Judgment Day: The John List Story (1993) — How to (Almost) Get Away With Murder

Dave looks back at Robert Blake’s chillingly prescient return to acting.

“Yes, Robert Blake is alive,” ran the first line of Steven Cole Smith’s story in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in early 1993. [1]

An actor from the age of five, Blake rose to prominence in the ’30s and ’40s across over three-dozen Our Gang shorts before transitioning to more grown-up roles, hitting a career high with his stunning performance in the 1967 film adaptation of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. The part of a murderer on the lam would be something he’d return to in JUDGMENT DAY: THE JOHN LIST STORY; a project that enticed him back in front of the camera following an eight year sabbatical.

In 1985, Blake had pushed for his self-penned pilot, Hell Town, a show about a streetwise priest, to be picked up for series. After sixteen episodes, though, he was done. The actor walked away from the network, and, seemingly, his career. Between Hell Town and Judgment Day, Blake slept in his van and called in favours from friends, gradually coming to the realisation that the reason for this exile was rooted in his troubled childhood.

“I’ve spent most of my life running,” Blake stated at the time. “I hid in working myself to death, and almost succeeded. I was trying to hide from myself. I soon realised that, as a child, I was very, very seriously beat up and abused physically and sexually. My parents were committably insane. My father was a sadistic, madman alcoholic who killed himself when he was forty-eight. My mother was equally bad, if not worse, because she saw what was happening and did nothing about it.” [1]

By 1992, Blake had begun reconciling with his old life — but there was a nervousness about employing him again. Indeed, production company Republic Pictures were so reluctant to give him the lead in Judgment Day that Blake even agreed to forego his salary ($250k) until the film was finished and everyone was satisfied.

And satisfied they were.

Bagging an Emmy nomination for his turn, Blake is terrific as the eponymous, God-fearing List who, in 1971, killed his mother, wife and three children in the home they shared in Westfield, New Jersey. List had planned their murders meticulously, and nearly a full month passed before their bodies were discovered. By this time, the church-going killer was already residing in Denver, living under the assumed identity of ‘Robert Peter Clark’. List’s avoidance of law enforcement lasted for an astonishing eighteen years until Frank Bender — a renowned forensic sculptor — recreated and aged the fugitive’s head, and it was shown on America’s Most Wanted. List was apprehended days after the programme aired.

By and large, Judgment Day sticks to the facts of the case (which also inspired Joseph Ruben’s 1987 classic, The Stepfather), with the interviewees of police chief Bob Richland (David Caruso) serving as screenwriter Dennis Turner’s chance to introduce flashbacks to List’s early life: notably, his domineering mother (the brilliant Carroll Baker — “Discipline and order repel evil”), and his first marriage to the heavily-medicated Helen (Beverly D’Angelo). It’s here where Blake excels, conveying the screwed-up nature of List’s upbringing in tandem with the relentless guilt caused by his fiscal and parental shortcomings in adulthood.

Airing on CBS on 23rd February 1993, Judgment Day appeared to herald a renaissance for Blake.

“My philosophy now is that I just want to take real good care of myself,” he said ahead of the film’s premiere. “All I want to do is use the talent God gave me to make films. The human condition is a very, very, very difficult one, and a fragile and frail one, and we all need to help each other.” [2]

Robert Blake only made two more films: Money Train (1995) and Lost Highway (1997).

Chillingly, in 2002 he was charged with the murder of his own wife, Bonny Lee Bakley. Though acquitted, the jury in the civil suit three years later found Blake liable for Bakley’s wrongful death and ordered the disgraced star to pay a $30million settlement.

USA ● 1993 ● Drama, TVM ● 86mins

Robert Blake, Beverly D’Angelo, David Caruso, Melinda Dillon ● Dir. Bobby Roth ● Wri. Dennis Turner

[1] Robert Blake Re-emerges from Darkness to Return to TV by Steven Cole Smith, Fort Worth Star-Telegram, 22nd January 1993.
[2] Robert Blake Comes Full Circle Portraying Killer John List by Andy Seiler, Camden Courier News, 23rd February 1993.

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