Robert Blake is back -- The actor draws on his abused childhood to play a killer in CBS' ''Judgment Day: The John List Story''
”You wanna talk about a blow to a man’s ego?” asks Robert Blake, who got one when he read Shelley Winters’ 1980 autobiography, Shelley: Also Known as Shirley. ”I had this torrid affair with her while shooting (the 1965 film) The Greatest Story Ever Told, and it’s not in her book, right? I ran into her and asked her why. And she says, ‘Oh, I forgot. We had an affair?’ Do you believe it? The bitch forgot! Me and her, in the desert, and she forgot!”
Winters denies any such dalliance, but the combative outburst is vintage revelation from Blake, whose on-air confessions of his sins and humiliations — including drug use, emotional instability, and career-wrecking decisions — are the stuff of Tonight Show legend. But there are new fires raging in Blake’s private hell. Emerging from a self-imposed seven-year Hollywood exile to star in the CBS movie Judgment Day: The John List Story, Blake, 59, has decided to go public with an increased vengeance: He wants to talk about what he says was the severe physical, emotional, and sexual abuse inflicted throughout his childhood by his now-deceased parents.
”I can’t yet remember all the things that were done to me,” Blake says in the den of his modest three-bedroom home in the San Fernando Valley, where his collection of 30 vintage BB guns is stashed in a bathroom and his Golden Globe and Best Actor Emmy for the ’70s detective show Baretta sit inconspicuously on a living-room shelf. ”But I know I have to in order to heal completely.”
At his most actorly, Blake says his tortured childhood, which he remembered only a few years ago through intensive psychotherapy, helped him slide into the role of the depraved John List, the quiet New Jersey accountant who murdered his entire family in 1971, then assumed a new identity and remarried. After 17 years on the lam, List was arrested in Richmond, following a segment about him on the TV show America’s Most Wanted (he’s now serving a life sentence in prison). Blake says that he can identify with List, who also reportedly suffered a troubled childhood. ”Our cemeteries and jails and death rows and drunk tanks are filled with people like me,” he says. ”I don’t know why or how I survived, but I did.”
With a reputation for punching out directors (he claims he hit only one, whom he won’t name, back in the ’50s) and for walking off sets (he quit his last acting job, the 1985 NBC series Hell Town, after 15 episodes), Blake was not exactly the first choice of the Judgment Day producers. But he won the role, partly by agreeing, as he had for the 1983 syndicated Jimmy Hoffa biopic, Blood Feud, to defer his $250,000 salary until the project was completed. When shooting began last November, he says, ”people stayed away from me at first, like I was poison.” Poking fun at his pit-bull image, he adds: ”But then they got their shots, and they were fine.” ”I came prepared — with a whip and a chair and raw meat,” jokes Beverly D’Angelo, who plays the doomed first Mrs. List. ”He was fine, really. You can tell he’s not out to win any popularity contests. He has his way of doing things. But I would be his supporting actress again anytime.”
Blake himself maintains he’s out to shed his old bark-and-bite facade. ”I had created this junkyard-dog persona to keep people away from me,” he readily says. ”I didn’t want anyone touching me or showing affection.” Even one of the half-dozen birds who played his loyal Baretta cockatoo, Fred, bit him ”almost to the bone” and sent him to the hospital. But now, he says, ”there are days when I’m deliriously happy, and I want to hug everyone in the 7-Eleven.” ”Then,” he adds, ”there are also days that I feel like I’m in a dark tunnel, and I wonder why I was ever f—ing born.”
Blake’s darkest moments come when he conjures up the newly unleashed memories of his childhood as Mickey Gubitosi, the youngest of three children of a small-time song-and-dance man and his wife in Nutley, N.J. (Blake long ago cut off all contact with his siblings.) Even when his parents moved to L.A. and he, at age 5, began supporting them with his earnings from playing Mickey in about 50 Our Gang film shorts and later as Little Beaver in the Red Ryder movie series, he says, his parents ”hated me more the more successful I got.” He claims he was often forced to eat from a bowl on the floor, whipped, tied up, walked on a leash, left under the porch for days at a time, and sexually assaulted, although he still can’t bring himself to discuss that. And he charges his father with beatings so severe that brain damage resulted: ”My brain tells my hands to do things sometimes, like draw boxes in line, and I can’t do it.” His first hug ever, he says, was from Donna Reed on the set of 1942’s Mokey, when he was 8.
He finally ran away at age 17, but he blames his parents for the lingering self-destructive streak he thinks has stymied his career. Even Baretta, he says, ruined the big-screen promise he had shown as the killer Perry Smith in the 1967 film In Cold Blood by removing him from the league of first-rate film actors. ”I was never a fan of series TV,” he says. ”I should have stayed in movies.” Of his Emmy, he says bluntly: ”I’m not proud of it.”
Now Blake insists he’ll take whatever jobs he can get — ”I want to act everywhere, here, in Italy, all over” — to improve both his mental and financial health, the latter of which he calls lousy. ”I can’t afford to buy spats for a hummingbird,” he says. As for the mental part, he’s still in weekly therapy, which has cost him as much as $50,000 a year; after more than 30 years of it, he thinks he’s finally on the mend. ”I’m very protective of that little boy inside of me,” he says. In response to skeptics who doubt his childhood memories, he says, ”if you think it’s some Hollywood s—, I will swear on my daughter’s eyes that everything I said is true. And it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I say this for the millions of people out there who need to make the same discoveries.”
He’s still looking for ”hard-to-find” love; his 20-year marriage to actress Sondra Blake ended in 1983. But he gets both love and encouragement from his two children by Sondra, Noah, 28, who stars in the syndicated series Harry and the Hendersons (he’s the one who’s usually shirtless), and Delina, 26, who is completing her master’s in psychology. ”It’s true the acorns don’t fall far from the tree,” their father says.
During Blake’s seven-year acting hiatus, Delina says she and Noah constantly sought to ”get him back in the business. Work is his favorite thing in the world.” (Blake, in fact, did little besides participate in the Great American Peace March in 1986 and concentrate on battling his personal demons.) ”I’m real proud of him,” continues Delina. ”He was always doing things for us — we’d get 8 million presents at Christmas — so now it’s his turn.”
”There are days,” Blake says, ”I wake up, and I’m mad if it’s seven because I want it to be six; I don’t want to miss anything. Tell people I’m back — but this time I’m nice.”
Well, people, he’s back and he’s nice — to a point. ”No one will ever put their hands on me again,” Blake growls, reverting to type. ”Someone tries messing with me now, well, one of us is going to Folsom, the other is going under the ground.”