Peter threw himself into the demanding life of school and auditions. He completed the American Theatre Wing program in 1962, having appeared in every play staged by the drama department.
“I studied Shakespearean drama, Restoration comedy, fencing, dancing, speech, elocution, and body movement. They really put you in shape there.”
His work to this point had been the successes of a beginner: In summer theater; then in an off-Broadway production of Electra at the Players’ Theater in Greenwich Village (where he also served as assistant stage manager); Family Service Association of America plays (“[they] gave me invaluable experience in many different types of roles”); and a Department of Defense film. He also appeared on the prestigious CBS television show, The Armstrong Circle Theatre. It was progress even if it appeared slow to an ambitious young man. No doubt he began to consider how he could most quickly improve his power to obtain good roles.
One year after graduation, he achieved his breakthrough into mainstream theater. The Broadway comedy hit, Take Her, She’s Mine, formed companies for road tours, and Peter was cast in the role of “Donn Bowdry.” When the company arrived in Los Angeles, Peter made the rounds of film studios and investigated other acting opportunities. He considered the impact that national recognition through movies or television could have on his command of good stage roles because “I [had] soon found myself resenting the fact that no one was aware of what I had to give.” His plan was to “return to Broadway with a background they’d have to consider.”
When the Take Her, She’s Mine tour ended in Washington, D.C., Peter did not return to New York to capitalize on his success. Instead, he spent the summer of 1963 at home in Penfield, suggesting that he’d already decided to move to California. He had had enough experience to understand New York theater, and it was still early enough in his career that he could experiment in Hollywood without losing ground. While in Los Angeles with the play, he must have learned that the American Broadcasting Company (ABC) was creating its own in-house studio for television aimed at younger, urban audiences. This was an opportunity for an actor of his type.
“After a few months of serious thinking, I decided to head to the Hollywood casting offices and the open spaces.”
As Peter said in a 1967 interview, “I never sat around waiting for instant popularity.” After he consciously decided to invest five years in Hollywood, he moved across the nation at the summer’s end — in his own unique way. “I didn’t come to Hollywood on a jet plane. I drove across the country. I didn’t stop in motels. I had a simple pup tent and put it up whenever I felt tired.”
By moving from one coast to the other, Peter left behind everyone who knew of his epilepsy. His solo drive across the nation, while he camped and enjoyed the pleasure of solitude, was also a statement that he planned to live as if his health was unimpaired. Los Angeles was — even then — a sprawling city devoted to freeways and cars; being unable to drive would severely limit his opportunities to work, so drive he did. He never seemed to fear having a seizure while driving and even drove race cars on occasion. Whether this was bravado or evidence that his seizures were preceded by an “aura” is unknown.
He soon settled in a small apartment on North Fuller Avenue in West Hollywood, a Los Angeles neighborhood located just below the hills that divide the city proper from the San Fernando Valley. The modest two-room walk-up over a garage would be Peter’s home for all but the last few months of his life. The surrounding neighborhood was made up of simple bungalows and housed a pleasant mix of people. “There’s flavor here,” he noted. The inexpensive, $65-a-month rent furthered his practical plan to avoid overextending himself financially while getting established. His reply to questions about his small home: “When I move, it’ll be to a house I can afford.”
The apartment was located conveniently — with the Warner Brothers, Universal, and Disney studios to the north, and Paramount and MGM to the south. Nearby, too, was Griffith Park for hiking and recreation. Over the years, his Fuller Avenue apartment became a headquarters as friends from St. Lawrence University moved nearby and both Peter’s brother Geoff and sister Pamela arrived to take up acting and singing, respectively. This influx shows Peter’s loyal nature. Too, he was their bridge to the heady excitement of Los Angeles.
