March 22, 2005 — -- In his first interview since his acquittal on murder charges last week, TV tough guy Robert Blake told ABC News' Barbara Walters that he had essentially given up hope over the past years.
"I'd gotten so brainwashed over the past five years," Blake told Walters in an exclusive interview today on "Good Morning America." "Being thought of as America's Saddam Hussein, I thought, 'Why not croak and get it over with? Go see the boss.' "
When his acquittal was announced, Blake said that the first thing that went through his mind was that "I was going to have to live again."
Blake, a former child actor who later became known for his tough-guy roles, is trying to move on with his life after his highly publicized trial. On March 16, a Los Angeles Superior Court jury acquitted Blake, 71, of murder and one count of solicitation to commit murder in the 2001 shooting death of his wife, Bonny Lee Bakley, after almost two weeks of deliberation.
The jury deadlocked 11-1 on a second solicitation count, which the judge then dismissed. If convicted, Blake could have faced a mandatory life sentence without parole.
Bakley, 44, was shot in the head on May 4, 2001, as she sat in their car after she and Blake dined at one of the actor's favorite restaurants. Los Angeles County prosecutors had argued that Blake tried to hire others to kill his wife, but then did it himself when he couldn't find anyone to carry out the murder.
Blake, best known for playing an unconventional cop on the 1970s TV drama "Baretta," married Bakley after DNA tests showed he was the father of her daughter Rosie. Prosecutors contend Blake killed Bakley to get her out of his life and prevent her from becoming a bad influence on the girl.
Blake did not testify at trial. But in various interviews before the trial -- including one with Walters in 2003 -- he denied any role in the killing. He said he left Bakley in the car that night and returned to the restaurant to retrieve a gun he had left at their table. When he came back to the car, he discovered his wife had been shot. Jurors saw Blake's interview with Walters during the trial.
In a rambling statement to reporters after his acquittal, Blake thanked his legal team, kissing one lawyer on the head and saying, "This small band of dedicated warriors saved my life." He also chided the media for getting distant relatives and casual acquaintances to comment on the case and on Blake's character.
Blake also thanked Walters and said that he could not have won his acquittal without her.
"Barbara Walters, God bless you, darling," Blake said. "I would have never got out of the joint without you. God bless you, Barbara, wherever you are."
In his interview with Walters today, Blake again effusively thanked her. "You saved my life," he said.
Blake says now that he's a free man, he plans to spend time "cowboying" with "real people."
"That means you just go out and you see all the people that you've been flying over all your life. All the people that send you mail, that pay the taxes," he said. "They got no agenda. All they're doing is living their lives and they bring you down. They bring you down and you know what's important."
Though acquitted on murder charges, Blake still faces a wrongful death lawsuit filed by Bakley's family. But Blake says they'll have to get in line -- a long line -- as he attempts to go back to work to pay his way out from under a massive debt.
"If Uncle Sam woke up on the wrong side of the bed, I'd be out on the street with a guitar, because I owe him a lot of money," Blake told Walters. "I'm broke as a church mouse."
Blake said he will also focus on "playing grandpa" to Rosie, his 4-year-old daughter with Bakley. When he was in jail awaiting trial, Blake gave custody of the girl to his oldest daughter, Delinah, and her husband, Greg.
Blake said they will continue to retain custody of Rosie but that he will see her often.
When asked if he will tell Rosie about her mother, Blake said he wouldn't lie. "Children always know the truth," he said.
When asked in a news conference right after his acquittal who he thought killed Bakley, Blake seemed to get angry and told the reporter to "shut up."
Blake said today that what he meant by that comment was that he "would like to have everybody stop killing Bonny now. Everybody's trying to make a buck off Bonny."
Walters asked Blake again who he thought killed his wife. Blake said he didn't know, but added, "She led the kind of life where she made a lot of enemies."
Many trial watchers said Bakley came off as an unsympathetic victim during the case. She was portrayed by the defense as a con artist and a woman who planned from a young age to attach herself to a celebrity by any means necessary.
When the verdict was read in Blake's trial, he put his head down on the table and wept. He told Walters that his tough-guy days were long behind him and his time spent in jail had changed him.
"I'm not a tough guy. I'm not strong. I'm not brave," he said.
His scrappy image was just a way to keep people away, he said. "I couldn't stand the sunshine," Blake said. "It's lonely being a junkyard dog."
But Blake said that it took the experience of being accused of murder, spending time in jail and being acquitted to peel away what he called "those layers of nonsense."
"I love hugging people," Blake said. "It's weird."
Blake says that although he's been personally changed by this event, changing the perceptions of his fans and foes will take time.
"The other day I went to the farmer's market and everybody was hugging me and stuff, but there were people on the outside saying, "Murderer, murderer,' " he said. "But it's hard to go from being Saddam Hussein to Seabiscuit, and try to catch up with it."
Although his battle in the civil courts is still on the horizon, Blake says his conscience is clear.
"Would anybody conceivably believe, even if I could kill somebody, that I would use a 60-year-old gun that holds eight rounds and put three rounds of 10-year-old ammunition and shoot somebody twice so maybe they'll recover and they could identify me and then hang around in the restaurant?" he asked. "I mean, don't you go hire somebody to go to Hawaii to kill somebody when you're not around? Does any of it make any sense to anybody on the planet?"
How the public ultimately perceives Blake is anyone's guess, but for now, the actor told Walters he wants what everyone wants.
"I want a date for New Year's Eve," he said. "I want somebody, you know, lingerie with lace, Olympia by the case and waking up all hours just to see her face. When you love somebody enough to stay up all night watching them sleep, that's a magic that only God can give you."