Robert Blake, who has had both a spinning top out of control and in the driver’s seat career as an actor in Hollywood, celebrates his 80th birthday today.
With a career that is at once tumultuous, cloaked and uncloaked in mystery and tragedy, a craft that is chameleonic and riveting, hilarious and warm, tough and unrelenting, Robert Blake still remains not a footnote in Hollywood’s rich history, but more like a boot stomp. As a child star in films, he charmed audiences, albeit sometimes to the point of ad nauseum, as part of the latter day incarnation of Hal Roach’s popular youth gone wild comedy shorts The Little Rascals as Mickey (Blake’s real name is Mickey Gubitosi). A few decades later, he became a glistening crystallization of a criminal in Truman Capote’s bloodstains-on-violets true story In Cold Blood, and then the role that defined his career, Baretta, a wisecracking LA cop with a style and substance that was on equal footing and gleaned almost from a New York attitude which lay in concert with the laid back grimy idyllic Los Angeles circa 1970s. The role and the series became a big hit and won Blake an Emmy award. He then followed this up with stints as a very Baretta-like Priest on television once again in Hell Town, which was replete with all the clichÃ©s, yet the Blake tough unapologetic heart of gold character he became associated with. Movies like Lost Highway and the mid-’80s TV miniseries Blood Feud, in which Blake gave a galvanizing performance as the Teamster kingpin Jimmy Hoffa, kept the actor enough in the public eye to be a constant.
In each of these aforementioned projects, Blake showcased his absolute flair for acting in a naturalistic, centered, tightly wound style. He felt more comfortable as a character actor (until the lead role of Baretta) with his sly fox, jack of all attitudinal trades demeanor. He also possessed a lot of those same tendencies in real life; the Blake reputation consists of a stand offish stance, highly combative, sensitive, and outspoken. Scores and scores of television interviews Blake gave through the years and continues to give from time to time completely validate and showcase the Blake myths at full Bunsen burner turned up all full blast, and it in a perverse way, adds to the already slightly off-centered, warped yet absorbing aura of what Robert Blake seems to represent.
And now, as he moves into his eightieth decade, Blake lives life under the steel bank vault door tarps and shadows that follow him and will follow him for the rest of his days, due to the possible involvement in some capacity of what amounted to his ex-wife being gunned down in Studio City, California over ten years ago. Verdicts came down and the law system made their decisions, and the people still create the polarizing atmosphere about their feelings on the entire affair. Blake plunders on, unfortunate or not unfortunate anathema to the Hollywood industry, but still has a history within it, a history that is frozen on the frames of the celluloid, which is only shaped by the opinion of the work, which can only be done by the viewer. No matter whether his body of work remains tainted in the eyes of some and there’s absolutely some validity in everyone expressing their own opinions, the career of Robert Blake has some wonderful masterstrokes which still remain on the cinematic canvas, and always will. The Hollywood Hall of Shame lineage still firmly reserves its place for the deserving, but that still doesn’t and shouldn’t taint the person’s work. The act of being subjective to the pedigree of Robert Blake both in film and television, can either pay off in multitudes, or simply make one turn not one blind eye, but two.
So a happy 80th today to Robert Blake, one of the more colorful, enigmatic, and intimidating figures to come out of the gates of Hollywood. Say what you will about the man, but sometimes it’s better to have a whirlwind in the mist than a stillborn, boring balmy breeze in a chafed desert. For Robert Blake, he is the whirlwind which disrupts the boring breezes. And you can take that to the bank.