By Joan E. Vadeboncoeur; Syracuse Herald Journal, January 7, 1972
It looked as if wild acclaim from the teenyboppers was only the matter of one record when Pete Duel died last week of a self-inflicted gunshot wound in his Hollywood Hills home. The actor spoke of it last summer while lunching with TV editors in the executive dining room of Universal where his Alias Smith and Jones series was shooting for ABC.
He had signed a three-year contract with the studio, “enticed by the inclusion of a feature film,” as he put it, “which, in fact, I did.” The movie was [Cannon for Cordoba] which, when finally released, was a television offering and was so old, the press material came with the star’s last name as “Deuel,” a spelling he discarded about a year ago.
The contract didn’t appear much rosier to Pete when Smith and Jones entered the scene, although he said, “I love to be in Westerns, playing cowboys and Indians” and wished he had been in The Wild Bunch.
“What bothered me about it was being in a half-baked success,” Duel remarked. Then the studio press agents told him that he was becoming a person that every teenybopper had on their walls.
‘The Idol Bit’
“So I started looking at the magazine racks,” he said, still rather bewildered at the results. “One said on the cover: ‘Would you dare date Bobby (Sherman), David (Cassidy), Pete or Ben (Murphy, his series co-star)?’ Well, that’s good for about five years before you’re finished.”
“I’m still not sure this idol bit is true,” he continued. “But we’ve started to get the ‘groupies’ on our set. It looks like the Thursday night taping of The Lucy Show.”
Records were also a part of the actor’s Universal package, but he said, “I got out of that portion; now I can negotiate my own contract.” This would have permitted him to go for a more lasting record career in the type of music he liked best, “very easy things like pop and country-Western.”
Duel would have enjoyed a music career and was annoyed with himself that the only time he was given a chance to sing on the series — “an old Shaker song” — he had a cold.
One of the editors could not comprehend an intelligent man’s desire to desert a business in which he was already a star for a shaky new career in an area the editor clearly deemed inferior. But, in Rochester, Pete’s home area, music is considered a highly respected profession, even the field of jazz. As Duel himself said, “Music’s cool in Rochester.”
When he died, the studio’s publicist for the show was quoted as saying the actor had no career problem, but that drinking may have have led to his depression. That is simply not true.
First, Pete was one of the increasing number of Hollywood stars to go the health food route. He brown-bagged his own simple diet to lunch, refused a cocktail which most food fadists deplore, and groaned about having just finished an eating scene that “damn near choked me it was so huge.”
Second, he was frank about his acting status:
I didn’t want to be in the series; I was down on it. I was as close to a nervous breakdown as I ever want to be about getting involved in another one. Inch by inch, day by day, I was getting more upset until I was standing at the edge. I’d never been there, but I finally drew back and said, ‘It’s not gonna happen to me.’ So I went for total acceptance and now I try to enjoy the show; not take it too seriously.”
Yet the network’s publicist saw what I saw in the actor who I had met before and whose personality I knew from a joint friend in Rochester. Unlike personal press agents, network men are not required to take a perennial upbeat view. “He’s down,” said the ABC man, who liked Duel personally.
Three weeks ago, on another California trip, I checked Pete’s status. The network man told me, “He’s broken up with that lovely girl he was going with. I’ve never seen him so down.”
The summer of 1970 was one of the actor’s happiest times; he recalled it as “magic time.” He had done four of five things, as he put it “bing, bing, bing,” one of which was a Psychiatrist episode, which satisfied his actor’s ego. “I only missed one or two moments in that,” he said, a rare smile crossing his face.
Discussing our mutual friend, a summer theater operator, Duel sighed over his tight TV schedule. “I’m so tired when I get home, but somehow I’ve got to find two weeks to play. I’ve owed it to him for three years.”
On his way back to the set, the actor stopped and called back to me, only half in jest, “Call Barry when you get back and tell him the longer he has to wait, the more valuable I’ll be.”
The three-year wait is over.