You are using an outdated browser.
Please upgrade your browser
and improve your visit to our site.
Skip Navigation

To Die For

Robert Blake, Bonny Lee Bakley, and the misery of celebrity

“Everybody is kind of sitting around waiting for a slow speed chase and waiting to write, you know, this into a movie.”

—A guest on “The Edge With Paula Zahn,” Fox News, May 15

THIS IS a true story about how the quest for fame can lead to death, and how death in turn can lead to fame—about two people on opposite sides of the velvet rope who came together in their own bloody and inevitable climax to our century-long obsession with celebrity. And it begins not in the present, where it ultimately ends in murder, but earlier in the twentieth century when our national culture of celebrity was being born.

It was around 1935, when the country was still in the grip of the Great Depression, and a family of five—a father, a mother, and three kids dressed in straw hats and overalls—left their run-down tenement in a small New Jersey town for a local park. There, an alderman was holding a rally, handing out hot dogs and beer while jugglers and clowns wandered through the crowd, trying to make a buck. The father took out his guitar and introduced “The Three Little Hillbillies”; the children began to sing and dance.One of them was not even three. His name was Michael Gubitosi. He had black hair, brown eyes, and an adorable expression that drew the crowd.

According to the boy’s later accounts, this was how the family survived, going from place to place, seeking donations. It brought in barely enough food, and, at night, when they returned home, the father would drink himself into a rage. Around 1936 the family drove to Los Angeles, where the father planned to trade in their novelty act for the big screen. It was the golden age of Hollywood, or HOLLYWOODLAND, as the sign overlooking the valley still said—the infancy of the celebrity culture of the movies. Fan magazines like Photoplay and Silver Screen, and the growing number of celebrity-gossip columnists like Walter Winchell, were creating a new class of American icons to compete with the presidents and steel barons and war heroes who’d previously dominated the national consciousness. Whereas the old cosmology was rooted in character, virtue, and accomplishment, the new one celebrated personality, glamour, and scandal. It implied that anyone could make it if they had what the how-to-be-a-star handbooks of the time called a “gift.” “Nobody knows,” wrote American Magazine in 1940, “when or where one of these [stars] will bop up.” Hollywood had attracted so many people seeking fame and fortune that, at one point, the Chamber of Commerce ran an ad in the papers trying to dissuade them: “Out of 100,000 Persons Who Started at the Bottom of the Screen’s Ladder of Fame, only FIVE Reached the Top.”

Michael and his family first auditioned in casting offices; when that failed, they stood outside studios, along with hundreds of others, hoping to become extras. Sometimes a man would appear and yell, We need twenty guys to swing from trees in Tarzan.The father, who had hoped to become the next great movie tough guy like Edward G. Robinson or James Cagney, never found work; neither did the older brother or sister. But one morning, the call went out for a group of kids for Our Gang—the original short films with Alfalfa and Spanky and Buckwheat, who later became known as the Little Rascals—and Michael was brought in as an extra. The young boy appeared on the show several times, not saying a word. Then, one day, as he later liked to boast, he was standing on the set when one of the other kids was struggling to get out his line. After watching for a while, Michael, who was only five at the time, says he walked up to the exasperated director and said, “I can do that.” Soon, he landed the role of Little Mickey.

For the next ten years he worked as a child actor, supporting his entire family. His father, he said, despised him for it and turned increasingly violent. And so Michael spent almost all his time on the set, appearing in at least 80 films during the 1940s, including The Treasure of the Sierra Madre with Humphrey Bogart. “He was one of the most devoted juvenile actors I ever worked with, including Judy Garland,” one of his directors, George Sidney, told me.

As with most actors at the time, the studios controlled nearly every aspect of his career, including his image. Relying on the burgeoning publicity industry—which, as Walter Lippman noted in 1927, will “illuminate whatever we point it at”—they not only decided how an actor dressed and spoke in public (Buster Keaton, for example, was prohibited from laughing) but unleashed biographies filled with tidbits about a star’s private life for the tabloids. In the boy’s case, the studio decided to change his name; it was apparently too ethnic. And so Michael Gubitosi became Robert Blake.

