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Trial Mix 

The People v. Robert Blake

Thursday, Mar 6 2003
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"AN AGED MAN IS BUT A PALTRY THING," W.B. Yeats famously wrote, "A tattered coat upon a stick." Of course, the poet had never sat in on an L.A. murder court, where attire is everything. Years ago, Hollywood nightclub owner Eddie Nash stood trial in herringbone tweeds that made him look like the avuncular chair of a Near Eastern Studies department instead of the auteur of the Wonderland Avenue slayings. On the other hand, as I remember, silver-haired Lanie Greenberger, accused of masterminding the Cotton Club murder case, seemed like a harmless grandma in her ill-fitting jailhouse smock. By bribe, evidence or on appearance, Nash beat his rap while Greenberger got life without parole.

Last week Robert Blake shuffled into Division 104 of the Van Nuys Superior Court wearing a cobalt-blue chalk-stripe suit, white shirt and dark tie. Although Blake's clothes hung on his gaunt frame like a scarecrow's cerements, they still lent Blake some needed panache during hearings to determine whether or not he will stand trial for murdering Bonnie Lee Bakley. The night before, ABC had aired his bizarre interview with Barbara Walters. During court recesses, the division's corridor hummed with chatter about that opera buffa. Blake's picaresque friend and stalwart supporter John Solari — he of a linen blazer, Burberry raincoat and white Nikes — was heard denouncing the morality of Walters' sweeps-week coup and darkly predicted a karmic reward for her.

So continued a two-week laying out of cards as prosecutors showed Superior Court Judge Lloyd Nash what they had on Blake, while the actor's lawyers tried to dismiss it all as laughably circumstantial. Blake's blue-suit day was dominated by defense attorney Thomas Mesereau Jr.'s cat-and-mouse cross-examination of Gary McLarty, one of two stuntmen who claim Blake tried to hire him to kill his wife. McLarty is an affable-looking lug of 63 who's spent most of his life falling out of cars and rolling down ravines for acting stars, including Blake on Baretta. He told prosecutor Patrick Dixon that, after 17 years of not seeing Blake, the actor suddenly arranged to meet him one day at Du-par's on Ventura Boulevard.

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Immediately afterward, according to McLarty, the two returned to Blake's Studio City home where the Baretta star showed the stuntman a nude picture of Bakley and dropped helpful pointers about how one might enter the house at night to kill her, if one were in such a mood.

Even under Dixon's gentle prodding, McLarty soon betrayed what would be a major liability — his London-fogged memory and a tendency to so thoroughly distance himself from anything untoward-looking that McLarty appeared to have been a visitor from another planet.

When did McLarty last work with Blake?

"Boy . . . somewhere in the '70s."

Where was Du-par's located?

"Somewhere in the Valley."

Had McLarty ever been arrested for killing a man?

"Once. It was a self-defense thing."

What was his response to Blake's murder proposition?

"I said, 'Hey, listen — why don't you give me a call.'"

Then, after McLarty supposedly told Blake he didn't own a gun, Blake unzippered a firearms carrying case.

"He revealed a gun and said, 'Well, here's a gun,' and I said, 'Yeah, it sure is.'"

Mesereau, Blake's lead attorney, himself an imposing man with a mane of white hair that almost touches his shoulders, wasted no time picking McLarty apart as soon as Dixon had finished. The stuntman's memory — and hearing — seemed even more selective and fragile under cross-examination. McLarty claimed that in nearly 40 years in Hollywood, he could remember but a single acting role and only one film project that he tried to initiate: "It was a period thing set in 2067 . . . I can't . . . I'm lost . . . I'll have to get back to you."

Mesereau did not hammer McLarty with his innuendo-soaked questions, but patiently led him along, reminding him that he'd killed a houseguest with a .357 Magnum that he'd tossed into a remote canyon afterward.

"How many of those six shots were in self-defense?" Mesereau asked sarcastically.

"Every shot was in self-defense," the hapless McLarty sputtered.

Tormenting McLarty about his five-day wait before he contacted the LAPD after Bakley's murder, Mesereau asked, "When did you change your mind to tell the truth?"

"The whole thing was overwhelming," McLarty answered.

"Lying to the police can be overwhelming," agreed Mesereau.

After Mesereau got him to admit that he had been a longtime cocaine user and suggested that McLarty had child-support warrants quashed in exchange for his testimony against Blake, McLarty asked Judge Nash if he could take a break. When the judge granted his request, Mesereau turned around to the court with a big smile on his face.

MANY OF US IN THE PRESS AND SPECTAtor seats returned the smile, not the least because, perhaps, we recognized in McLarty's rambling prevarications our own futile struggles to remain heroes in the movie that is our daily lives. But the Mesereau-McLarty give-and-take also exposed a hidden vein of Hollywood anthropology, the rough camaraderie of stuntmen and their proximity to violence, drugs and warrants. Despite the yawning gulfs in McLarty's recollections, he spoke fondly of friends he had known for 30 years, the times they would ride their motorcycles in the desert, the parties on their ranches, their funerals and their nicknames for one another. (His, improbably, was Whiz Kid, and Ronald Hambleton, the other stuntman allegedly contacted by Blake for the hit, was called Duffy, while yet another case-related stuntman's was Snuffy.)

The next day came the revelation that Detective Ron Ito (no relation to Lance) had been accompanied in his investigations by a book writer and L.A. Times reporter who had been allowed to handle evidence. It was yet another glimpse into a town where crime, celebrity and spin often converge with disastrous results — at least, possibly, as far as the prosecution is concerned.

At no point in the hearing did Blake turn around to the court, although during lulls his old-school friend Solari would mumble Frank Sinatra's "Scoobie doobie doo" refrain from "Strangers in the Night." It was as though Blake weren't even there. The night before, Walters had asked Blake about the effects of his ordeal. "They took away my past!" Blake shouted. "They took away who I was — my whole life!" Then he subsided into a sullen calm. Clearly, Blake had lost the will to act, and this should cause his jailers the deepest concern.

Reach the writer at smikulan@laweekly.com

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