One of the most insidious villains in modern cinema is the figure billed only as “the Mystery Man” in David Lynch’s metaphysical thriller Lost Highway (1997). With his eyebrow-less, Pierrot-white face, sunken eyes and mirthless laugh, he haunts the troubled life of the saxophonist Fred (Bill Pullman) and possesses the ability to materialise in several places simultaneously.
In one chilling scene, he encounters Fred at a party, where the Mystery Man reveals that he is, at that very moment, waiting back at his house. Fred dials his own landline; sure enough, it is the Mystery Man who answers, even as he is standing right in front of him.
Lost Highway seemed to promise a comeback for the actor and former child star Robert Blake, who has died aged 89 from heart disease. In fact, the Mystery Man turned out to be his final screen credit. In 2002, he was arrested for the murder of his second wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, with whom he had a daughter, Rose. Bakley was fatally shot outside a Los Angeles restaurant in 2001.
“I have varied from being the giant of the universe, breathing the same air as God, to being underwater in a septic tank and breathing the same sewage as the slime balls around me,” he later said.
His fame, as opposed to his infamy, was at its height in the mid-1970s, when he was the star of the US cop show Baretta (1975–78), which earned him an Emmy and a Golden Globe. In an era of idiosyncratic detectives such as Kojak and Columbo, Tony Baretta was distinguished by his pet cockatoo and a penchant for disguise. The actor saw the role as a chance to express his personality and social values.
“I tried to make a human being out of a cop and … make social comment,” he told the New York Times in 1977. “I had made four or five films that hadn’t gotten me any place; I wanted as an artist to get a few things said to the American people. Only a few million people saw my movies, 20 to 30 million saw Baretta.”
Later, he sounded eager to escape its shadow. Interviewed on the set of Lost Highway, he said: “I don’t wanna play another cop. I don’t wanna do all that junk. I’ve wasted 99 per cent of my life in front of the box doing nonsense.”
A comeback would not have been far-fetched. Blake, a guarded but charismatic presence, had several captivating performances under his belt before Baretta. He played the killer Perry Smith in the film version of Truman Capote’s non-fiction true-crime novel In Cold Blood (1967). He won that role after the director, Richard Brooks, insisted on him over the studio’s preferred choice, Paul Newman.
He was the Native American title character, who is wanted for the murder of his wife’s father, in the factually based Robert Redford western Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969). And he played an idealistic motorcycle cop in Electra Glide in Blue (1973), where he brought a self-deprecating warmth to a diminutive figure who struggles to measure up to his peers. “Did you know that me and Alan Ladd were exactly the same height?” he asks a young woman, gazing up at her chin.
The murder charge put paid to any career revival. Blake, who had spent 11 months in prison before posting bail, was acquitted after a three-month trial in 2005 during which prosecutors alleged that he had hired stunt-men to kill his wife. A civil suit for wrongful death brought by Bakley’s family found him liable for $30m. Halved on appeal, the judgment still bankrupted him.
He was born Michael Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey, to James and Elizabeth (nee Cafone), and claimed to have endured an impoverished childhood of physical and sexual abuse. His parents enlisted him and his siblings to perform as a street act called the Three Little Hillbillies. He became known as Mickey at the age of five when he joined the cast of the long-running Our Gang series of film comedies about a mischievous group of children called the Little Rascals.
Following the end of the series in 1944, when Blake (now known as Bobby) was 11, he landed the role of Little Beaver, a Native American boy, in another series – this time the hour-long Red Ryder westerns. He also had a walk-on part as the ebullient Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a winning lottery ticket in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre (1948).
After being drafted into the army then struggling with drug addiction, he found work as a stunt man and clawed his way back into movies. He starred with Gregory Peck in Pork Chop Hill (1959), set during the Korean war. He was Simon the Zealot in the Biblical epic The Greatest Story Ever Told (1965) and an aspiring Nascar driver in Corky (1972).
By the 1980s, a combination of poor choices and a volatile reputation had caused his screen career to peter out. He played a trucker opposite Dyan Cannon in the odd-couple action-comedy Coast to Coast (1980). He also appeared as George, with Randy Quaid as Lenny, in Of Mice and Men (1981), and as Jimmy Hoffa in Blood Feud (1983), both made for TV.
Promoting his 2011 self-published memoir Tales of a Rascal: What I Did For Love, Blake raged ceaselessly at Piers Morgan, who tried to quiz him about his wife’s murder and how it had tainted him. “Here’s the bottom line,” he said. “What you think of me – I don’t give a fuck … What I care about is what God thinks about me.” Morgan recently called him “the most combative interview of my career”.
That snarling anger had been part of him since long before he was accused of murder. “I like my rage, I like bein’ pissed off at all the shitty things that are happening,” he told Playboy magazine in 1977. “I hope I never lose that.”
A 22-year marriage to the actor Sondra Kerr ended in divorce in 1983. He is survived by two children from that marriage, Noah and Delinah, as well as by Rose.
• Robert Blake (Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi), actor, born 18 September 1933; died 9 March 2023