But did he do it?

Actor Robert Blake sings songs to his 2-year-old and makes a teary appeal to Barbara Walters. The verdict: He's still totally freaky.


Aaron Kinney
February 28, 2003 1:00AM (UTC)

Actor Robert Blake isn't particularly concerned about being convicted of murder. Having been in jail for a year and become a source for Jay Leno zingers, he doesn't know what else the authorities who have him locked up in Los Angeles County Jail can do to him. They've taken away his past and future, he says. What are they going to do, he asks, "take my testicles and make earrings out of them?"

Probably not. So it's likely Blake will face a more mundane fate, though perhaps not as mundane as sitting through his jailhouse interview with Barbara Walters, the first part of which aired Wednesday night on ABC's "20/20." Over on CBS, "60 Minutes II" was broadcasting Dan Rather's interview with Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein -- apparently someone fancies himself a serious journalist. But we don't need no Dan Rather, crisscrossing through Iraq like a swarm of angry boll weevils cheated out of cotton supper. Give us a disgraced celebrity and Barbara Walters saying "mwerdeh" (murder) seven or eight times in an hour. That's news, friend.

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Walters' encounter with Blake -- who is accused of killing his wife of less than a year on May 4, 2001, outside Vitello's restaurant in Los Angeles -- was, not surprisingly, a soapy spectacle that shed no real light upon the facts of the case. Blake appeared gaunt, though strangely tan. His hair is now completely white. Throughout the course of the interview, his face contorted into a variety of cartoonish expressions. (His eyes bulge from his deep and shaded sockets in an oddly fascinating way.)

He was at times piteous and thoroughly part of the spectacle, playing the role of reviled bogeyman and circus freak (crying out to Walters, "See, you think I'm a monster too!"). At other times he pulled back the screen in a knowing way on our culture and how it is feeding on him: "Jay Leno has got my blood running down his chin on television two or three nights a week and the people are laughing and enjoying it."

Blake, the child actor who got started on "Little Rascals," went on to star in the 1970s cop drama "Baretta" and ended up doing character roles, most notably in David Lynch's 1997 "Lost Highway," fiercely maintains his innocence.

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I'd like to think I could watch a man talk and determine whether he is a murderer or capable of murder. But human beings are complex, people lie and the evidence on display during Blake's interview was inconclusive. Sure, he rambled like a madman, cried, grew hostile, and sang a lullaby to his 2-year-old daughter, but what does that prove, other than what we've kind of known all along: That he's a couple wrenches short of a toolbox?

Blake, whose lawyers have quit in protest more times than Anna Nicole Smith tried to give up painkillers, has a plausible theory for who murdered his late wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. He thinks that one of the lonely men she scammed during her lifelong career as a grifter may have seen her picture in a newspaper when her marriage to Blake was announced and, thirsting for revenge, traveled out to Los Angeles and stalked and killed her.

The problem is that two stuntmen who knew Blake from "Baretta" claim he approached them about murdering his wife. Of course the case is being run by the Los Angeles police, and it couldn't be that hard for them to coerce a couple of witnesses in the name of justice, right? (Uh, just kidding, guys.)

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No doubt Bonny Lee Bakley had a shady past. Police say she sent nude photos of herself to married men and scammed lonely hearts across the country using multiple aliases. By the time she met Blake, when she was in her 40s, she told him her goal was to become a celebrity or to marry one. (If only we'd found a reality TV series for her, this tragedy might have been averted!)

Why was he with this woman, anyway? She had "danger" stenciled across her forehead. The answer is depressing. Because, he claims, he was lonely, and she got pregnant. Blake became enamoured of the child that Bakley told him was his. Blake informed Walters that this child, Rose, who currently lives with Blake's grown daughter (a professor of developmental psychology who says Blake is an unusual but good and caring father) was the only reason he was doing the interview: So that, years down the line, if Blake happens to die in jail, she will know that he was not the "bad man" the media has portrayed him to be.

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On several occasions Blake turned toward the camera and spoke to his daughter. At one point, while tearfully relating how his unloving parents used to take away toys that had been gifted to him and hand them to his favored siblings, Blake told Rose that he swore "on your eyes that I'm telling you the truth." If Rose does watch this interview years from now, it's clear what she'll be thinking: "Why don't we swear on someone else's eyes? That's disgusting."

Blake's childhood, as he tells it, was harsh. He gravitated toward show business as a way to get the affection he never received from his cold and distant mother, whose attempts to terminate her pregnancy with him using a coat hanger were unsuccessful. She never touched him as a child, he says. His father was a "sadistic madman alcoholic" who locked Blake in a closet and forced him to eat on the floor.

When Blake met Bakley, he was in his late 60s. He had enough money to last him for the rest of his days, but he didn't have much work and he had no "real life." He would go to jazz clubs when he was feeling lonely and sometimes return home with an anonymous woman.

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There is one thing certain about Robert Blake's situation: He has raised the bar for the freaks and villains of future David Lynch movies. By contrast, Dennis Hopper, who made a memorable turn as an oxygen mask-huffing psycho in "Blue Velvet," doesn't make the cut. His ego is writing checks his body can't cash.

Then there's Blake. In his creepy and utterly disconcerting role in Lynch's 1997 film "Lost Highway," he turned his Mystery Man into one of Lynch's most sinister characters, a guy who seems to be in two places at once, a sort of physical manifestation of the illness suffered by a messed up saxophonist who may or may not have killed his wife. And this was before we found out what a weirdo Blake is.

In a long and revealing 1997 interview with "Cinefantastique" magazine, Blake describes how he came up with his idea for the character, who appears as a "whole, weird fuckin' Kabuki-lookin' guy with ears (sticking out) and stuff":

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"I sort of knew what the Devil looked like; I knew what Fate looked like. I used to have this image of myself that would come to me sometimes. I'd go out to the desert and get involved in some strange, isolated kind of thing, and all of a sudden I would come to myself as this white, ghostly creature. I said, 'Oh yeah, that's my conscience talking to me.'"

The Mystery Man, who is basically evil incarnate, first appears to the protagonist, Fred (played by Bill Pullman), at a party. His face is painted a ghostly white, his lips are red, his eyes are dark with mascara, his hair is black and closely cropped. His eyebrows are plucked.

With an impish and malevolent smile playing across his face, the Mystery Man tells Fred that they met at his (Fred's) house not long ago. When Fred does not remember, the Mystery Man prompts him by saying, "As a matter of fact, I'm there right now."

Fred informs the stranger, "That's fucking crazy, man." So the Mystery Man hands Fred a cellphone and instructs him: "Call me. Dial your number. Go ahead." And, of course, when Fred dials the number, the Mystery Man, while still standing there, answers the phone on the other end and proceeds to hold a dual conversation with a Fred who is (rightly) beginning to suspect that he's losing his wits.

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What's the point, you ask?

It's clear from his scene-stealing performance in "Lost Highway" and from his extensive commentary about his preparation for the role that Blake is in touch with some pretty dark forces. His whole résumé, in fact, and his reputation for being temperamental and difficult, speak to a man beset by a roiling unconscious. Does that mean he killed his wife? No. Does the fact that he's an actor whose job is to look to dark places for inspiration and turn them into art mean that he's innocent? No. What else can they do to Robert Blake? Give him a trial in which none of the jury members have seen this interview.


Aaron Kinney

Aaron Kinney is a writer in San Francisco. He has a blog.

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