by Fenton Bresler; Pageant, January 1975
On the night of December 30th, 1971, handsome, 31-year-old Pete Duel left his girlfriend in bed, walked naked into the front room of his house–and blew out his brains. “Cerebral destruction,” are the grim words of the police report that I read in the office of the local coroner. Why did he do it? Why did the star of the highly successful television series, Alias Smith and Jones, a top success on both sides of the Atlantic, destroy himself in the early hours of that December morning?
It could only happen in Hollywood. “I don’t know why he did it. I really don’t,” a publicist friend of Pete’s told me. “I couldn’t believe it then — it’s three years ago now and it still doesn’t seem real.”
What chance did I stand of trying to find out what brought Pete Duel to sudden — and young — death?
I was lucky. Through an actor friend, I made contact with Pete’s younger brother — 30-year-old Geoffrey Deuel. Also an actor, he has the same easy good looks, the same ready smile. We met in a coffee shop on the Sunset Strip. For over an hour he talked to me — reluctantly at first — about Pete.
Their childhood was idyllic. Pete was born in a small country town near Rochester, New York. His father was a local doctor, his mother a nurse. There had never been any actors in the family.
The two brothers were very close. Both loved the country. “In the summer,” said Geoffrey, “we built ourselves a wooden cottage out by a lake.”
“It was lovely,” says Geoffrey. He looked around at the crowded coffee shop and smiled. “It seems so long ago.”
Pete’s first ambition, like that of many schoolboys, was to be an airline pilot. But his sight was not good enough; in later years, unknown to the millions who watched him on the screen, he wore glasses for reading while not working.
So after local high school he went up to St. Lawrence University to study the liberal arts. “He was not really very committed to his studies,” said Geoffrey. “A young college guy raising hell with no idea what he wanted to do with his life.”
But that was where he first got really interested in acting. He did some plays at the university and, in his second year, his parents came up to see him perform in Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tatoo. Dr. Deuel was impressed. His son was not doing well in his official studies — so he said to Pete: “Why don’t you just quit wasting your time and my money, and go and study this professionally someplace?”
Pete auditioned at the American Theater Wing school in New York — and got in. For two years, from 1959 to 1961, he was a young drama student in that brash, exciting skyscraper city. He got a few jobs in summer stock, road shows, some off-Broadway pieces. Finally, in the spring of 1963, he ended up in California, playing one of the leads in a touring production of a Broadway comedy. “You could do very well in Hollywood,” a local actor friend told him.
So in the summer of 1963, Pete moved over from New York to the Californian City of Dreams; he cut his first name down from “Peter” to “Pete,” he changed the spelling of his surname from “Deuel” to “Duel.” He wanted to be a success.
“It was an exciting time for Peter,” says his brother. “He started going out, trying to land guest roles on various TV series. Eventually, he got a co-starring role in a comedy series, Gidget”
It lasted only a year. But it was followed by another year-long run in a comedy show, Love on a Rooftop, with Judy Carne, the Laugh-In star.
“He liked doing comedy,” said Geoffrey. “He was very good at it.” But in 1967 the show was cancelled and Pete suddenly found himself unemployed.
“He never ‘went Hollywood’,” Charles Parker, a leading West Coast television writer, told me. “He never owned a suit or a tie. He was always just the same as when he first arrived: a nice young guy in denim shirt and faded jeans.” But all actors are neurotic; they always fear their last job will really be their last.
Pete got used to working. Money was not his worry. He rented a small apartment over a garage for about $65 a month; his car was a little Japanese jeep. But he wanted passionately to work. He was devoted to acting. He had plenty of girlfriends — though usually one at a time. Yet girls, as such, did not come near to the center of his being. Acting was his ruling need.
When in July 1967, Universal, the most successful motion picture studio in Hollywood, offered him an exclusive 7-year contract, he accepted it. “Yes, he got tied up,” said Geoffrey Deuel. “A contract means you get paid every week, not per show. It means also that the studio will give you work because they want to build you up.”
When Pete Duel signed that contract — which for so many young actors would have been a gateway to Utopia — he started on the road that led to “cerebral destruction.”
When a major Hollywood company signs up anyone on a long-term contract, it is a business investment. They give the youngster “exposure” in a selection of parts to see which gets the bigger following. Then when the moguls deem the time is right, they put him in a series — as a “star.” He does very well out of it financially; so do they.