As a new face in Hollywood, Peter needed to blend in as a certain type and then stand out among his competitors. The tempo of American culture had shifted from the 1950s’ dichotomy of earnest conformity versus arty beatniks and motorcycle rebels. Modernity in the early 1960s was fleet, sleek, idealistic, yet irreverent. With his close-cropped hair and generous smile, Peter embodied this ideal. It was necessary to offer something unique, a personal appeal that would hold the attention of casting offices, magazine editors, and studio staff. His thoughtful enthusiasm, commitment to acting, and slightly offbeat approach to the industry did the trick.
His first television role in Hollywood was as part of a group of college students who haze a hapless boy in the Channing episode, “The Last Testament of Buddy Crown,” which aired in December 1963. It wasn’t until September 1964, nearly a year later, that Peter appeared again on screen — but at least he was working and on his way. Two 1964 roles required him to develop characters who were pivotal to the story and had to win audience sympathy in a few short scenes. Peter met this challenge with full-fledged performances.
In 1965, he won larger parts and received “co-star” billing for an episode of The F.B.I. Recognition of his talent culminated that year with a semi-regular role on the ABC television series, Gidget, a lighthearted comedy about a modern father-daughter relationship. Peter played “John Cooper,” husband of Gidget’s more traditional sister. Being hired to a series after two years in Hollywood was impressive, but it turned out to be unfortunate for Peter’s ambitions because it was a comedy. His work in other series had largely been the “heavies” he enjoyed playing. “It’s easier with my personality to perform the heavy, intense roles. I can feel it working up in my stomach and then I just open the door.” A comedy series, even in a semi-regular role, appears to have locked him into the minds of studio executives as a television comedy actor.
With Gidget came a trickle of press attention that quickly spread as his career gained momentum. The earliest known articles appeared in May of 1966. Peter made good copy. His image was of a cheerful new face with an open heart, and amusing, small eccentricities. He lived modestly because he was serious about his career. His background was acceptably “small town,” yet his family was of the professional, educated class. Balancing his boyish-ness, he liked masculine activities such as driving fast cars, camping, and also dating “natural, unaffected girls.”
In the early years, the Hollywood press used Peter’s bachelorhood as a lure for readers. He was reported to have a keen eye for “girls,” but a disinterest in marriage. Despite his interest in “natural” women, he is known to have dated many Hollywood actresses, but never stayed in a relationship for long. He spoke in several articles of the heavy work schedule required of actors, which did not leave him the free time that a wife and children deserved.
“Having a marriage when you’re in show business and making it work is damn hard. It’s damn hard for anybody. We weren’t built to be with just one person all the time.”
The cancellation of Gidget after a single season freed Peter to take a lead role in the sophisticated comedy series, Love on a Rooftop. He and co-star Judy Carne played “David and Julie Willis,” young newlyweds living in San Francisco on a small salary in a tiny apartment with a rooftop view. “It’s romantic and very adult,” Peter said in an interview before the first episode aired. Exterior scenes were filmed on location in the city and the series was in color, both elements that made it fresh and modern. Stories revolved around money problems, zany neighbors, and the clash between David and Julie’s personalities.
Off screen, Peter and Judy Carne had a tempestuous working relationship that mellowed into a love affair that ended when the show was cancelled after one year. “We don’t see each other as much now as we did at first,” he said, “but, if anything, I’m fonder of her now than I was before.” Though the press and perhaps others pressured him to marry, Peter publicly voiced his avoidance of the institution.
“I don’t want marriage now. I’m not ready for it. I like living the way I live. Someday I won’t. Someday I’ll meet a girl I can’t live without. Maybe. I can’t say for sure. Nothing is for sure.”
His career was blossoming and he wanted to keep all possibilities open. It could be said that he already had a primary commitment. Many extremely talented persons find that they are so driven to pursue their art that it becomes the center of their lives and their first priority.
Now 27 years old, Peter wanted his next step to be into movies. Television offered just one type of success: A lead in a series. This he wanted to avoid because the time demands prevented him from playing the variety of roles he had enjoyed while working as a freelance actor and co-starring in single episodes of different series. Gidget and Love on a Rooftop reinforced this lesson. From 1965 to 1967 he appeared only two times outside these series, and one appearance was filmed after the latter’s cancellation.
