM and it’s upside-down. The whole thing is upside-down.
Tavis: You’re on the bottom now.
Blake: I’m at the bottom.
Blake: I’m at the bottom, and guess who’s at the top? The Jews.
Tavis: And Buckwheat us underneath you.
Blake: Buckwheat is underneath – but I loved him with all my heart. He and I were gangsters together.
Tavis: Gangster kids. (Laughter)
Blake: We broke into candy machines, we stole people’s cigarettes, we did – Buckwheat and I did stuff together that when I go to Heaven he’s going to look at me and fall on the floor laughing.
Tavis: You mentioned Liz Taylor. Of course, she passed away, sadly, earlier this year. Big auction the other day; millions of dollars (unintelligible).
Blake: She was the same age I was, so we sat next to each other.
Tavis: And because you –
Blake: I couldn’t read or write.
Tavis: And she read and wrote for you.
Blake: “Once upon a midnight dreary, while I pondered, weak and weary, over many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore, suddenly there came a tapping, as of someone gently rapping at my chamber door. ‘Tis the wind, and nothing more.” “The Raven.”
She loved Edgar Allen Poe, and we would go out on the porch, especially in the rain, and she would read Edgar Allen Poe to me. Now, I have a weird brain. I’m severely dyslexic, but I’m also – I have brain damage, because my father used to knock me out.
I don’t use my eyes at all. I use my ears. If I listen to you, I know you inside-out. If I look at you, I get confused. I learn a beautiful group of chords on a guitar, if I don’t play them for two weeks, I forget the chords. I can still hear them and I can still sing them, but I can’t play them. I’ve learned to type 20 times. I don’t have any place to store that information. It leaves me.
Tavis: How do you learn your lines?
Blake: I learn everything here.
Tavis: So they’re read to you.
Blake: She used to read me Edgar Allen Poe and I would give it back to her. That’s how I became a star in “Mokey.” Another kid was supposed to test that day and he couldn’t test, so they came to “The Little Rascals” and said, “We need somebody who can learn the lines quick. We’ve got 20 minutes to get him on the set because he has to test with the leading ladies because the kid who’s going to star in the movie is sick.”
And Mrs. Carter said, “He can do it,” and they said, “What? He can’t do it, he can’t even read,” and I couldn’t read. She said, “Give me the pages.” She read the pages to me and said, “Mickey, give me the pages back,” and I gave her the pages back with everybody’s dialogue. And they said, “Come on, kid, you’re testing.”
After I tested they called the other kid and said, “Stay home,” (laughter) and that’s how I got to star in the movie, and that’s how Mickey Gubitosi became Bobby Blake, is because my ears, my ears have worked for me all my life. My brain is a weird brain to start with, and when I tell you I have no social skills, I mean that.
Remember what John Garfield taught me? Life is a rehearsal, your performance is real? That’s the story of my life.
Tavis: You keep saying “weird.” Maybe the way your brain works isn’t weird. Maybe you’re more gifted than the rest of us, or gifted, obviously, in a different way.
Blake: Well, I’m sort of a savant in some ways.
Blake: You know how savants learn stuff?
Tavis: You’re like “Rain Man” or something.
Blake: But that’s okay, because I’m still here. They haven’t opened up my chest yet. I’m still walking, I’m still dancing. I still enjoy looking at the ladies. It’s okay to be here. I don’t want to leave, but if I leave, I got no regrets, brother. I’m telling you from the bottom of my heart, it’s been a ride.
Whoever gets this seat better buckle up, because ain’t nothing easy about – this is a bull.
Tavis: Both nights in this conversation you have laid out your life story and it is a story in a very real way – actually, I’ll let you do that. Yeah, go ahead. Go ahead and get comfortable.
Blake: Go ahead, I’m good.
Tavis: The story of your life, in a very real way, is a story of not being wanted. Not being wanted by your parents, not being wanted by others, being forced to change by studios. How have you navigated –
Blake: But I’m not unique.
Tavis: No, no, but –
Blake: Natalie Wood was my very best friend and she was exactly the same way. I knew Michael Jackson through Spanky, and Michael was that way. Michael could never get enough. He could never get enough. The whole world loved Natalie, and it was never enough.
In a sad way, I have to admit that it is that way with me, that I still feel lonely at night, even if I’m in somebody’s arms. If you don’t connect in that way, in the magic of the birth canal, then you spend the rest of your life, there’s a place, like Natalie, like so many others that I’ve known, because we sort of hook up with each other.
If anybody is like me, I’m going to sort of find them, and you spend the rest of your life trying to get that woman that’s supposed to love you to take you to her breast and say, “I’m glad you’re here. Welcome to the world.”
