Long before he was notoriously tried and acquitted of murdering his wife, when he was at the top of his career, the actor Robert Blake was waiting in his trailer when I got to the set of Second-Hand Hearts, the movie he was shooting just outside El Paso, Texas.
Blake had been an actor since he was five, one of the Our Gang kids (aka The Little Rascals), had appeared briefly as a Mexican boy selling Humphrey Bogart a lottery ticket in the opening scenes of John Huston’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre. As an adult he had a breakthrough playing one of the killers in the film version of Truman Capote’s classic true crime book, In Cold Blood.
But real stardom had come on television portraying a tough-talking, unconventional cop named Baretta. The series, which featured a pet cockatoo named Fred, was a hit and had turned Blake’s life around.
He welcomed me in his small, cramped trailer, a gruff, fast-talking little guy, his gray-flecked black hair cropped short, surprised and delighted by his unexpected but hard-won stardom.
I don’t remember him ever being called to the set while I was there and so we talked through the night. Blake seemed edgy but open and vulnerable, talking about his fights to make Baretta better than it otherwise would have been, and his troubled, hard-scrabble childhood. You could not help but like him.
We ended up discussing VCR players which were then becoming all the rage. He didn’t have one, and wondered about the expense. Then he shrugged. “What the hell,” he said with a crooked grin. “I’m rich. I’m gonna get me one.”
The door opened and in came an assistant armed with a syringe. “Time for my vitamin-B shot,” Blake announced. He stood up facing me and dropped his trousers and underpants. The assistant knelt behind him and plunged the syringe into his behind.
I sat there while Blake struggled back into his underpants. That night outside El Paso, he had let everything hang out, in ways I would never have expected.
Years later, in Los Angeles, accompanying veteran producer Shel Pinchuk, I arrived for a meeting at the green-glass fortress on Wilshire Boulevard that was ICM. At the time it was one of the biggest talent agencies in town.
The meeting ended early in the evening. Waiting for the elevator, who should come along but Robert Blake. By then his career was on the skids. He wasn’t doing much of anything. Second-Hand Hearts had been shot in 1979, plagued by problems, not because of Blake but due to the behavior of its director, Hal Ashby. Released briefly in 1981, the movie quickly disappeared.
Blake didn’t remember me, of course, but the three of us nodded hellos and then together stepped onto the elevator.
As the elevator slowly descended, the last rays of the dying sun seeped through the glass structure illuminating in shades of red and gold floor after silent floor of desks and shelves stuffed with scripts. I glanced at Blake. He was shaking his head.
“Jesus,” he said in disbelief. “Just think. This whole f**king place is full of agents.”
Shel and I both laughed as the elevator reached the ground floor. I watched Robert Blake, who has now died at the age of 89, disappear into the gloom along Wilshire Boulevard.
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