Movies were made by film studios, however, and they favored casting actors under contract. Universal Studios offered Peter the promise of a film role as part of his signing a seven-year contract and, after much thought, he agreed to sign the binding document in July 1967. In hindsight, this single decision can be identified as the key mistake of his career. At the time, though, the move made sense. Universal Studios, following a takeover by the Music Corporation of America, had became Universal City Studios, Inc., newly invigorated, producing both television and movies, and with studio facilities, talent under contract, and money.
Peter did three films for Universal. The first was a co-starring role in The Hell With Heroes, released in September 1968. He played a veteran whose war experience had not embittered him, but created a love of living. The next year brought Peter a starring role in Generation, released December 1969, an adaptation of a Broadway play comedy. “If I don’t make it as Walter, the angry idealist who says what he thinks and lets the chips fall where they may,” he prophesized, “then I’ll never make it.”
His final film, released in September 1970, was a return to co-star billing in Cannon for Cordoba, an adventure film set at the turn of the last century. Although Peter gave excellent performances in each, none was the hit needed to propel him to stardom.
Thus, in 1967, Peter committed seven years of his career to a film studio so he could make movies. The plan, unfortunately, ran against the tide within the industry. The predominance of films in entertainment had ended. Audiences were staying home to watch television for free, and Universal’s renaissance in film production capabilities could not reverse this trend. One year after Peter signed, the studio began to downsize its film production unit and emphasize television programming. Across the industry, production of low-budget “B” and “C” movies, the traditional proving ground for beginners, were abandoned.
Further, the scripts for Peter’s films were examples of how studios had lost touch with audiences. Once under contract, he could not circumvent this problem by appearing in independent productions. He found himself in the very situation he had always abhorred: under others’ control and pushed to do what was against his grain.
Also in 1967, Peter became involved in politics and social issues. His then-fiancée, Beth Griswold of San Francisco, paved the way for his involvement in Eugene McCarthy’s effort to become the Democrats’ 1968 Presidential candidate. Drawn to McCarthy, whom Peter called “a philosopher king,” and to his stand against the Vietnam War, Peter and a set of young Hollywood actors threw themselves into the campaign as volunteers. Peter attended the 1968 Chicago convention and, after seeing riots begin, went down into the city streets. At one point, he was confronted by a National Guardsman holding a rifle and bayonet. “It was as if someone had suddenly taken the blinkers off me. I had to go back and rethink everything and strip myself of the myths and half truths,” he said afterward about his campaign experiences.
McCarthy’s loss, along with the attack in Chicago on citizens by police and the National Guard, was a devastating revelation to Peter — or possibly a confirmation of his long-held suspicions about power and authority. The tenor of the times was “anti-establishment” with youth under age 30 fighting older people who ran the world in an outdated, self-serving way. He returned to Hollywood shaken by what he had seen. “It took me four months to get over that . . . the whole Chicago [convention] thing,” he remembered. He began to use interviews as a forum to express his opinions and promote causes to which he was committed, especially ecology. As the mood of the nation darkened, his did, too. He expressed increasingly pessimistic feelings, and once described himself as “the patron of lost causes.”
Soon after his return from Chicago, Peter was cast to star with Kim Darby in Generation, a comedy about a young couple’s wish for a home birth, despite opposition from the woman’s father, played by David Janssen, who finds their counterculture lifestyle appalling. Generation had been a hit on Broadway, but was less successful as a film. Darby was the biggest star because of her role in John Wayne’s True Grit and perhaps this is why the screenplay shifted focus to her character, causing the loss of much of the play’s well written dialogue. Though touted as Peter’s breakthrough role, it appealed neither to older nor younger audiences. He said disparagingly about the finished film, ”If you saw it, you know what it is like.”