Tavis: How is it – I’m really curious about this – how is it then that you create a life, that you build a life, that you advance a life when from the very beginning you don’t feel wanted? When from the very beginning you don’t feel loved. How do you get beyond that?
Blake: The indomitable spirit that God gives you. I believe your soul is separate from your mother. I believe your soul is separate from everything.
Tavis: I agree with that.
Blake: I believe that nobody can kill your soul except you, and that my, what some people have called incredible luck, some people have called indomitable spirit, some people have called amazing grace. I’ve had people say, “Robert, you were born in a state of grace. You had an angel on your shoulder.”
I don’t know which of those is true, but I know that it is true of all the people that I know that are like me.
Natalie, Natalie had to be a movie star, and it never was enough, but that’s okay because there are other gifts besides parental love. Can you imagine what it’s like to be eight years old and saying, “I’m going to get that job and I’m going to be a movie star?” That’s what I did when I was eight years old. When Ms. Carter said, “Read this stuff,” I read it and I said, “I’m going to get that job. I don’t care how has that movie, I’m going to get that job.”
When I read “In Cold Blood” in “Life” magazine, I said, “To hell with Paul Newman. I’m doing that part. It doesn’t always work, but all it has to do is work one time and you know that there’s something larger than you in life. How can I be 78 years old and not be dead? How come my hips still work and I haven’t eaten vegetables in 20 years? (Laughter)
I say feed the vegetables to the cow, and I’ll eat the cow. Every time I go to the doctor she looks at me and shakes her head. I smoked four packs a day – when you were watching “Baretta” I had Skoal in my lip. I had Red Man in my cheek, and I was smoking cigarettes.
Buckwheat and I used to follow people around. In those days they had ashtrays that were sand. That’s how people – as soon as they’d stick it in the sand, we’d take it out and smoke it. We used to smoke together. Buckwheat died very young. Everybody I know died very young.
Tavis: You said “Baretta,” and I can’t let this conversation end without talking about “Baretta.” So just tell me about that show.
Blake: Well, I’ll give you a very brief –
Tavis: One of the greatest theme songs in the history of television.
Blake: I wrote those words.
Tavis: I know, and Sammy Davis Jr. killed it.
Tavis: I loved it.
Blake: Keep your eye on the sparrow when the going gets narrow.
Tavis: When the going gets narrow.
Blake: And there were some dirty words.
Tavis: Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time. No, don’t do it.
Blake: Don’t drink –
Tavis: Don’t go to bed with a price on your head. No, don’t do it.
Blake: Don’t put your feet on a one-way street.
Tavis: (Laughs) Don’t do it.
Blake: There’s a whole lot (unintelligible).
Tavis: Oh, okay. (Laughs)
Blake: The tragedy is, and I’ll be very brief –
Blake: People do a series. Now, you can follow this, you’re a show business guy. You do a series when you’re on the way up or when you’re on the way down. Peter Falk started by doing a series. He became a movie star. When he was still doing the movie star, he did a series. Jimmy Garner did the same thing.
I was a movie star. I was working in great films with great people, and I went and did a series with no reason in the world to do it, and I’ve done things like that all my life. So far, so good. The guy who jumps off the Empire State Building, as you’re going from one window, “I’m still doing okay.”
I don’t know why I did “Baretta.” I had other movies to do. I just did “Willie Boy.” I had movies. I was cooking. I was at the top of my game. “Electra Glide in Blue” was a very successful picture. Michael Eisner was the head of ABC; he wasn’t the head of it, but he was a big deal, and he said, “I want that guy in a cop show.”
Universal called me and I said, “Okay.” We don’t have time for a pilot. ABC was, like, the bottom of the barrel. Michael Eisner was buying whatever the hell he could find on the streets, and he figured if that guy’s sucker enough to do a series right now when he’s a movie star, I’m going to buy him.
If I’m on my game, if I’m cooking, if I’m really smoking, as God as my judge, you can give me the telephone book and I can make the whole world cry. If I’m cooking, nobody ever taught me how to act or taught me how to make a movie. I was writing “Barettas” on the weekend and going in and shooting them on Monday. I directed half of them.
Now you say, “Well, Robert, why didn’t you ever take any credit for anything?” That’s another pathetic story. That’s the same reason I did “Baretta.” I never took credit for anything. I told everybody my father was a genius who taught me how to – Spencer Tracy taught me how to act. I would sit on the stage and watch him, and he’d look over and he’d see me.
When he did “Judgment at Nuremburg” I was sitting right above him on the catwalk for the whole movie.
Tavis: Just watching.