That is what happened to Pete Duel — only he did not do very well out of it in terms other than commercial.
In October 1970, Universal offered Pete the co-starring role, with Ben Murphy, of “Hannibal Heyes,” in their new western series Alias Smith and Jones. It was not a run-of-the-mill cowboy idea. Hannibal Heyes and his buddy Kid Curry were two reformed outlaws trying to go straight and earn a final reprieve. The characters — based loosely on the Paul Newman-Robert Redford team in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid — were affable, friendly guys who laughed and joked, and did not like killing.
Pete had already turned down two previous series. If he said “No” this time, the studio moguls would almost certainly put him on suspension — which meant he would get no money and be unable to work elsewhere. He would rather have gone on doing meaty guest roles in other peoples’ series — not to be the “star” of his own. But, in his brother Geoffrey’s words, “he really had no choice.”
Geoffrey makes it clear that he does not want to attack the Studios. “That’s the way it is; that is the rule of the game. Certain other actors would just love to have a series; they would be on Cloud Nine.”
But that month Pete Duel got himself hopelessly drunk, staggered to his car, drove out onto the fast-paced Hollywood roads — and collided with another car, almost killing two people. The accident was entirely his fault. For unknown to the world, Pete was an alcoholic. “Yes, he had a drink problem,” said Geoffrey. “Drink can often intensify happy moods and can, very easily, magnify depressing moods. To Peter, drink was an off-and-on thing. He could go for a year without a drink — but when he did things he often did them to an extreme. Often the problem with a romantic and an idealist is that he is too hard on himself.”
Romantics and idealists should not try to work in a mass-production factory. That is what a successful Hollywood television film-making studio is today. An hour-long show is shot in only six days. The actors must get seven to eight minutes film time “in the can” per day. It is remorseless.
Harold Frizzell was Pete Duel’s stand-in in Alias Smith and Jones. “He was one of the greatest guys you could meet. He was a hard person to understand, but I could read him. He just had so much love that he wanted to spread it. He loved people in general, everybody. His attitude was that people are human beings and entitled to be treated as human beings. He loved kids. He wanted to settle down with a good woman who would look after him and give him kids — a whole house full of kids.
“He came back home with me to Kentucky and he would call my parents ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad’ — he would phone them from the set. He loved his own parents, too, and both his Grandmas. One he loved a lot; he bought her a brand new TV set. I could not have asked for a better friend. He was one of the greatest guys, especially in this business. This is a dog-eat-dog world.
“The simple things in life were what Pete loved — so simple that most other people would not like them. ‘Let’s take a walk in the woods,’ he would say, and we would sit out all day beside a lake and fish. He was just about the best-liked person who ever worked at Universal studios.
“He was crazy about ecology and hated pollution. He would not use plastic cups on the set — only glass ones. He would not use anything that would not dissolve and go back into the earth.”
Alias Smith and Jones was a great success. Pete became admired and famous among millions of people all over the world. Yet he told a journalist I met over there that the show was “junk and I hope it gets scrapped.”
Egbert Swackhamer, “Swack” to his friends, is a leading television film director. He directed Pete Duel many times. I spoke to him on the set at the Warner Brothers Studios. He was brutally outspoken: “He had a self-destructive urge, that young man. I have seen it before in actors with a real natural, in-born talent. He was an instinctive actor. Pure gold! Yet he was self-destructive — and self-indulgent. He was into everything — drugs, booze, you name it. He did not spare himself in self-abuse.”
In May 1971, while Alias Smith and Jones was still being churned out at the Universal factory, Pete Duel’s drunken driving case came up in court. Pete wrote to the judge:
In recalling my feelings on that night, shame and terror were in my mind. Sitting here eight months later it is very difficult to re-create the events of the accident or even try to find justification for my conduct. But I do want your Honor to know that I am a person basically interested in other people and I would not knowingly harm anyone.”
The probation officer spoke up for Pete. The drunken driving charge was not proceeded with. He was fined $1,000 for dangerous driving, put on probation for two years — and disqualified from driving for two years. He was lucky not to go to jail.
