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An Act 2 for Robert Blake?

A jury acquitted him. Will Hollywood execs and the public be a tougher audience?

March 25, 2005|Robert W. Welkos | Times Staff Writer

For HIRE: diminutive, silver-haired, 71-year-old television and movie actor. Known as a perfectionist and loner. Skilled at playing tough guys. Cops his specialty. Please, no villain roles at this time.

After six decades as a Hollywood actor, Robert Blake, best known as the Emmy-winning 1970s television detective Baretta, would like to get back to work.

"I'm broke," he told a news conference last week shortly after a jury acquitted him of killing his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. "I need a job."

The question is, does Hollywood have a job for a man who, some believe, got away with murder?

His friend of 30 years, publicist Dale Olson, says that since the acquittal, Blake has received more than a dozen job offers, although he declines to discuss specific producers or projects.

"I'm talking about independent movies, I'm talking about reality shows, I'm talking about people who want to develop TV projects for him," Olson said, adding with a laugh: "Now, I haven't gotten a call from Steven Spielberg, but I would not be surprised if it comes in.

"Some of them, I would advise him not to do," Olson continued. "Some of them, we'll discuss.... In the final analysis, if you look at Robert Blake's body of work, he's a superb actor."

Industry insiders say it won't be easy -- in part simply because Blake is at an age when acting jobs are scarce anyway. In fact, his last role was in the 1997 David Lynch film "Lost Highway," and he wasn't the star.

"I think it was hard for him to work even before this trial," said producer Tom Pollock, the former Universal Pictures studio chief. "However difficult it was for him then, it will still be as difficult now."

Jay Bernstein, Blake's onetime manager, noted that in Hollywood anything can happen and often does. "True to form in Hollywood, they'll never work with you again -- until they need you." But he added: "I think he has a shot to get back in the business, but for any of us who are anywhere near his age it's hard to do."

Allan Mayer, who works for Sitrick and Co., the crisis communications firm that specializes in buffing the public image of stars who are embroiled in scandal, said, "When you are accused of a crime, it's not enough to be innocent, you have to act in a way that the public expects an innocent person would act."

Over the years, bigger stars who were accused of committing lesser crimes have managed to dig themselves out of legal scrapes and revive their careers. Rocker Tommy Lee and actress Halle Berry were both able to overcome their arrests -- Lee for domestic abuse, Berry for felony hit-and-run -- by going public and admitting their mistakes.

"Halle went on 'Primetime Thursday' with Diane Sawyer and answered all questions about what had happened," Mayer recalled. "She didn't try to avoid or mislead anybody. She faced up to it squarely."

Lee, he said, appeared on "Fox Files" with Catherine Crier, a "60 Minutes"-style show that then aired on the Fox network. "As a result, Tommy is now regarded as sort of a sexy, lovable clown -- not as the evil guy he was portrayed as five years ago," Mayer said. "In both cases, what they did enabled them to pass by all problems they had."

Actor Robert Downey Jr. never denied that he had a drug problem and the entertainment industry forgave him, but O.J. Simpson, acquitted of two sensational murders, is perceived by many to be guilty and may never win Hollywood's forgiveness.

Working against Blake is the fact that his career was pretty much over before the murder charge, and an entire new generation in Hollywood doesn't remember "Baretta."

But notoriety has its own appeal.

Stephen J. Cannell, who created "Baretta," said there is enough "reasonable doubt" in the Blake case that the public and Hollywood might cut him some slack.

"He's definitely attained some degree of celebrity and the question really comes down to how much infamy is attached to this celebrity," Cannell said. "The guy I know is too smart to commit this murder.... He's definitely in the public eye."

On "Good Morning, America" this week, Blake told Barbara Walters that: "People right now either love me or hate me. The other day, I went to the Farmers Market [in L.A.] and everybody was hugging me and stuff, but there were people on the outside saying, 'Murderer, murderer.' But it's hard to go from being Saddam Hussein to Seabiscuit and try to catch up with it."

He also said that his bank account has dwindled to $1 million -- and he owes Uncle Sam $1.5 million in taxes. "And I made a deal with him," Blake said. "I said, 'Uncle Sam, I'm going to pay you $25,000 a month. If I walk out of the courthouse, you trust me, I'll go out and earn a living and I'll square it with you. If I don't, if I go to Folsom, you take whatever's left and happy days.' "

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