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The volcanic star of Baretta cools down only to find 'fame cost me my family'

When he won a best TV actor Golden Globe for Baretta in 1976, the anarchic Robert Blake didn't show. Accepting for him was his wife, Sondra, who had stood by and steadied her volcano of a man through a dozen years. But this once, unable to maintain her accustomed saintly forebearance, she just blurted into the microphone: "Bob is home barfing his brains out. It's his way of handling success."

Last weekend, having finally gotten himself more or less together at 43, after bouts with drugs, drink and deep depression, Blake was scheduled not only to appear as a nominee at the Emmy Awards but also, implausibly, to serve as co-host (with Angie Dickinson). The cruel irony was that just six weeks earlier Sondra and he had split. His excruciating efforts to become a star and make her proud had seemingly backfired. "Fame cost me my family," Blake says morosely. "Now I'm sleeping with a stranger called success."

That's typical melodramatic over-simplification, although the success at least is undeniable. Between his high-rated ABC Baretta series and his commercials for STP, Blake pulls in more than $1.5 million a year. "But every time you think you got it made," he laments, "old Mother Nature kicks you in the scrotum and says, 'Hey, I'm still in charge.' " For example, Blake sacrificed the usual summer TV series hiatus and has barely stopped shooting since June 1976. "I had a dream," he says, "that I would spend three or four months alone with my family if I worked straight through."

It turned out to be the impossible dream. "Apparently other people had other ideas," he says cryptically. In any case, last month Blake moved out of the "cracker box" house in the San Fernando Valley he shared with Sondra Kerr, 34, the actress wife he met at the Pasadena Playhouse and married in 1964. The complications behind it argue for no-fault separation. Robert concedes that Sondra perforce set back her own career and paid "the heavy dues with the kids," Noah, now 12, and Delinah, 11. Outsiders can't know whether mothering Robert through his earlier bad times was what kept them together or, ultimately, put them asunder. In any case, she's sought solace with actor Steve Railsback, with whom she played in CBS's Manson-murder dramatization, Helter Skelter.

Probably one cause of their abrasion was Blake's insistence on a resolutely non-Hollywood life-style—their patchy backyard was littered with bicycles and rabbit hutches. His wheels are a dirt bike, a Ford van, a Jeep and a pickup truck. "Maybe if I had done all this for a Mercedes, it would have made things easier," Blake reflects. But he insists, believably, that he did it for the kids—"to give them what I didn't get, a father who can do something."

Blake has indeed sacrificed. His home right now is his gloomy dressing room on the Universal lot, where Baretta is shot. It's a shambles of leftover furniture and weight-lifting equipment ("This used to be a gym for me, but not anymore"). The other day daughter Deli rummaged in a pile of boxes in the corner and pulled free a silly statuette of a putty-faced man with outstretched arms bearing the inscription, "I love you this much." "Daddy, you must keep this out at all times," she ordered.

It's an injunction Blake will surely follow. For her birthday last month Deli wanted to eat in a "fancy" restaurant and to meet her favorite star—Kate Jackson of Charlie's Angels. So Blake arranged the first party he had ever given his daughter, and after the dinner at L.A.'s chic Chasen's the door to the kitchen opened and out stepped Kate Jackson, bearing a candle-lit cake. Deli was overcome, and tough guy Blake was in tears.

That was the sort of caring Blake himself missed as a kid. Born Michael Gubitosi in a rough Italian section of Nutley, N.J., at age 2 he was working in a frayed song-and-dance act started by his parents, called "The Hillbillies." Robert at one point was sent out to steal his own milk. When the family moved to L.A., he apprenticed as a $2.60-a-day extra in the Our Gang series, then played "Little Beaver" in the Red Ryder Westerns. "I wasn't a child star," he says bitterly of that Hollywood period. "I was a child laborer."

A has-been by his teens, he was bounced from five different L.A. high schools, then skidded into alcohol, drugs and an Army stockade. Breaking back into the business as a stunt man, he wound up with solid TV roles (The Richard Boone Show, The FBI), only to mess it up by punching out a director. His breakthrough seemed to come in 1967 with his chilling characterization of a death row killer in In Cold Blood. That led to nothing but stunning notices and a psychological dive. He didn't work for two years. Aided by Sondra and more than a decade of shrinkdom (he's now into self-therapy), Robert clambered back to more disappointments with four flop pictures, from Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here to Busting.

Against all advice, he latched on to Baretta when it came up in 1975, creating in three weeks, with Sondra's help, the appealing detective with the cockatoo, oddball disguises and ingratiating humor. The series changed his life, and now he's determined to change it again. "I've always seen myself in the David Niven-Cary Grant vein," he cracked in a stage-snob voice just before the Emmys. "And it's about time the town recognized me as such. This was my coming-out party." Or was it? "That's the big problem I have in life," he readily admits of his self-image. "Y'know, I'm always the little greaseball on the corner who ain't supposed to have none o' this. And Lord knows I paid enough frigging dues in my life to get someplace."

Yet, characteristically, he scrawled on the walls of his tidy office suite at Universal graffiti like THINKIN' SUCKS, and worse. He has also announced unilaterally that this is the last season of Baretta. "I want to quit a winner," Robert figures, "and not overstay my welcome. If Humphrey Bogart were on TV every week, they'd get sick of him too." As for the financial rewards, Blake says, "After awhile it's just like Monopoly money," but has committed to three pictures as soon as Baretta is wrapped. He may want out, but he is far from contemptuous of the tube. "TV is the greatest force for good that ever came down the pike," he says flatly. "It stopped the Vietnam war. When TV shot pictures of teenagers gettin' their guts blown out, the average Joe sat up and took notice. Roots did more for black dignity and self-respect in one week than 200 years of black revolution."

Blake's own cause these days is a campaign for children. "Kids ain't got no rights in this country," he maintains. "There has to be a bill of rights to give kids legal recourse and a birthright of three hot meals a day from the time they're born. Every kid has to have the right to complain, the right to some love in this world, some guidance, some freedom." (It burns him up, for example, that his son's principal vetoed the boy's proposal that the class march into elementary school graduation to the theme from Rocky.) Blake says he's "in touch" with Sen. Edward Kennedy and others to draft such a bill.

But back in his jumbled dressing room home, Blake doesn't look like a guy TV's made rich and powerful. The bustup with his wife still hurts, and he's into horse riding, hunting and dirt biking, but not the dating game. To get out of the Baretta stereotype, Blake has taken to wearing a cowboy hat and strumming a guitar. "I'm forever blowing bubbles," he chants. "Pretty bubbles in the air." He stops and looks at the disarray. "Just think," he says sadly, "this is all there is after 12 years." The brooding thought passes. "I'm all right," he says to assure himself as much as anyone. "And I'm going to be all right. And dat's"—jabbing a finger at the world—"the name of dat tune."