The Mystery Man

I looked down on the shelf and saw Robert Blake looking back up at me.

He was dressed in a police uniform and had a very intense look on his face. The sort of stare that actors in the 60’s gave to add depth to their performance. Like Zoolander.
I picked up the VHS box for “Electra Glide in Blue” and felt my heart pinch just a little.
Then a combination of guilt and disgust quickly washed it away.
“You know, I’ve never seen this movie,” I said to Marc, tapping the empty box on my arm.
Marc works at I Luv Video in Austin. One of the largest independent movie rental houses in the country and where Quentin Tarantino will most likely be buried . Marc and I went to film school together and lost touch until we met up in L.A. He was in a band, I was in the film business. We cuddled to “Funeral” by Arcade Fire. He left the band to do some sort ecological job that I can never recall. I left the film business to stop myself from driving my car off the PCH. We lost touch and wandered around the country until we discovered that we both landed in Austin.
“Well, why don’t you rent it then?”
“I don’t know, man, I think it will kind of make me feel bad.”
I shrugged my shoulders and walked over to the next aisle. I wasn’t sure exactly why it would make me feel bad. I just knew that it would.
The Paul Morrissey video shelf. How pretentious can you get?
“You know, I called him last Christmas. It had been a year. He never called me back.”
Oh God. Kenneth Unger’s “Scorpion Rising”. Intro to Film Aesthetics and Analysis. Patricia Zimmerman’s class. 2003. Bullshit.
“It was his number still. Same voice message. “
How is this shit considered quintessential film making!?!
“It still says in a fake Texan drawl, “Robert’s not here right now. Leave a message.”
They don’t tell you in film school how it’s really going to be. They might show you a movie with a bunch of leather clad dudes fucking to Bobby Vinton and call it ground-breaking, but they don’t tell you about the lost souls you’ll encounter every day in Hollywood. The sort of situations you will find yourself in at 23. Those moments when you step back and go, “Shit, I finally get what David Byrne was saying when he said, “Well, how did I get here?”
How I met Robert is a long story, but one I will try to keep short. Two years ago I got a phone call at my desk. A man introduced himself as Robert Blake and asked if he could stop by the studio to drop a gift off to my boss. My boss’ father and Robert were friends back in the 1950’s and he had found a script that the two had worked on together. Robert’s acquittal was still fresh and we were all a little nervous to have him stop by. We waited anxiously as the tiniest old man in a ten gallon hat and purple cowboy shirt appeared. I was struck by his meander and his incessant use of calling me “secretary”. I pointed out that we had a mutual acquaintance (my friend Ian lived in the same apartment complex in The Valley as Robert) and we chatted for roughly a minute before he said he had to go. And that was it. I didn’t hear from Robert again.
Until six months later…
Another call at my desk.
He was short and sweet. “I want back in the business and I need help.”
I told him that I worked exclusively for my boss at the time but I’d be happy to meet with him and talk. We made plans for breakfast and I hung up the phone wondering what the fuck I was doing.
And I went to breakfast with Robert.
And we talked for five hours.
And I met with him again the following week.
And we drove around Los Angeles as he told me stories about dancing on the Paramount Pictures sidewalk t at three years old looking for work, getting beaten and locked in the closet by his father, performing on “The Little Rascals”, doing heroin, calling Humphrey Bogart his mentor, hanging out with Truman Captoe and Dexter Gordon, going to jail, how Marlon Brando’s son was the one who really killed his wife, giving away the contents of his life to complete strangers, only shopping at garage sales, and believing that the most romantic thing he ever heard was Richard Farnsforth killing himself so he wouldn’t burden his wife with his cancer. As he was telling me this, he pointed to all the Los Angeles landmarks that only mean something to him, the same landmarks he had seen for the past 72 years of his life. In a town that had swallowed him up and spit him out ten times over. He spoke of going to Peoria, IL. The illusion of normalcy that only a small Mid-west American town can bring.
But Robert is to die in the muck of Los Angeles. It’s his home and all that he knows.
He let me into his home. A one bedroom apartment in the Valley that was empty other than old photographs and pieces of paper with the words, “Don’t give up” scrawled in child-like writing up on the wall. He told me that he would win an Oscar before he dies, dammit, and that he’s still got the gift.
Bobby Blake has still got it.
Last year, I wrote a thinly disguised essay about my friendship with Blake titled, “The Night of the Acquitted B-list Actor”. The biggest amendment I made to the story was the ending. I wanted to make it more romantic than it actually was.
In the fictional ending, I spoke of mixed feelings in my emotional involvement with a presumed murderer and separately my need to get out Los Angeles in order to rediscover myself. I wrote of Robert’s encouragement and his “seeing something in me”. He told me I had too much to offer the world. So as I watched the skyline of Los Angeles get smaller and smaller in my rear view mirror, I thought of Robert, of picking up the phone and calling him, but instead, I decided to leave it all behind me.
In real life, the dirty old bastard wanted to get in my pants! He’s fucking 50 years older than me! What the hell did he think? Did he think losing $40 million civil law suit for most likely killing your wife was is a huge turn-on?
…to Robert and to my fantasies of what it wasn’t. You do deserve that Oscar.
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  • Reply erin October 21, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    I loved him in In Cold Blood…but I don't think I've seen him in anything else…