“From then on, I became Pete’s chauffeur,” said Harold Frizzell. “I used to collect him in the morning, bring him to the studio, give him his script for that day. He said it was so much rubbish he couldn’t read it except in small daily doses — then work with him all day, and collect him at the end and bring him back home.”
“This series, any series, is a big fat drag to an actor who has any interest in his work,” Pete told Hollywood reporter Cecil Smith in September 1971. “It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive.”
By now, Pete was utterly and completely disenchanted with Alias Smith and Jones.
“It isn’t the work that tires you,” he told Smith. “It’s that it’s all such a dreadful bore it makes you weary, weary.”
“A successful series is, like Pete said, a trap for an actor who wants to do better things,” top television script writer Bernard Slade told me. “It’s very seductive. The money is fantastic. Of course, it makes pressures. An actor who wants to expand, to develop, finds himself trapped in a hit. He cannot go on, he has to stay where he is; the character does not develop. It stays the same; it is a personality.”
Pete became even more outspokenly bitter about his work. In November 1971 he told Cecil Smith — for publication — “Contractually, I have to do this series — or some other trash.”
The end was drawing near. Like any other factory employee, Pete began work at the studio on the latest six-day shooting of an Alias Smith and Jones episode early on the morning of Monday, 27th December 1971 — two days after Christmas.
Shooting proceeded as usual. If anything, Pete seemed more relaxed that week. His parents had not managed to get over from New York State to spend Christmas with him, but they were due to arrive that Friday morning, December 31, and spend the weekend in Los Angeles with their two sons. The Christmas tree stood in Pete’s front room with his parents’ presents wrapped beneath the branches waiting for them.
“I was going to have dinner with the family that weekend,” Egbert Swackhamer had told me. “Those boys idolized their father; they loved, feared him. I thought he must have been eight feet tall — the way those boys talked about him. I was looking forward to meeting him.”
On Thursday, December 30, 1971, Pete Duel finished work for the day at around 7 p.m. An episode of Alias Smith and Jones was being shown on TV at 8:00 that evening. Pete had telephoned his girlfriend Dianne Ray and asked her to come over to his place and watch it with him.
Harold Frizzell drove Pete home and came in to watch the show. “Dianne and Pete kinda lived together,” says Harold, “but she had her place as well.”
She was already there, and the three settled down to watch the show.
“Pete did not like it,” Harold told me. “He said it was trash. He did not like the dialogue.” Then he switched channels to watch a basketball game. Halfway through, Harold said he was tired and going off home. “All right, man, see you in the morning,” said Pete.
These were the last words that Harold Frizzell ever heard Pete Duel speak.
Harold assured me that Pete was sober when he left. “He had not been drinking all day long,” he says. “He could quit drink whenever he wanted to.”
Yet at about half past one the following morning — when Dr. and Mrs. Deuel were [about to fly] 3,000 miles across the continent to join their son — a grief-stricken Dianne Ray telephoned the Hollywood police. Pete was dead.
On arrival at the house, Sergeant Paul Estrada found the actor lying naked on the floor of his front room under the Christmas tree with his parents’ presents spread out all around him. A revolver was lying beside him. “There was no doubt he had shot himself,” Sergeant Estrada told me. “It was a contact wound to the head. The angle of the bullet clearly showed he had held the gun to his temple and fired.”
Dianne told Sergeant Estrada and his colleagues that after Harold Frizzell had left, Pete drank heavily. She said she went to bed in the small house’s only bedroom. Pete stayed in the front room. About 1.25 a.m. he came into the room, naked, took the gun from a box, and left saying, “I’ll see you later.”
Minutes later, she heard a shot fired in that front room.
“We did a lie-detector test on the girl,” says Sergeant Estrada. “Everything she said proved valid.”
Why did Pete do it? The police mind is often a simple mind: “The autopsy showed the guy had three times as much alcohol in his blood as would have got him convicted for drunken driving,” Sergeant Estrada said. “He was completely smashed. I guess there is a lot of pressure on these stars. I don’t know why he wanted out of it — making steady money, and all. I suppose it was the drink.”