But, like all child actors, Blake ran into the one obstacle neither his talent nor the studio system could overcome: He grew. By his late teens, he no longer fit the persona the studio had constructed for him; rather than the adorable child who could sing and dance, he looked like a hood—his legs too skinny, his chest too broad, his eyes too dark and menacing. Marginalized from the makeshift family he had found at MGM, he ran away from his real one as well. By his early twenties, he says, he was shooting up heroin. “I couldn’t hide behind the things that had helped me get through when I was a kid—the sets and the studios and the Saturday matinees...,” he told Playboy in 1977. “I was as close to being in a living hell as I ever want to get.”

His father, Blake says, killed himself around 1955. All the old Little Rascals seemed to be dying, too. Alfalfa, it was reported, was shot to death in a barroom brawl; Scotty Beckett, known as Scotty on the show, overdosed on drugs years later. Billy Laughlin, who played Froggy, cracked up his motor scooter and died before he was 17. “Most of the kid actors I knew are dead now, from dope, or shot in half with shotguns...,” Blake once said. “The fear that I could end up that way haunted me for years.

IT WAS AROUND this time, in 1956, that a little girl named Bonny Lee Bakley was born not far from where Blake grew up in New Jersey. According to her family, she was so shy she seemed to dissolve in the presence of others; whenever she was around her father—like Blake’s, an abusive drunk—she would hyperventilate and pass out. One night, while her mother was in the hospital in labor, those close to her allege, he tried to molest her. She was seven.

She was sent to live with her grandmother, a paranoid woman who lived in the country in a trailer. “She had it really tough in the woods with Granny,” her sister, Margerry, told me. “Granny had this fear of running out of water. Bonny wasn’t allowed to use any.... She’d go to school, and her hair would be greasy. You’re a girl and want to be pretty, and Granny wouldn’t let her.” Once Bakley tried to slip into a department store to wash her hair like the starlets she saw at the movie house each Sunday with her grandmother, but she was caught in the bathroom and thrown out by the police. “I grew up, like, I was the kid that everybody hated in school,” Bakley told a friend years later in a conversation she tape-recorded, “‘cause I was, like, poor and couldn’t dress good and you know, and everybody always made fun of me because I was, like, a real loner type. So then you grow up saying, Oh, I’ll fix them. I’ll show them I’ll be a movie star.

She tried everything to make it. She dropped out of high school at 16 and reportedly enrolled at the Barbizon School of Modeling, which was advertised in the back of teen magazines. She read advice books about how to present herself in public and overcome her shyness. Say everything not once, but twice, she’d say, as if trying to build her confidence. But apparently it wasn’t until 1985, after more than ten years of auditions and modeling nude to survive, that she appeared in a real film, as an extra in Turk 182!, a movie by the director of Porky’s. “She knew she couldn’t do it,” says her sister—that, as another friend put it, “she didn’t have it.” As her acting career disintegrated, she tried singing and recorded a single, “Rock-a-Billy Love,” that paid tribute to Elvis Presley (“Rock-and-roll Leebonny is my name”). But, as a friend told me, “She couldn’t sing, so she’d ... just talk like a rap artist.

BUT BAKLEY DIDN’T give up trying to become famous; she realized that there were other ways to make it. In Turk 182!, the protagonist, played by Timothy Hutton, transformed himself from a greasy loner like Bakley into a star—not by any great deed or special talent but by merely painting graffiti around the city and other carefully publicized stunts, winding up celebrated on magazine and tabloid covers, t-shirts, and billboards. Indeed, at one point, Bakley herself, according to her sister and others, put up her own billboard on Sunset Boulevard in which she apparently lay on her side in a black evening gown, promoting herself as someone who should be well-known simply for being well-known. (Although the plan didn’t work out, it anticipated the later success of pseudo-celeb Angelyne, who placed billboards around Los Angeles featuring herself looking out from behind sunglasses, her hair bleached blond, her breasts bursting out of her spandex. She was profiled by People— the demarcation of the new celebrity—and scores of other magazines and TV shows, even though, as even People noted, she is “untalented by her own admission” and “has nothing to offer but her inflated, billboard-size image.” Her assistant said of her success: “A celebrity is famous for being a celebrity.”)