    He seems like the type who even when down on his luck would still assume he could get into your pants.

    Or get said pants off of you.

    Gross. So much for building a friendship with a fading star.

  • Reply mysterg October 21, 2009 at 6:51 pm

    As a Brando aficionado I did wander if it was Blake the first time I read your original piece. Oh and In Cold Blood is great.

    If there is a lesson to be learned here it's that you had a luck escape from a similar fate. To be sucked into that world yet escape it is quite a testament to your character.

  • Reply Hannah Miet October 21, 2009 at 7:30 pm

    What an interesting story.

    Despite the fact that he was ultimately a creeper, I think most people enter our lives for a reason. Even if that reason is just to provide a snapshot, a perspective we will never have through our own eyes.

    F'in LA. I could live there for a little while. I know I could never stay.

    Also, I third the Cold Blood love.

  • Reply Angie October 21, 2009 at 8:08 pm

    Hannah, that's what I was going to say as well… everyone we meet has a purpose. Amazing story Lauren!

  • Reply WILDasaMINK October 21, 2009 at 9:03 pm

    I completely agree with what everyone is saying here, "everyone enters our life for a reason…", your post had me on the edge of my seat-I loved it, it was so deep and I was engrossed. Sorry that he turned out just to be another old man sleezebag.
    And I think you're on to bigger and better things in Austin.

  • Reply ash.lin. October 21, 2009 at 9:46 pm

    im not sure if you will find this comforting or not- but im glad you lived to tell us this tale. perhaps its the pessimist in me, but fraternizing with accused murders isnt something i do often.
    (but if given the opportunity id love to chat it up with brandy or john wilkes booth.)

  • Reply Hipstercrite October 21, 2009 at 11:34 pm

    Erin- Robert was the lead of a popular TV show in the 70's called "Baretta". He won a number of Emmys for his performance. It was one of the first rogue cop shows. It's actually really good. You can get the first season on DVD (he also has a famous cameo in Lynch's "Lost Highway")

    Mysterg- In Cold Blood is a fantastic movie. Way ahead of it's time. I need to buy it, actually. Yes, Mysterg, don't worry, I don't sleep with criminals. Or worse, B-list actors.

    Hannah- I totally agree with you on that. That is one reason why I want to believe that Robert is a good man. I felt like he was to be a friend for a long time. I was tricked…

    Angie- You should put that clip up from "Lost Highway" with The Mystery Man. Sooooo creepy and good.

    Mink- Thanks for the feedback. I wrote a seven part story about this awhile ago that was a little more film noirish. It needs a lot of work though.

    Ashley- We should suggest a roundtable meeting with all the great acquitted entertainers…

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