What ever happened to Robert Blake, the swaggering, street-smart ex-child actor who became TV's "Baretta" and a mouthy smart aleck on talk shows a decade ago?
Blake, on the verge of a nervous breakdown, walked off the set of his TV series, "Hell Town," in mid-season seven years ago saying, "I can't do this anymore."He quit playing the tough priest in Los Angeles' South Central ghetto, giving up a fortune in the process.
"By the last season of `Baretta' I began to realize how self-destructive I was," Blake said. "I crossed the line on the `Tonight Show.' I wasn't funny, I was destructive, taking on the media, the public, religion, getting crazier every time I did the show.
"I was a successful actor. I didn't have to go on the air every month and be a clown for Johnny Carson. But he didn't care. I was getting him good ratings.
"I was having a public nervous breakdown. I was like the guy in `Network' - the crazier he got, the more they put him on the air. Somebody should have taken me to Tahiti and tied me down in the sand."
Blake says he found himself chasing other drivers on the freeway, pulling them over, trying to pick a fight.
"Here was a TV star with lots of money, a wife and kids, and I was getting looser and looser, crazier and crazier," he said.
He cut himself off from friends and associates and spent six months lying almost paralyzed on the living room floor of his San Fernando Valley home watching old films like "Shane" and "Marty" on video.
Finally he started walking alone 10 to 15 miles a day up and down the dusty, concrete aqueduct called the Tujunga Wash, a rainy-day tributary of the dry Los Angeles River, speaking to no one.
"I'd keep reminding myself not to call anyone," he said. "That way I couldn't make any more trouble for myself. Just walk until I was tired and then go home and fall in bed."
Blake recalled his seven years of torment the other day in the same living room, bitterly outraged about childhood abuse suffered at the hands of his father, his mother's scorn and the taunts of his older brother and sister who, he says, despised him.
His success in the "Our Gang" and "Little Rascals" movies, as the kid star in "Little Beaver" and success as an adult performer only served to increase his family's rejection and resentment, although he was supporting the clan.
Now he directs even greater rage at a psychiatrist who Blake says bled him of $250,000 a year for decades while Blake promoted the shrink's book on talk shows.
Blake, 59, who began acting at age 5 as as Mickey Gubitosi, finally had had it.
He said, "I was a guy who wasn't afraid of cameras or soundstages, who wrote dialogue and said it hanging upside down from his toes, who could act anywhere, any time. I ran out of reasons for acting, ran out of reasons for living.
"I was looking for the slightest reason to end it all. Now I've learned how to live after being dead for most of my life and not knowing it."
His first move toward restoring his life was to join the 1986 Peace March across the country, a year of walking 20 miles each day en route from Los Angeles to New York to Washington, D.C.
"I was the fund-raiser for the other 2,000 marchers," he said. "I did benefits along the way, getting money to feed 'em. I was one of about 250 of the marchers who went all the way.
"It really made me feel good to have people along the way recognize me, smile, wave and want to talk. It was great meeting real people, not the show business creeps I'd been doing business with for four-fifths of my life in front of the cameras.
"I was a workaholic who couldn't look at himself. I wrote and directed a lot of my work and never took screen credit. I directed half the `Baretta' shows and wrote all of them. But I never took screen credit or joined the guilds. I never had an agent or a manager.
" `Baretta' was the single most destructive thing I ever did. You do a series on the way up or on the way down. Not while you're there. I was a major movie actor working with top directors.
"When I did `In Cold Blood,' Hoffman did `The Graduate,' Beatty did `Bonnie and Clyde,' Nicholson did `Easy Rider' and they became superstars. And me? I went off and did a series, urged on by the shrink.
"I couldn't stand success. Whatever talent I have survives in spite of me."
During his prolonged, self-imposed hiatus Blake was financially solvent, having been prudent with his enormous earnings in TV.
"I had an emotional need to stop working," he said. "I would think about work and shake. I'd see a film company shooting and couldn't drive by it. I built a couple of houses here on my property, built a car, roamed around, tried to live in the desert dirt."
Last November Blake, purged of his fury at his family and the Svengali-like psychiatrist, found the courage to act again. He contacted a handful of network and film executives, telling them he wanted to work.
CBS listened and he was cast to star in the two-hour TV film "Deliver Them From Evil: The John List Story," a thriller based on a real-life mass murderer (now on death row in New Jersey) who evaded the law for 17 years. His co-stars are Beverly D'Angelo, Carroll Baker and Melinda Dillon.
"I'm not blowing my own horn, but all three women said they took the job because they wanted to work with me," Blake said. "I really lucked out.
"I was terrified at the thought of working again. I'd gotten rid of my old therapist. I was ready to kill him for exploiting me for 30 years. He didn't want me to get well.Comment on this story
"Before we began shooting the project, I reverted to my old self. I became self-destructive. I terrorized the producer demanding to rewrite the screenplay, telling them to change the character. They fired me. A few hours later I realized I was repeating old patterns.
"I went back two days later and said I'd play the part exactly as written - for nothing. If I caused any delays, any problems, they wouldn't have to pay me. It will be broadcast March 2."
Less than a week after completing the film, a check for the full amount of his considerable salary arrived in the mail.
Blake is back and, he says, free of his demons.