After acting and singing and other assorted stunts failed to bring Bakley the fame she craved, she came up with a new approach. According to her taped conversations, she confessed to a friend: “[Acting] was too hard ... so I figured, well, why not fall for movie stars ... instead of becoming one.

BLAKE, MEANWHILE, who had been a movie star as a child, had become something else altogether by adulthood. For several years in his twenties, he has said he sold drugs to support his habit and contemplated following his father’s suicide with his own. But in his early thirties, Blake came back from the brink, drying out and starting to act more seriously again. In 1967, director Richard Brooks chose him—in part because he wasn’t famous—for the role of Perry Smith in the film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, the true story of Smith and another petty thief who, in the course of a rural robbery, murdered an entire family. (According to Life magazine, the real Smith was transfixed by his own newfound celebrity. When Capote visited him shortly before his execution and told him about the crowds that were at his trial, he asked excitedly, “Were any representatives of the cinema there?”)

Blake plunged into the role, digging into his own demons. He and Smith were both children of alcoholic, abusive parents; both were insecure and highly volatile. (Blake called himself a walking “time bomb”; in the movie Smith says, “I had a bomb ticking inside me.”) They even looked alike. Blake told a reporter, “What I felt Truman was really writing about ... was this: Everybody knows what a murderer is a millionth of a second after he pulls the trigger. But what is he a millionth of a second before he pulls the trigger?” Then he added, “I can conceive of me killing somebody, but that’s because I’m a human being, not God, and I’d hope that somebody would stop me from doing it.

When the movie came out, Blake’s intense and oddly sympathetic portrayal won him instant acclaim. But, despite the success, he seemed more plagued than ever by mood swings and self-doubt. He punched a director and soon had trouble finding good roles. Finally, he had a nervous breakdown. “[N]othing had been turnin’ out right,” he told Playboy, “and when you go for month after month like that, you get like a dog that’s locked in a room; it can’t go out and fight with other dogs or get laid or anything, so it starts chewin’ on its own paws and crackin’ up.” Around 1974 he spent two weeks in a hospital, he said, staring at the walls and popping tranquilizers—caught, as he put it, “in the madness of Hollywood.

When he got out, he went to an old manager to see if he could find work, even if it meant abandoning his movie career for television. Three months later, he was cast as the lead in the ABC police drama “Baretta,” a series about an undercover cop who said things like Dead’s dead and it don’t come back again, carried a cockatoo on his shoulder, and—like Blake’s childhood hero Bogart, whom he fashioned the part after—seemed to walk the fine line between goodness and crookedness. In 1975 the role won Blake an Emmy. “Baretta” once again made Blake a star. “I feel a hundred feet taller than I ever felt before,” he said at the time. “There’s some motherfuckers out there I told twenty years ago, I’ll show you, you cocksuckers, and now, someplace, they’re alive and know that I showed em.

By the 1980s Bonny Lee Bakley, now in her late twenties and already divorced with children, had decided to marry a star. She developed an elaborate system to pursue prospective targets. At first, Bakley’s friends and family say, she would cut out pictures of celebrities and read everything about them. Then she went to local bars and theaters where, she heard, they hung out. She even did background searches, as if she were a private eye. “She set down with pen and paper and she kept a listing on everyone...,” one of her friends told me. “She’d write down their favorite colors, their clothing, their special food, where they ate, what they ordered.

Her first obsession was Frankie Valli, of whom she’d collected boxes of memorabilia, posters, records, and files, and whose songs she could recite by heart, including, according to her sister, her favorite, “Rag Doll” (“When she was just a kid her clothes were hand-me-down..../They always laughed at her when she came into town..../Called her rag doll, little rag doll..../Such a pretty face should be dressed in lace”). But then one day she read a celebrity biography of Jerry Lee Lewis, the legendary rock-and-roller who sang “Great Balls of Fire.” Bakley was fascinated by the way Lewis had overcome poverty and humiliation to become one of the best-known music stars of the ’60s. And so, even though the peak of his career had long since passed, she started showing up at his concerts in New Jersey and, after a while, began following him around the country. “We’d be in someplace up in Canada, and she’d show up, or Los Angeles or Portland or Boston, and she’d bribe her way backstage,” Ray Hale, Lewis’s former tour manager, told me. “She never gave up,” added Lewis’s sister, Linda Gail. “She had some guy ... who worked for one of the airlines, and he could find when my brother was flying, and she’d buy a first-class ticket and sit beside him. I thought that was pretty crazy.

