Question: Please tell me if Robert Blake (Baretta) was one of the kids from Our Gang or The Little Rascals. I say no, my husband says yes. We have a bet riding on this. Thank you! — Debbie H.
Televisionary: Hubby wins, Debbie. However, before I get into that, allow me to head off any angry letters from readers who might assume I'm running this answer to piggyback on the actor's recent misfortune. This question came in weeks ago and, in a strange coincidence, I wrote the answer just a day or two before the recent death of Blake's wife.
But to settle this argument, Blake was born Michael James Vijencio Gubitosi. He entered show biz at the tender age of two in a song-and-dance routine he, his sister and his dad performed in his native Nutley, N.J. When he was five, his family relocated to Venice, Cal., and he did a five-year stint in Our Gang, playing a kid named — what else? — Mickey Gubitosi. After that, his most notable childhood work was as the young Mexican boy who sells Humphrey Bogart a winning lottery ticket in the classic The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
The way Blake told it to TV Guide in 1975, the next couple of decades went none too smoothly. He was thrown out of five high schools in two years as a teen (once, amazingly enough, for being tossed out a window). Then, after failing to register for the draft, he spent two cold years in the Army, stuck in Alaska and addicted to heroin. He lived in New York for a short time and returned to Hollywood, where he picked up some work as a stuntman before catching a break and landing roles in movies such as In Cold Blood, Tell Them Willie Boy is Here and Electra Glide in Blue. Then came Baretta.
After ABC intially cancelled Toma, which was based on the life of Newark detective David Toma and ran from October 1973 to the following September, the execs had a change of heart and uncancelled it. But star Tony Musante said the unthinkable: "No." He wasn't interested in shooting any more episodes, so producers recreated the show with a similar, fictional cop, gave him a pet cockatoo, named him Tony Baretta and handed Blake the job.
Smart moves all around. The series often hit the top-10 ratings list during its January-1975-to-June-1978 run. Meanwhile, Blake won himself an Emmy for his work on the series in '75 and everyone was happy.
Well, sort of.
In a business boasting a wealth of type-A personalities (see previous columns on Richard Boone and Michael Landon), Blake still managed to stand out from the crowd as he burned through numerous writers, producers and staff members, second-guessed nearly every aspect of the show, fought with the suits and rewrote scene after scene on the set. "This show isn't like those other shows. Telly Savalas and Peter Falk and The Six Million Dollar Man all have studio and network brass watching out for them," he told TV Guide in 1977. "Baretta was born in a garbage can at Fifth and Los Angeles — it's an orphan. We just borrow a different pair of step-parents every once in a while, and if they don't do the job, we dump 'em."
A former producer called Blake "absolutely impossible to work for," adding the actor "turns everything into a war — him against the world." And for his part, Blake didn't argue with the characterization. "They say I'm difficult? Tough. People are like water; they find their own level. What are all those people who don't like me doing now? If someone leaves Baretta and goes off to do Baa Baa Black Sheep, it tells you more about them than it does about me."
However you choose to look at it, he was a tough guy, but he put on a tough show in a tough town.
Oh, and for Ella S. in Phoenix, Ariz.: 'Twas Sammy Davis, Jr. who handled the singing duties on the Baretta theme song, "Keep Your Eye on the Sparrow," not Rhythm Heritage.