But last March, after 11 months in solitary confinement, Blake was set free on bail. These days, his life is much sweeter, and he's looking much better -- even though he has to wear an ankle bracelet. Correspondent Peter Van Sant reports.
Blake granted a 48 Hours producer and camera crew exclusive access into the Malibu condominium where he's living. He would not sit for a formal interview, but he gave 48 Hours a look into what his life is like as he awaits his murder trial.
"When I first got out, all I had was what they call 'sill to sill.' They didn't care if I lived in a 15-room house. I couldn't afford nothing like that, but I could afford this. But I couldn't cross the sill," says Blake.
"You don't know what it's like when Judge Shemp said, 'It's OK, Robert. You can cross this sill. Your foot can go over there and the sheriffs won't come and get you. And you can walk down this place.' And you ask me, 'Well, what are you doing out here in this elegant, wonderful place by the ocean? You look like some big shot movie star.'"
At his condo, Blake is free to enjoy the sunshine and listen to the soothing ocean waves, but he's still very much penned in. He can't leave his apartment, not even to set foot in a pool just steps below his balcony.
"Even if I could go in, I can't drown this thing," says Blake, referring to his ankle bracelet. "You can take a shower, but you can't take a bath."
Blake lives at this condo courtesy of Jeannie Kasem, a former TV actress on "Cheers" and the wife of radio legend Casey Kasem. Remarkably, Jeannie asked her mother to move out so Blake could move in.
"We're doing what we're doing because it's the right thing to do," says Jeannie. "It's morally the right thing to do."
"He's a very warm, warm, sincere honest human being," adds her husband, Casey.
"The papers all print stories about me being in this big, fancy place. It ain't big. It's got two rooms. But it's lovely," says Blake.
In the six months he's lived here, Blake has even become close to his 85-year-old neighbor, Annie.
"I don't think I want him to go away," says Annie, who provides Blake home-cooked meals from her adjoining balcony.
Everything here is lovely, but away from all the sunshine, Blake is accused of being a stone cold killer.
"Based on the evidence in this case, it can be proved beyond a reasonable doubt that this defendant, Robert Blake, killed Bonny Lee Bakley," says Los Angeles County Deputy District Attorney Shelly Samuels.
Samuels says that on the night of May 4, 2001, Blake had dinner with Bakley, his wife of six months and the mother of his young daughter, Rosie. Moments after they left the restaurant, Samuels alleges that Blake shot Bakley twice at point blank range as she sat waiting for him in his car.
Samuels says she has no doubt that Blake committed the murder. But his Hollywood friends defend him.
"Robert Blake is a pussycat. He's sweet, he's gentle. He's my Bobby," says legendary film star, Jean Simmons. "Of course he's innocent. I mean, there's absolutely no doubt in my mind at all.
"He's my friend. He's always been very honest with me, very candid with me," says actor Wilford Brimley, who kept Blake connected to the outside world while he was in jail. "I've known him to be a very generous, caring, giving, gentle human being."
"He's not a violent guy," adds political comedian and commentator Mort Sahl, who says he and Blake go back a long time. "He's not a tough guy. He's always trying to put the pieces of his heart back together."
Blake says he's not the killer he portrayed in the classic film "In Cold Blood." And he's not the demented psycho who killed his entire family in a TV movie called "The John List Story."
"The character that the press and the public relations world invented was an ugly person," says Blake. "An inhuman monster. And there was nothing that I could do about that, but that person has nothing to do with me."
In fact, Blake claims that whatever he said in promoting "The John List Story" was all one big act driven by economic necessity: "I devised this character and he was outrageous, and he was color and he did ridiculous things, and he said ridiculous things. The truth is that those scripts were just exactly that, they were scripts."
So who is the real Robert Blake, this man who's been on the public stage for most of his 70 years?
For starters, he is a bit of a wise guy. But this alleged killer and legendary tough guy is all heart when it comes to Rosie, the child he had with Bakley.
"When Rosie was two weeks old, I held her in my hands, and I asked God to take care of her 'cause I'm an old man and tomorrow is guaranteed to nobody," says Blake. "I said, 'God, if you please take care of Rosie, I will never, ever ask you anything again for the rest of my life.'"
Now, Blake is preparing for his upcoming murder trial.
"I've always believed that it ain't the size of the dog in the fight, it's the size of the fight in the dog," says Blake. "Let's see how much fight is left in this little busted up old dog."
Leading his fight is Blake's new lawyer, Tom Mesereau: "Bonny, for most of her adult life, ran a lonely hearts scam. And she had any number of people who she ruined who are capable of doing this crime."
What is known about Blake's alleged victim, Bonny Lee Bakley, the woman who married the TV detective, and was shot dead six months later?
"Bonny always said she was going to reach out and she would have it all," says Christina Scheier, a grade school classmate and one of Bakley's best friends. "She set out the goal to be a celebrity when she was very young."
Scheier said Bakley wanted to live in the world of celebrities and was willing to use anything and anyone to achieve her goal: "She always told me that you had to sleep your way to get to the top."