DESPITE THIS STRANGE behavior, many who met Bakley say she came across as more captivating than most groupies. Drawing on her acting skills and her imagination, she seemed to re-create herself to reflect the people she was pursuing. “She always knew what a star wanted,” her sister says.

Several people close to Bakley told me that Lewis slowly began to succumb to her adulation. “It was my job to keep Bonny from Jerry,” Hale, Lewis’s former tour manager, told me, “because Jerry Lee’s wife was jealous of her, and Jerry Lee liked her.

In a statement Lewis and his family recently released, he told his own version: “[Bakley] was an avid fan, but after some time she began harassing my family ... she moved to Memphis in the hope that I would leave my devoted wife ... and marry her: merely a figment of her own imagination.

At one point, perhaps out of desperation or perhaps because she really believed it, she announced that she was pregnant with Lewis’s baby. Lewis denied that he was the father, and today says her claim was thrown out of court when he proved he was out of the country when the baby was conceived. Still, when Bakley gave birth to a little girl in the summer of 1993, she named her Jeri Lee Lewis.

But in the end the baby only turned Lewis’s inner circle further against her. And, as even she realized that her chances of marrying Lewis were all but over, she set out for the place that had always fueled her imagination: Hollywood.

BLAKE, WHO HAD achieved fame in Hollywood two, perhaps three times, was still not happy. When he walked down Rodeo Drive, even as the star of “Baretta,” everything felt fake. The fame. The studios. The stars. Even the craft. “It’s almost like you pay $3.50 to see a movie and while you’re watching it, the film self-destructs...,” he told Playboy. “And by the time you walk out of the theater, you can’t even remember what the film was about. Movies have become that temporary.

What was remarkable was not that he had such thoughts but that he shared them. He’d go on the talk shows and rail against the hollowness of the industry, the big suits who were more concerned about money than art, the creative people who weren’t creative, the actors who couldn’t act. “Listen,” he’d say, “Universal does hundreds of shows a year, and it’s all just so much sausage to them.

Although he alienated more and more people in the industry, including his bosses at Universal, he became the hottest interview in town. He seemed finally to have found the role he had long sought: the heroic outsider, a real life Bogart. It was hard to know if he was being himself or merely acting—Robert Blake playing Robert Blake. “[T]hough I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,” he once boasted, “I will fear no evil, ’cause I’m the meanest motherfucker in the valley.

On the set, a cigarette dangling from his mouth, he fought with directors and writers and producers. “He is,” one former producer complained at the time to TV Guide, “absolutely impossible to work for. He runs roughshod over his writers, ignores his directors, and turns everything into a war.... The word was out. He’s poison.

In 1978 “Baretta” was cancelled. Blake tried to get back into movies, but he had offended too many people and self-destructed too many times. By 1986, after a failed TV show, he was no longer railing against Hollywood but begging to be part of it once again. Unable to retain the spotlight with his public accomplishments, he took to airing his private failures in exchange for a few more moments of attention. He even held a press conference to release a rambling, 26-page account of his childhood—an aborted draft of a Hollywood tell-all. He claimed he had recovered, through therapy, memories of being molested by his father. “My father was a sadistic madman alcoholic,” he said, who would “lock me in closets for days ... tie me up like a dog ... make me eat on the floor ... [and] sexually abuse me.

By 1997 Blake was no longer well-known even for being well-known. He would show up at the Playboy Mansion with people like Fabio and Kato Kaelin and Scott Baio. He tried to collect mementos from his early movie years to hang in his home. “When somebody sends me a picture for an autograph,” he told the Los Angeles Times, “I ask permission to make a copy before I send it back.