Around this time, Peter changed his professional name to “Pete Duel,” and Generation was its first appearance in credits. He referred to the name change as “an exciting thing. I got quite a kick out of it because Duel is my name, while the other I shared with my parents, my brother and my sister.” Other accounts seem more revealing:
“It all came to a head about a year and a half ago. A lot of things entered into it. I’m not conventional in my habits. I had personal problems that made me feel it was time to try something new. Then there was the matter of simplicity. People were always saying ‘Peter who?’ or ‘Peter O’Toole?’ There were too many questions. I first took the ‘e’ out of Deuel, and then said to myself, Why not take the ‘r’ out of Peter and make that a four-letter word, too, to balance the other?”
During the production of Generation, Pete and Kim Darby fell in love. Darby seemed his “type”: Fragile build, vulnerable, and gentle. He had spoken of his tendency to be attracted to leading ladies. Unlike the usual romantic and sexual tensions in a script, however, Darby’s character in Generation was nine months pregnant and cohabiting with her husband. Preparing for their roles required Pete and Darby to participate in Lamaze birthing classes. It may partly have been the domestic nature of this intimacy that opened his heart to her. He took her to Penfield and introduced her as the woman he would marry. “I am ready to be a husband and father,” he was quoted as having said.
Pete then made his last film, Cannon for Cordoba, about a 1912 Texas-Mexican border conflict. He was reduced to co-star status, but had a role that allowed him to create a unique characterization, a young man with a feral nature, different in every way from previous performances. Cordoba was released in September 1970 to poor reviews — including his own. “Just a western, made in Spain,” he said.
Within Hollywood, Pete had developed a reputation for challenging directors and producers when he felt a script was inadequate. “He’s terribly headstrong and willing to take a suspension at the drop of a hat,” said his agent in 1970. “He’s not afraid to fight with the biggest people.” Nothing on record reveals how this reputation affected studio executives’ willingness to consider Pete’s career goals. Elementary psychology suggests, however, that it might not have won him advocates. The decision-makers in film, involved in work they enjoy, even today appear to have small insight into the frustration actors experience with inferior material, let alone the depressing pain of feeling they are prostituting their talent. In 1971, Pete said about working in a series, “At first you’re on guard against sloughing off the occasional good script, but after a while, you simply don’t care.”
He had demonstrated a versatile, remarkable talent in guest appearances across a spectrum of television programming. Despite the preponderance of dramatic roles in his work, however, he was viewed as a comedy actor. Pete said that to win the role of an ex-drug addict in The Psychiatrist, it had been necessary to screen the episode of The Name of the Game, in which he played a Czech revolutionary. His first big credits in Hollywood had been for comedic roles and his image was defined. “At times I feel so much pressure. It’s sheer hell in Hollywood,” he said. “Every day there are choices that can make or mar your hopes.”
From Universal’s standpoint, an unestablished film actor in unsuccessful dramatic films was far less valuable than a star in a comedy television series. Pete knew he was being aimed toward this end. “[Staying out of another series] is tough at Universal; you’ve got to be an artful dodger,” he said. His contract obliged him to make television pilots, so he did and thus far none had become a series. His preference was to guest star in television episodes, perhaps to build proof that he was a dramatic actor in addition to bringing variety to his acting experience.
Pete’s publicly sunny approach to life hid dark areas of anguish. Angry aggression when he drank revealed something far different from the ebullient charm that won him friends. It can be speculated that doing serious roles, especially those with a social message, gave him relief emotionally and made him feel his acting served a respectable purpose in the world. Further, his philosophy of acting placed every aspect of his life at the service of his characters. “The thing that makes a difference between a good actor and someone who can’t act,” he noted, “is that the good actor is able to get into and project that part of himself that reflects the role the way it’s written.”
But the last two years of Pete’s life were filled with events whose cumulative impact was more than he could bear. Emotionally, professionally, physically, and in his self-assessment, he endured experiences each of which alone was staggering.
His more serious troubles began in January 1970 when his girlfriend Kim Darby telephoned him to tell him she would marry a man in a few days whom she had only known for two and a half weeks. Pete had always managed to control how his romantic life was reported in the press. It was one thing to be known as a carefree bachelor and another in his mind, perhaps, to have breakups detailed. He may not have anticipated that linking with a bigger star, Darby, would mean he would become a player in her publicity. Her divorce after just a year of marriage to actor James Stacy had drawn a lot of press attention, and Pete’s entrance into her life continued the interest.
