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The Nation

Actor Grew Even More Reclusive After Wife's Killing

Behavior: He moved to daughter's home in a gated neighborhood, nearly vanishing from sight.

April 19, 2002|CARLA HALL and MASSIE RITSCH | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

In an effort to flee the unwanted spotlight cast on him for the past year, actor Robert Blake abandoned his longtime cozy Studio City neighborhood and many of his old haunts and habits.

His scruffy, dark wood house on Dilling Street was painted and put on the market last fall at $1.098 million, and the title he had bestowed upon the house in painted block letters--Mata Hari Ranch--was excised.

He may be gone from the neighborhood but his namesake dish is not. At Vitello's, the old-school Italian restaurant that he frequented--and where he ate the night his wife was killed--there is still a spinach and pasta dish that bears his name on the menu. "We don't take it off [the menu] unless people don't buy it," said owner Joe Restivo.

When Blake left Studio City, he moved with his infant daughter to the home of his grown daughter, Delinah, 35, who lives in Hidden Hills, in the far west San Fernando Valley. It is a private enclave of 540 million-dollar-plus homes, a gated community guarded by armed security officers.

Blake, 68, was always a bit of a recluse--an aging celebrity who had invested well enough to live comfortably without working. But since his wife's death, the friends with whom he occasionally had breakfast and listened to music found that he had nearly vanished.

"I have not seen him or heard from him in the last year since all this happened," trumpeter and comic Jack Sheldon, 70, said in a phone interview as he sat, stunned, watching the television images of his friend being arrested.

Sheldon used to count on seeing Blake in jazz clubs when he played.

"I always liked Bobby. He was always really good to me. He loved the jazz."

Blake was at a now-defunct Burbank club called Chadney's four years ago, listening to Sheldon play, when he met his future wife Bonny Lee Bakley, according to several accounts.

"I didn't even notice her," Sheldon said.

When Sheldon tried to call him shortly after Bakley's slaying last May, Blake's phone number had been changed.

Sheldon and Blake's other entertainment industry friends have been left to speculate among themselves.

"Someone will say, 'You think he did it?' And I'll say, 'I don't think he did.' I don't think he could do it," said Sheldon.

As before his wife's killing, Blake surfaced at Playboy Mansion parties.

"I'm pretty sure I've seen him once or twice," said Bill Farley, communications director for Playboy Enterprises. "He stayed in the background and was pretty quiet."

But Farley added that Blake had always been a low-key presence at those parties of 400-some people.

In Hidden Hills, fellow residents said they seldom saw Blake, although some glimpsed him jogging occasionally.

Blake, they said, had acted peculiarly: he would often stop and ask passersby how far he had run.

He was arrested several hours later.

Said Michael Small, 15, whose home is a few blocks from Blake's, living near the celebrity the last few months was "almost like having O.J. living next to you."

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