At 21, Bakley became obsessed with rock legend Jerry Lee Lewis. "She wanted to be like Jerry Lee Lewis," says Scheier. "She said if Jerry Lee Lewis could marry his cousin, she could marry her cousin."
Bakley married her cousin, Paul, and had two children. In 1980, while still married, she moved down south to pursue Lewis full time.
Frankie Jean Lewis, Jerry Lee's sister, was an early witness to Bakley's dreams of stardom, and the length she'd go get there. Bakley would eventually plant a story in the tabloids alleging she was pregnant with Lewis' baby. But when a test revealed the baby wasn't his, she dropped her pursuit of the rocker.
"She was a deadly sweetness. She was the kind of a sweet you wouldn't want to taste," says Frankie Jean.
Bakley settled into a lifestyle tailor-made for the tabloids -- a life of deception, wrapped up in the promise of sex. She advertised in porno magazines, and began targeting anonymous, lonely men in a lucrative mail order scam – sending letters and nude photos of herself in exchange for cash.
But it wasn't a victimless con. Andrea Weber's late grandfather, William, answered a personal ad placed by Bakley. And one day, Bakley surprised him by showing up at his home in Florida and convincing him to marry her. After one week of marriage, she disappeared, leaving William heartbroken and broke.
"Bonny was into my grandfather's life for one week and basically walked off with $80,000," says Weber. "Bonny was a very cold, calculated con woman."
By the late 1990's, Bakley made her way to Hollywood.
"Bonny finally figured out, 'I'll marry a movie star.'" says Scheier, showing Bakley's little black book, which included addresses of people Bonny would soon begin hunting down: Warren Beatty, Robert DeNiro, Peter Fonda, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford.
In May 1998, Bakley told Scheier she was dating Robert Blake. Soon, Bakley was pregnant, which came as a shock to Blake, who thought she was on the pill. Bakley recorded one angry phone call from Blake: "It was all a lie, and not a little lie. That's a big lie that God looks down and says, 'Hey, wait a minute, wait a minute.'"
In June 2000, Bonny gave birth to Rosie, and a DNA test confirmed Blake was the father. Five months later, the couple got married. "He was angry, he was trapped. He was being used," says attorney Harlan Braun, who Blake hired after Bakley was murdered.
During their investigations, Braun and his team uncovered Bakley's vast scam empire — evidence of the thousands of men she manipulated and swindled. Braun said they turned over 15,000 pages of documents to the police.
"She'd even had wills, where she would get men, older men to put her or her family in wills hoping they would die."
According to Braun, Bakley was married at least eight times.
"She was a black widow from hell. She would eat her prey as soon as she was finished with them," says Frankie Jean Lewis.
"Honestly, when I found out she was murdered, I was happy," adds Andrea Weber. "She got what she deserved."
But the D.A. says Bakley's killer wasn't one of the victims of her mail-order sex business. It was Robert Blake.
A 911 call on May 4, 2001, with Blake in the background, was the first sign of trouble. And before long, he was in the tabloids.
"Everybody said, 'Well, hang him. Skin him first. Drive him through town and then hang him,'" says Blake. "God just kind of said, 'Robert, sit quiet. Be patient, be patient. Let this mob mentality wear itself out. Because it just isn't true. And if you sit still and quiet and wait long enough, the truth does come out.'"
Blake says he didn't kill his wife, but Samuels, the D.A. who will try the case, says he clearly had a motive -- he was angry and frustrated over the fact that he'd been forced to marry her.
In one phone conversation recorded by Bonny, Blake accuses her of entrapping him by getting pregnant: "You swore to me, you promised me and it was all a lie…"
But Mesereau, Blake's attorney, says the allegation that Blake shot Bonny in front of his favorite Italian restaurant is preposterous.
"If you're gonna believe them, Robert Blake committed a murder in full view of everyone who saw him for 15 years," says Mesereau. "He would have had to do something so thoroughly ridiculous and insane that it makes no sense. And it didn't happen."
Blake carried a gun the night of the murder, but forensic tests have confirmed it was not the murder weapon, which was found in a dumpster near the crime scene.
There are no fingerprints, no DNA, no eyewitnesses and no forensic test that definitely says gun residue was found on Blake. But Samuels says she still has a case: "You can still have a very compelling case without any of those things."
A large part of Samuels' case centers on the sworn testimony of two Hollywood stuntmen who claim Blake solicited them to murder Bonny -- including Duffy Hamilton who worked with Blake on "Beretta". At the same preliminary hearing last March, former LAPD Det. William Welch gave a similar account of the conversation he had with Blake.
In Blake's defense, Mesereau says: "One of them, in two interviews with the police department, emphatically said, 'Mr. Blake never solicited me to murder anybody.' The other one has now admitted that Robert Blake never asked him to kill anyone. The third one is a retired LAPD officer who doesn't say he was solicited to murder."
"Perhaps their credibility was undermined a bit, but we have evidence to corroborate the things they say," says Samuels.