Television detectives were a pretty straitlaced bunch until the 1970’s. During that time, the airwaves filled up with left-of-center detectives like Columbo, Cannon, and quite possibly the coolest of the bunch, Baretta. This maverick cop with a talent for the art of disguise became a television favorite and a standard by which all future cool television detectives would be measured.
Baretta rose from the ashes of another cop show, Toma. When Tony Musante, the lead actor on the latter show, decided to leave after its first season, the producers merely developed another show around actor Robert Blake. A former child performer who appeared in The Little Rascals, Blake had developed a tougher persona in his adult career, thanks to roles like the cold-blooded killer he played in the classic film In Cold Blood. With Baretta, Blake found the persona that would make him a television star.
To say that Tony Baretta was an unconventional cop was an understatement. He never worked with a partner, dressed in his street clothes instead of police blues, and worked out of his apartment in a run-down hotel instead of the police station. As one might imagine, all these quirks got him in trouble with the brass down at the precinct. His main nemesis in this respect was his commanding officer, a role first filled by Lieutenant Shiller and later by Lieutenant Brubaker.
Like his predecessor Toma, Baretta was a master of disguise and used this ability to solve his cases. Baretta favored going deep undercover with his cases and was good enough to pass for everything from a biker to a member of the mafia. While working undercover, he also got street-level information from Rooster, a stoolie with a yen for fancy threads, and from Fats, a street source with a raspy voice. At home, Baretta’s main pal was his pet cockatoo, Fred.
These colorful characters promised to make for an interesting cop show, and Baretta promptly made good. It was a perfect blend of hard-hitting action, good-natured comedy (much of it from Rooster), and just the right touch of drama. To top it all off, the show boasted the killer theme song ‘Keep Your Eye On The Sparrow,’ a funky-yet-smooth number sung by Sammy Davis, Jr. This carefully-balanced mixture of cool elements, paired with Blake’s rough-and-tumble charisma in the title role, helped make Baretta a television success story.
Baretta enjoyed a very respectable run, racking up three and a half years’ worth of shows before calling it quits in the summer of 1978. Robert Blake moved on to film roles and other television series like Hell Town, but Baretta remains his definitive adult role to many a cop show fanatic. It also remains a favorite in syndication.
These days Robert Blake’s career has been overshadowed by his 2005 trial for the 2001 murder of his second wife Bonnie Lee Bakley. He was acquitted but found liable in civil court for her wrongful death.
USA / ABC / x60 minute episodes / Broadcast Friday 17 January 1975 – Thursday 1 June August 1978
Theme Music: Keep Your Eyes on Me performed by Sammy Davis Jr.
ROBERT BLAKE as Detective Tony Baretta
DANA ELCAR as Inspector Shiller (1975)
EDWARD GROVER as Lt Hal Brubaker
TOM EWELL as Billy Truman
MICHAEL D. ROBERTS as Rooster
CHINO WILLIAMS as Fats