Robert Blake, who will likely be remembered as “the other LA celebrity who got away with murdering his wife,” enjoyed a career that spanned from 1939 to 1997, from Franklin Roosevelt to Bill Clinton.
At age five, MGM cast him in a forgotten movie called Bridal Suite (1939). He would go on to join Our Gang in some 40 short films over the next five years playing “Mickey.” The Italian Blake then played an Indian boy in more than 20 of Republic’s quickie Red Ryder Westerns. However, his most memorable appearance during Hollywood’s golden era was a small part in Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948), as the Mexican kid who sells Humphrey Bogart a fateful lottery ticket.
Like most child stars, Blake got older and fell into drugs. But unlike most child stars, he eventually got his act together enough to relaunch his career by guest-starring on popular TV shows. Film roles followed, including several memorable and even classic starring roles.
Then at age 42, superstardom arrived with the TV series Baretta (1975-1978), which ran for four seasons. Suddenly Blake was a household name and a TV cop with not just one catchphrase, but three: “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” “You can take dat to da bank,” and “And dat’s the name of dat tune.” Unless you were there, you can’t imagine how important TV catchphrases were during the fabulous 70s. Dyn-o-mite! Who loves ya, baby? Book ’em, Dano. Sit on it. Signed, Epstein’s mother…
Blake’s post-Baretta career was sporadic, his personal life chaotic, but he left a mark not only on the popular culture of the 1970s but by starring in two films that have passed the most important test of quality—surviving and even growing in stature over the decades. There’s a reason Quentin Tarantino dedicated his novelization of Once Upon a Time in Hollywood to Blake.
Blake brought much to a role using only his presence. Built like a fireplug—a stocky, well-muscled five foot four inches—he once portrayed the legendary John Garfield as a child in 1946’s Humoresque, and for good reason: they shared many of the same qualities. Like Garfield, Blake looked equal parts streetwise and soulful, delinquent and damaged, tender and capable of violence, striving and doomed. Behind those expressive eyes, you sensed a man who wanted to do right but would inevitably go astray.
On top of creator Stephen J. Cannell’s genius, this quality is what made Baretta such a standout when television was buried in series starring urban, streetwise, plainclothes cops. It was also why Blake won the Best Actor Emmy.
Talented, troubled, and unique, here are four great Robert Blake movies, including two timeless classics that made my all-time Top 165.
In Cold Blood (1967)
All of Blake’s qualities listed above were perfectly utilized in Richard Brooks’ stunning adaptation (writer and director) of Truman Capote’s brilliant non-fiction novel.
While the late Scott Wilson is tremendous as the sociopath Dick Hickcock, Blake’s Perry Smith gives the viewer a sympathetic protagonist even though we know he is about to take part in the mass slaughter of an innocent Kansas farming family.
In Cold Blood has not aged a day. If anything, this rewatchable true-crime masterpiece has gotten better, and much of that has to do with Blake’s second-to-none performance as a haunted and deadly man-child. Ultimately, you can’t believe Blake’s character would do such a thing—and yet you can. And no matter how many times you watch In Cold Blood, you hold out hope Blake’s character will change his mind.
Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969)
Blake again plays a troubled and sympathetic killer based on a real character. This time he plays Willie Boy, a Paiute Indian (Blood’s Perry Smith was half Shoshone) on the run from Robert Redford’s conflicted sheriff.
Willie Boy is no classic, and Blake’s character is likely portrayed as more sympathetic than he was in real life, but it’s more than worth your time.
Electra Glide in Blue (1973)
Other than Charles Laughton’s Night of the Hunter (1955), I can’t think of a more impressive directorial debut where the director never directed again.
James William Guercio directs Blake to an unforgettably charismatic and ultimately heartbreaking performance as John Wintergreen, a motorcycle cop caught between two worlds: the lawless hippies and the authoritarian police. Wintergreen desperately wants to be his own man, but he also has ambitions. Eventually, because there is no place for Wintergreens in this conformist world, he’s betrayed by both.
Thanks to people like myself who have tub-thumped this classic for years, after being forgotten for decades, its reputation is growing, and deservedly so.
That final shot… That one stays with you.
The under-appreciated Peter Hyams enjoys the distinction of being the only man who has directed both Robert Blake and O.J. Simpson in a feature film. O.J. co-starred in the terrific Capricorn One (1978). Blake enjoyed the distinction of starring in Hyams’s directorial debut, Busting, in which Blake co-stars with national treasure Elliott Gould.
Busting is about a couple of mismatched, off-beat Los Angeles vice cops dealing with low-level street crooks and high-level government corruption. Without Busting, there probably would not have been a Starsky & Hutch TV series. If you’re familiar with both, the similarities are obvious (including the presence of the great Antonio Fargas). Blake reportedly hated the movie and blamed it for a five-year drought in film roles. I doubt that. Thankfully, home video has salvaged its reputation, and there’s plenty of that gritty, on-location 70’s photography movie nuts like myself will never get enough of.
See also: Lost Highway (1997).
Blake is another potent reminder of the power of art. In the end, it’s the art that remains, not the divorces, drug abuse, scandals, or even murder. That might not be fair or just, but if Western Civilization survives, in 500 years, we’ll still be watching In Cold Blood, Rosemary’s Baby (1968), The Party (1968), and maybe even The Naked Gun (1988).
Robert Blake died Thursday at age 89.
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