Blake: I can tell you stories about Spencer Tracy and Montgomery Clift. I was five feet above him on the catwalk all the way through “Judgment at Nuremburg,” and when I was a little kid Buckwheat had his places where he liked to go and I had my places, so we would share. But I liked to go see Spencer Tracy, and we both wanted to go see the midgets on the Yellow Brick Road, because we were taller than they were and that was cool. (Laughter)
That was cool, and they were all drunk, and I knew how to drink, so it was all cool. So I did “Baretta” and everybody was shaking their heads, saying, “Robert’s crazy, man. This is a disaster. ABC is a disaster, there’s no pilot, they got 13 shows on the air and they got nothing.” I said, “Oh yeah? Watch this.”
Tavis: what made it work? What made it work? It connected.
Blake: I’m magic from the time I was two years old. When it comes to show business, I take a back seat to nobody. I’m sick as a dog; I’m crazy as a rat.
Blake: I’m crazy and I’m sick –
Tavis: But you know your craft.
Blake: – but when it comes to – I was born with it, and it’s not a craft, it’s magic. I’m not putting you down for using that word.
Tavis: No (unintelligible).
Blake: People who use the word “craft,” they say, “Well, Jackson Pollock knew his craft. That’s why he painted great paintings.” Well, it’s magic. Creating something is your relationship with what created you. You create something with what created you.
If you don’t understand that, then don’t walk up to the easel and start painting. If you think that you’re the painter, that you’re this and – yeah, you can learn some technical stuff, you can learn how to get the plane off the ground, but God flies the plane.
Tavis: But the gift flows through you.
Blake: That’s right. Why is this dancer, why am I watching this dancer and not that dancer? They both are doing the same steps and they’re both great, but I’m drawn to the magic of this person.
That’s what Spencer Tracy had, and that’s what I got from him, acting. So if I wasn’t so sick and so troubled, I probably would have had a completely different life. I may not have even been an actor. I may have been a musician. I love music better.
Tavis: I was about to ask what you might have been if not an actor.
Blake: I couldn’t get enough of the musicals at MGM. I’m Gene Kelly. You want to ask me who I am? I’m Gene Kelly. Second-best to Spencer Tracy, but I’m Gene Kelly, man.
Blake: I was two years old and I was dancing on the street. Nobody taught me how to dance. I just danced. Now, at MGM everybody danced. Clark Gable danced in his screen test. But if you were good enough you started acting, then you didn’t dance anymore.
So I got to be pretty good at acting and I stopped dancing, but I loved to go on the sets and watch Gene Kelly and all those dancers. They all did the same thing. Coffee, Coca-Cola, Camel cigarettes and Baby Ruths. That’s what they all had, and I wanted to be right there in the middle of that world.
There was something spectacular about dancing, about being able to make your body do something beautiful. I don’t mean just yoga or something. I mean dancing is the most primitive form of art, and I was always mesmerized particularly by Gene Kelly.
Because I could tap dance, anybody can tap dance. That’s a mathematical thing. That’s a shuffle ball, shuffle ball, yadda, yadda, yadda. But when you can move and hypnotize people just with your body, that fascinated me.
Tavis: Let me jump in before my time runs out. I’ve got about two minutes left here.
Tavis: It’s been a wonderful conversation. You’ve said, by my count, at least three or maybe four times, “If I weren’t so sick, if I weren’t so sick, if I weren’t so sick.”
Tavis: I know what you mean by that. Let me ask whether or not in all these years you ever sought therapy. You ever talk to anybody?
Blake: I’ve been through a lot of different kinds of therapy. Yes, oh, my God. I spent 30 years with one shrink, I published books for him for (unintelligible). I gave the leash from my father and I gave it to him, and I spent 30 years with that dunce.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with therapy. I believe in group therapy. Let me just say this very briefly and then you can cut some other stuff out, because this is important to me.
I believe that like cures like. If you’re a Vietnam vet, go into a group with Nam vets. If you’re an alcoholic, go into a group with alkies. Whatever – like cures like. That’s why I was hooked up with Natalie. That’s why I was hooked up with Elizabeth. That’s why I was hooked up with Michael. I believe that in life.
There is such a thing as one-on-one therapy, but if you’ve been sexually abused, if you’ve been emotionally abused, any of those things, you go where your people are, and there should be a therapist there too, but like cures like.
If you’re broke and on the street, who’s going to help you? The guy standing next to you who’s broke and on the street.
[End previously recorded Robert Blake interview]
Tavis: If you missed any part of our two-part exclusive conversation with Robert Blake, you can access the full interview any time on our website at PBS.org.
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