Film studies: Brace yourselves: it's OJ, the sequel

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The Independent Culture

There was hesitation at first. For nearly a year it looked as if the Los Angeles Police Department was wary of joining in. For them, that long-running epic, OJ (the model for such productions), had been an unmitigated disaster. And this new storyline offered several warning points of resemblance. Many had concluded that the piquant set-up had faded.

In fact, the LAPD were simply doing their proper research, gathering evidence, ruling out objections. And so, last week, they gave a press conference: The Robert Blake Story was a "go" project.

On CNN, one wide-eyed commentator – trying to assume the new gravity of post-9/11 – asked are we going to go through the celebrity nightmare again? But a very young woman reporter from the Entertainment channel had the answer to that: "nobody" under 30 had any idea who Robert Blake was or is, apart from being this guy who may have shot his wife. Whether or not it was murder one, actor Robert Blake had put himself back on the celebrity roll of honour.

In case you've forgotten, on 4 May, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley was shot dead in a car parked near Vitello's, a restaurant in Studio City. Ms Bakley, aged 44, had just eaten there with her husband, Robert Blake, 68. It was his story that, only as they reached the car did he realise he had left his handgun in the restaurant. A gun he was entitled to carry. It was as he went inside to retrieve it, he said, that person or persons unknown had come up to the car and shot Bonny Lee.

Why would they do that, the police asked? Well, Blake was bound to answer, more or less, that his late wife had been a scumbag with many enemies.

After all, it had been her practice to do all she could to seduce wealthy and lonely men – especially former celebrities – and then take financial advantage of them. Mr Blake didn't need too much pushing to admit that he'd been one of the suckers. Their marriage had resulted from her being made pregnant. Beyond that, and the infant daughter, it had hardly been a marriage. And now the police allege that Blake had nursed contempt for Bonny Lee.

If this sounds like that old, drab world that existed before 9/11, I have to agree. But if you think that our new, stricken sobriety will keep the story out of the news, I am here to disappoint you.

I don't know who did what, or why. I can only report that the LAPD claim Blake was "a suspect" all along. More to the point, Blake has been suspect all his life. You may not remember him, but he is quite a character and more than that as an actor. If this ever gets to Court TV we're going to have some absorbing scenes.

Blake has been around – you can argue that he never established himself as an actor, but he seldom gave a dull performance. He was a child actor first: Bobby Blake, a beautiful, round-eyed child, in films like The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and Humoresque. He was nowhere near as good-looking as an adult, but he had a scruffy vitality and the ability to reach out for pathos and pathology. That's how he was cast as one of the killers in In Cold Blood and the vagrant Indian in Tell Them Willie Boy is Here.

Still, Blake never really made it until 1975 when he got the lead in the TV series Baretta, playing a loner cop in Los Angeles, a scuzzy Italian who lived undercover in a seedy hotel, and whose closest companion was a cockatoo. Baretta ran three seasons and it was enough of a hit to turn Blake into a household figure, a favourite guest on the Tonight show, where the host Johnny Carson loved to encourage Blake's rambling, lowlife stories – he was a little like Charles Bukowski cut with Chico Marx.

Since then, Blake has done little except establish credentials as a lonely celebrity – though he did play Jimmy Hoffa in a mini-series, and he had a haunting cameo in David Lynch's Lost Highway, enough to suggest that he could still hold the camera's attention.

Will this be like the Simpson case? Blake pleaded not guilty, but the cops are holding him without bail. There's talk of people he tried hiring to do the job. But the life he was leading may serve as a warning for those who reckon nothing else matters much if you're famous. After all, OJ has already urged Blake not to watch television – it can mess with your mind.

d.thomson@independent.co.uk

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