By this time, according to most accounts, Bakley was living a double life in Hollywood. There was Bonny Lee, the pretty celebrity hanger-on who, according to her address book, was trying to get close to Robert De Niro, Robert Redford, and Sylvester Stallone. And there was “Miss Leebonny,” the alias under which she allegedly peddled pornography and performed petty scams to pay for Bonny Lee’s lavish outfits, makeup, and travel. “I’m into sex with the right man who I want to have a relationship with,” Leebonny wrote to one target, according to a copy of the letter obtained by the New York Daily News. “I do hope it’s going to be you.

But Bakley’s ultimate goal remained landing a celebrity mate. In another taped conversation, a friend listed top-flight stars for her: “Marlon Brando, he’s at the top of the list. He’s up there with Clark Gable and Errol Flynn....” “Don’t remind me,” Bakley interrupted. “I’ll be after him.

But, perhaps realizing she was never going to marry a star, she settled for the people around one. According to friends and family and her own taped conversations, she eventually tracked down Brando’s son, Christian, whom she claimed she had started dating, even though his notoriety came largely from the fact that he had pled guilty to voluntary manslaughter in 1990. (Christian Brando couldn’t be reached for comment; he has not publicly confirmed or denied a relationship.)

THEN ONE NIGHT a couple of years ago, Bakley spotted someone else at a Hollywood function. “They were at a jazz club...,” her sister says, recalling what Bakley told her. “And they saw each other from across the room.” Though she wasn’t sure who it was, according to her sister, she knew he was someone famous, and when he was walking through the room she kept thinking, Don’t let this one get away, because this is the one you’re going to marry. Then he stopped at the table and introduced himself as Robert Blake, and she realized she had once seen him on the Johnny Carson show. According to Bakley’s sister, a courtship ensued.

Blake’s current attorney, Harland Braun, tells a different version: “He didn’t know her fucking name. He didn’t even have sex with her in the home. He had sex with her in the back of a truck. They were only together six or seven times.

Either way, Bakley was delirious, talking nonstop about the two celebrities—Brando and Blake—whom she believed were finally within reach. According to her taped conversations, which were later released by Blake’s attorney, she asked one friend, “Who would you go for more if you were me—Blake or Christian?” She went back and forth. “I don’t know if I really would want [Blake] the rest of my life ... because he’s going to get even older and worse looking, and I’m already in love with Christian. So I should just leave it like that.... And then I said [to myself], ‘Yeah, but it’s kind of neat to have a movie star stuck on me, so maybe I should go for him.’”

At one point, a friend asked her, “Bonny, did you ever stop and try to figure out why you’re only attracted to famous people?” “Being around celebrities,” she replied, “makes you feel better than other people.

It was sometime around then that Bakley told her friends and family she had another announcement: She was pregnant with Brando’s baby ... or Blake’s.

It seemed like another ploy to snag at least one of her favored celebrities. But she told a friend she didn’t know if “the baby’s going to work for me or against me.” When the baby was born on June 2, 2000, she initially named her Christian Shannon Brando after the man she believed to be the father. But, after a paternity test showed Blake was the father, the baby was renamed Rose Lenore Sophia Blake.

When Blake found out, he exploded. “You lied to me, you double-crossed me, you double-dealt me, and that’s who you are...,” Blake screamed, according to a recording of their conversation. “You said, ‘Don’t worry, Robert. No matter what, I will have an abortion. You never have to worry about me getting pregnant. I’ll take the pills, I’ll have an abortion. It’s OK. Relax, enjoy yourself, I care about you.’”

But, despite his anger, four months later he announced he would marry her. While his lawyer says he did it for the sake of the child—“He’s very old-fashioned, and ... his obligation is to sacrifice his happiness and his life for his blood”—others speculate that she provided him with what he craved more and more: the adoration of the perfect fan. “He was all washed-up, and along came this person who treated him like a god again,” said Hale, who was familiar with the relationship.

In November 2000, they were married in a small ceremony in Studio City. The marriage received little of the usual celebrity coverage, though The Times of India ran an item under the headline “WEDDING BELLS RING FOR ROBERT BLAKE AND BAKLEY.”

It was not, by any standard, a typical marriage. While the couple tried to get to know each other, Bakley stayed in a bungalow out back; over time, friends say, they grew more and more miserable. Blake’s lawyer says she continued to run petty schemes, including a plot to nab the actor Gary Busey. When Blake discovered some of her activities, his assistant has said, he broke down in tears, saying, “Sixty-five years I’m in this business. And she did this to me.

