by Steve Ryfle
The Robert Blake
murder trial plods forward, spinning a tragic yarn of deceit and death. It seems the former "Baretta" star is just the latest in a long line of actors accused of homicide, and doomed to be remembered for their alleged crimes instead of their legacies on the screen.
But is he, really?
With all the scandals that come out of Hollywood, it may come as a surprise to learn how few stars have been charged with murder or a similar crime. And of those, none has ever been convicted of murder -- a seemingly amazing statistic, owing to cover-up theories, bungled prosecutions and gloves that didn't fit.
The first movie star accused of murder was comedian Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle in 1921. Arbuckle's case remains one of the most notorious in Hollywood history, both for the heinous nature of the crime and lingering doubt as to what really happened.
Arbuckle, whose popularity rivaled that of Charlie Chaplin at the time, had a reputation for hard drinking and womanizing. After signing a three-year, $3 million studio contract, he threw a party in a San Francisco hotel to celebrate. One of the guests was young starlet Virginia Rappe, who was found moaning in pain on a bedroom floor and rushed to a doctor. She died a week later due to a ruptured bladder, and Arbuckle was charged with murder; the press implied that Arbuckle had raped the woman and violated her with an object, causing her injury. After three trials, Arbuckle was acquitted of the charge, but the sensational media coverage killed his career.
"Peyton Place" star Lana Turner had already burned through four husbands by the time she started dating mobster Johnny Stompanato (a.k.a. John Steele). He showered her with gifts and affection at first, but soon he became domineering and physically violent, beating and choking her and pulling a gun. As the story goes, it was a Friday evening in 1958 at Turner's Beverly Hills home when Stompanato became enraged at the actress, and Turner's 14-year-old daughter Cheryl came to her mother's aid and fatally stabbed the gangster.
To this day, suspicions remain as to whether Cheryl took the rap for her mom. Did Lana Turner strike back against an abusive lover, or was she jealous of another woman? A jury ruled that Stompanato's death was justifiable homicide, and despite scandalous trial coverage in the press (newspapers printed racy love letters exchanged between the starlet and gangster), the case had no lasting effects on the career of Turner, who went on to star in "Falcon Crest."
The first celebrity murder trial of the modern tabloid era wasn't really a murder trial, although it had all the trappings of one. French-born actress and singer Claudine Longet, best known for being Andy Williams' wife in the 1960s, was convicted of criminally negligent homicide and served 30 days in county jail for shooting her boyfriend, ex-Olympic skier Vladimir "Spider" Sabich, at the Aspen chalet they shared in 1976.
Longet maintained that the gun accidentally went off in her hand while Sabich was showing her how to use it. The press and prosecutors believed there was more to the story -- for instance, Longet's relationship with Sabich was supposedly on the rocks, and she was making plans to move out. Nevertheless, prosecutors never had enough evidence to charge Longet with murder. Following the trial, Longet married her defense attorney and remains, to this day, an Aspen resident. The case's impact on her career was negligible, since she didn't have much of a career to speak of.
WIth its cast of characters, its bizarre turn of events, and its dubious legacy, the O.J. Simpson murder trial needs little explanation. It was on June 12, 1994 that Simpson's ex-wife Nicole Brown Simpson and her friend Ron Goldman were found murdered outside her Brentwood condo. In the 133-day-long televised murder trial that followed, Simpson's high-priced and flamboyant team of lawyers made the LAPD and the prosecutors look foolish. In October 1995, Simpson was acquitted, but as everyone knows, he plays golf at public courses now and he doesn't appear to get enough work in Hollywood to keep an active SAG card.
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame producer Phil Spector is slated to face trial this year for the alleged murder of B-movie actress Lana Clarkson at his fortress-like estate in Alhambra, Calif. in February 2003. Police say Clarkson died of a single gunshot to the mouth, and grand jury affadavits unsealed last year revealed that cops found broken teeth scattered on the floor at the crime scene. Spector, whom officers reportedly subdued with a Taser gun, maintains his innocence and insists Clarkson "kissed the gun." He remains free on $1 million bail pending the trial.
These were others. Christian Brando, son of the late Marlon Brando and a (very) marginal actor in his own right, shot and killed his half-sister's boyfriend in 1990 and was convicted of voluntary manslaughter, serving five years in prison. And Director John Landis was was acquitted of involuntary manslaughter charges stemming from the deaths of actor Vic Morrow and two children, caused by a helicopter accident on the set of "The Twilight Zone," in 1982.
Scandalous case after scandalous case, Hollywood's homicides have provided cottage industries for true crime authors, tabloid writers, paparazzi and other media - even t-shirt sellers and courtside concessionaires. Time will tell just how much of a moneymaker the Blake trial will turn out to be.