I have been to the house where Pete Duel died. I have stood in that front room. His landlady has tried for over two years to clean the blood stain off the carpet. It is still there. I have seen the remains of that poor fellow’s blood forever stained into the weave. “I knew Pete very well,” said the landlady. “I still can’t believe he shot himself. He was under pressure, but, by God, so are we all. He was a young boy; he wanted to get out of his series and to do some really good work that he thought he was capable of. All right. But why this?”
Harold Frizzell believes to this day that Pete tried to call him shortly before he blew his brains out. He racks himself with torment that it may have been a cry for help. “At about one a.m., my telephone rang,” Harold said. “But I was asleep. By the time I could get to it, it had stopped ringing. The only guy who would have phoned me at that hour would have been Pete. Often in the night when he was lonely or wanted a chat he would phone me and we’d talk for hours.”
At Universal Studios that Friday morning, nothing was allowed to mar the day’s shooting for that day. Ben Murphy, Pete Duel’s co-star, went ahead and worked. The crew turned out. The cameras rolled. Says Pete’s publicist friend: “They did all the shots for that week’s episode that didn’t require Pete.”
Did they think they could possibly use that week’s episode? Big money was at stake. Next Monday, three days later, it was announced that Roger Davis would take over Pete Duel’s part. Wearing a black hat, black shirt and gilt holster, he would — with Ben Murphy — reshoot the previous week’s episode and complete the series.
I talked to Ben Murphy about his dead co-star. We met on the set of his latest success, Griff.
“It’s a pleasure, Fenton, to meet you. How are you?” he said, when we were introduced. I told him I was writng about Pete Duel and asked: “What makes a man do a thing like that?”
“I have no comment.”
“How did his death affect you?”
“I’m sorry, Fenton, no comment.”
“Who made this rule, you or the company?”
“No, only me. So you know that if ever you see any comment by me in the press on Pete, it didn’t really come from me; it’s not true.”
“All right, thank you,” I said.
“That’s O.K., Fenton. I’m sorry.”
And a successful, handsome, young television star went back to work in a television factory.
“What I cannot understand,” I said to my friends here, “is how on earth Pete Duel could choose that particular moment to kill himself — when his parents, whom he loved so dearly, were at that very moment flying out to see him.” [Editor’s Note: This is actually NOT a fact; Pete’s parents were not, at the time, in the air.]
“But isn’t that classic?” replied Bernard Slade. “Isn’t that often the way with suicides? They do it in such a way as to deliberately hurt the people they most love. It’s as if they want to destroy not only themselves, but others whom they love the most.” [Editor’s Note: Slade makes outrageous claims here.]
Geoffrey Deuel did not want to talk to me about his brother’s death. I only dragged two words from him about it. But I believe they supply the essential clue: “Accidental suicide.” It is a descriptive phrase.
I think it all blew in his mind as he sat there in the front room of his country-style house, a drink in his hand and his girlfriend asleep in his bed behind. What was it all about? What was the use of it all? Perhaps we’ll try something, see what happens…
Alias Smith and Jones did not long survive the death of Pete Duel. “He was the real star. A lot of the success of the series was due to him,” Egbert Swackhamer told me. And so it proved. Despite Universal’s hurried re-casting and the valiant efforts of Roger Davis to play the part created by someone else, the show ran for only seventeen more episodes. Then the moguls killed it — as effectively as Pete killed himself.
Dianne Ray left Hollywood after Pete’s death. She lives [now] in Mexico. A friend of mine met her down in Acapulco a few months ago. He says she is a pleasant, friendly girl working as assistant manageress in a coffee shop. She seems happy. So far as I know, she is still not married.
Harold Frizzell still works at Universal Studios as a stand-in. But he has not found another Pete Duel: “You only meet a guy like that once in a lifetime.” Harold is married now and lives not far from the studios.
There is irony to Charles Parker’s comment on Pete’s death: “Perhaps part of it was frustration in his work. He was successful, but he did not really feel a success. He did not think that what he was doing was worthwhile.”
I leave the last word to Geoffrey Deuel:
Pete felt there were other things he wanted to do. Acting was not enough in itself. He wanted to do other things for people that he considered more meaningful — and he wanted to have better parts. Possibly, that was a shame, because he forgot how much happiness he gave to so many people.”
[Editor’s Note: Pete confided in his brother, Geoffrey Deuel, that Harold Frizzell wasn’t as much of a close friend as Harold claimed.]