Robert Blake And The Good Old Days Of Our Television Youth

Few personalities from the TV history of our youths can compare to Robert Blake, who meant so much to so many of us, so long ago.

When he died last week at age 89, the memories came flooding back accompanied by the distant echo of “Good Old Days,” the famous theme music from “The Little Rascals.” 

The tune was first employed in 1930, and then revived when the old movies were packaged for television syndication in the 1950s and 1960s.

And that is where we found them, on our local TV stations, and where we first saw Robert Blake, born Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi in Nutley, New Jersey, on September 18, 1933.



In the “Our Gang” shorts from 1939 to 1944, he played the earnest little boy Mickey (photo above), friend of Spanky, Buckwheat, Froggy and Alfalfa.

At his death, Blake was one of only two surviving child actors from “The Little Rascals.” The last Rascal standing is Sidney Kibrick, 94. He played “Woim,” compatriot of the local bully, Butch (Tommy Bond), from 1937 to 1939.

Watching “Our Gang” and the other “Little Rascals” movies dating back as far as 1930 may have been the most indelible television experience of the entire 1960s for a generation of children.

But by the 1960s, Robert Blake himself was all grown up and making history as the co-star of one of the best movies of the decade, “In Cold Blood” (1967), for which he was critically acclaimed for the role of condemned murderer Perry Smith.

His follow-up movies were “Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here” (1969) with Robert Redford, and “Electra Glide In Blue” (1973), but he eventually came to star in his own TV cop show, “Baretta,” seen on ABC from 1975 to 1978 (photo above).

The show had a theme song that was just as unforgettable as “Good Old Days” -- “Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow,” performed by Sammy Davis Jr.

In the show, Tony Baretta was a maverick, plainclothes police detective in an unnamed city who lived with a white pet cockatoo named Fred.

The Baretta character became famous for his catchphrases and we all knew them -- “Don’t do the crime if you can’t do the time,” “You can take dat to da bank!” and “And dat’s the name of dat tune.”

For a time, Robert Blake was one of the best-known TV stars of the 1970s. In 1977, he co-hosted the Emmys with Angie Dickinson, then starring in “Police Woman.”  

His longest-running venue for national exposure may have been “The Tonight Show,” where he made 82 appearances between 1968 and 1985, some of them as substitute host for Johnny Carson.

Carson apparently liked having him on the show, where Blake was an object of constant fascination.

Charismatic and outspoken, he was known for brandishing an unlit cigarette and addressing Carson as “John” while regaling Carson and his audience with stories, complaints and strong opinions.

As entertaining as he was, Blake came across as unusually intense, on edge, even unpredictable. Maybe it was merely an image he honed for the Carson show. Or maybe it wasn’t.

Robert Blake’s last movie appearance was in 1997’s “Lost Highway,” directed by David Lynch. His last TV appearance was in 1993 -- the title role in the TV movie “Judgment Day: The John List Story,” a role for which he was praised by critics.

John List was a New Jersey man who murdered his wife, mother and three children in 1971 and then disappeared for 18 years until he was discovered living in Virginia under a new identity.

In April 2002, Blake, then 68 years old, was arrested and charged with the murder of his wife a year earlier -- Bonny Lee Bakley, 44. Married in November 2000, Blake was her 10th husband.

Blake was acquitted of her murder in March 2005, but was later ordered to pay $30 million to Bakley’s three children after they sued him for the wrongful death of their mother. Blake then declared bankruptcy.

In June 1997, Blake was interviewed on Tom Snyder’s “Late Late Show” and complained bitterly about “Baretta.” To say the least, he said he regretted ever saying yes to the show.

At the time, he said of his then-career, “I’m working with some of the best directors in the world, on great projects, and I’m doing ‘The Tonight Show.’ And then I go do ‘Baretta,’ which is like the rectum of the universe!

“I turned down movies to do the series. I said, ‘I can’t work anymore because I’ve got to do this series.’ I make no claims to sanity! I’m not a fool, but I’m definitely crazy!”

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