Then, on May 4, 2001, less than six months after their wedding, Blake took his wife to his favorite restaurant, Vitello’s, an Italian joint a few blocks from his house where his favorite dish—corkscrew pasta with spinach and fresh tomatoes—was listed on the menu as “Fusilli a la Robert Blake.

After they finished dinner, the two walked back to their car, which was parked down the road behind a dumpster. According to Blake’s lawyer, Blake suddenly realized he’d forgotten his gun inside the restaurant—a gun he says he had begun to carry everywhere after Bakley had expressed fear for her life, perhaps from one of her former scam victims. When he returned, his lawyer says, he saw her slumped over the seat, bleeding to death, a bullet in her head. He knocked on a nearby door, screaming, My wife is hurt, my wife is hurt, please help, then rushed back to the car. Someone brought a towel to try to stop the bleeding.

Shortly after, Bakley was declared dead.

IT BEGAN WITHIN HOURS. Helicopters shooting live video swarmed over the house. Men and women, carrying boom mikes and tripods and cameras, camped outside the hospital where Blake had checked himself in with high blood pressure. As the story unfolded 24 hours a day on cable and in the tabloids, the scene of the real murder blended into scenes from Blake’s movies, a single narrative in which he played the roles he had always coveted: Perry Smith and John List (another real-life murderer played by Blake) and the character he seemed to play in his own life—the tempestuous outsider, on the verge of violence, who’d said publicly, “There’s no difference between me and a lot of people on Death Row.” “Dateline NBC” titled its segment on the murder “In Cold Blood”; Diane Sawyer announced it “a real Hollywood whodunit.” One newscast unearthed an old scene from “Baretta”:

“I want to get married,” Baretta says to his girlfriend. “Why don’t we just live together,” she replies, “and if we like it, we’ll stay?And if we don’t....” “And if we don’t,” he interrupts, “I’m going to kill you.

Though the police have made no arrests and so far remain tight-lipped about their investigations, the tabloids and the talk shows have constructed two theories of the murder. In one, the murderer was Blake, or a contract killer he hired, either because Bakley was trying to con him somehow or because, as her sister told me, he “hated her and wanted to kill her for months.” In the other, the murderer was one of the hundreds whom Bakley had allegedly conned.

Everyone came forward, seeking a role in the competing dramas: Bakley’s half-brother; the housekeeper and the houseguest; childhood friends; bodyguards; Blake’s son (“I never saw my dad hit anyone, push anyone, swing at anyone, beat anyone up”); and Blake’s ex-wife, an actress, who called a national press conference to say, I will not comment. Bakley’s mom sold her story to The National Enquirer. (“I can’t talk,” she told me, “I’m under contract.”) Then came the stars from the last celebrity murder, Marcia Clark and Mark Furman and, finally, O.J. Simpson himself (“My first reaction was an immediate feeling of compassion....Because I knew what he was about to go through. Don’t watch TV, Robert! I know that watching TV is only going to frustrate him.”)

For the first time in years, Blake’s fans seemed to pour forth. They surrounded his house and tied balloons and notes to the fence, saying WE LOVE YOU, STAY STRONG and YOUR FANS BELIEVE IN YOU.

BUT IT WAS the victim who emerged as the real star. Her picture appeared nightly on the news and on the front page of the tabloids. Photographers and cameras surrounded the funeral home; helicopters swept down from the sky. The crowds were so great that the casket couldn’t be carried outside for weeks. Finally, on May 25, Bakley’s body was laid to rest at Forest Lawn Memorial Park in the Hollywood Hills, the resting place of dozens of other stars, including Errol Flynn and Clark Gable.

It was, in a sense, the logical endpoint of America’s century-long quest for fame: Bakley had risen to the top of celebrity culture by becoming a victim of it. St. Martins is rushing to publish a book about her and Blake; Hustler reportedly plans to publish old nude photographs; and Hollywood scandal tour buses drive by the restaurant where she ate her last meal. There has even been talk of a Hollywood movie. “This is what Bonny always wanted,” her sister told me.This is what she died for.”