For Pete, Darby’s decision to marry James Westmoreland was painful enough, but it also created months of articles that described him as a spurned lover. So unexpected was Darby’s marriage that publicity pairing her with Pete overlapped her wedding news. In the April 1970 issue of Photoplay, for example, one article is titled, “Kim Darby: Surprise Wedding” and another discusses her relationship with Pete and predicts that “[he] may be her leading man in real-life for a long time to come.” When the Darby-Westmoreland marriage ended a mere two months later, more publicity poured forth.
Quickly, Darby began to contact Pete, but the same month in which she married, he had begun a relationship with a woman very different from his previous girlfriends. Dianne Ray was a production secretary when they met. Although presented in magazine articles as a sort of serene earth mother, Ray had a strong personality and engaged in tempestuous arguments with Pete. She moved into his apartment to keep house and work as his secretary, and in 1971, about six months into their relationship, convinced him to move from his small apartment in West Hollywood to the posher, much prettier Hollywood Hills. The couple shared an interest in ecological living, which seems to have been a primary tie.
Pete did another television pilot, playing the second lead in The Young Country, which aired in March 1970. A few months later, he was offered a co-starring role in a mid-season replacement series with a similar feel: It was called Alias Smith & Jones. Conflicting reports describe Pete’s attitude toward the series. Some say he made no objection. Others, and this is the view put forth publicly by Pete himself, described him as forced into it by his contract with Universal. Probably both positions are true. Pete may have felt he had little choice, especially since his last film, Cannon for Cordoba, had not been well received. He may have made a pragmatic gamble that a mid-season replacement series had little hope of lasting longer than its thirteen weeks.
The series’ Wild West setting may also have been appealing for he had had two good experiences guest starring in The Virginian.
“Making a TV series is the same thing day after day after day after day. I confess to being a little restless. I was footloose and fancy free at Universal before this came along. Still, if I have to make a TV series, I prefer being in the great outdoors and around horses than playing a lawyer, say, in a courtroom.”
Nevertheless, it was a return to the restrictions of a series and Pete expressed regret at the change. “For a year and a half, I was doing some of the best parts on television. It was a golden period, a magic time. It was a stimulating thing, and then to be grabbed by the back of the neck and put in a TV series . . .”
In October 1970, the pilot episode of Alias Smith & Jones began 16 days of production. The weekend before shooting concluded, Pete was involved in an accident that never ceased to haunt his conscience. The night of October 24, driving drunk, he made a left turn into the path of an on-coming car. After the accident, Pete and his passenger drove part-way down the block, parked, and began to walk away. They were stopped by a police officer and Pete admitted that he had been driving; alcohol tests confirmed that he was inebriated. The passengers in the other car were injured, one seriously enough to need hospital treatment and follow-up surgery.
At the time of the accident, drinking and driving was not considered reprehensible. Getting oneself home after a night out was an unpleasant necessity. Legally, of course, it was a different matter. Pete did not need modern condemnation to make him grieve over having harmed two innocent people. He knew what it was to suffer injury in a car accident. The nearly inevitable end of his reckless use of cars had arrived, but innocent people paid the price.
Production on Alias Smith & Jones continued the following Monday, October 26, for three more days. With the pilot “in the can,” six weeks then passed in preproduction for the half-season of episodes, and shooting commenced on December 7 and continued into 1971 until April 5. Production was rushed and pressured, involving 12- to 14-hour days with five to six days allotted for each episode. In the 1960s, an hour-long show was usually 51 minutes of story. That meant slightly more than eight minutes had to be accomplished each shooting day. Pete and co-star Ben Murphy settled into mastering their parts, spending time with the animal wranglers to observe the way real cowboys moved and spoke. Both actors learned to shoot prop guns and both later obtained real ones in private life.