by Brenda Shaw; TV Radio Mirror, April 1972
For years, Pete Duel had wrestled with a demon, a demon that threatened to destroy him. In the end, the demon won, but only after a struggle in which Pete called on all of his own resources plus those of his friends and whatever help he could get from science and society.
For it was because of society and its laws that the brilliant, sensitive actor was brought face-to-face with the terrible truth that something uncontrollable was out to ruin his life. A clue to his inward struggle was contained in one sentence of a letter he wrote to a judge last June:
“I am searching for a meaningful life outside of my work,” he said. He was pleading for a chance to find that meaning in his life in the face of a powerful challenge — alcohol, the demon that had beset his life for so long.
He died in the early morning hours of the last day of 1971 — either accidentally or intentionally — still facing the challenge. A few moments before he fired a shot through his brain, he was seen holding a drink in his hand.
Pete’s close friends and those he worked with in the successful Western series Alias Smith & Jones deny categorically that he was an alcoholic, although he had sought help from Alcoholics Anonymous and had been in serious difficulties with the law because of his problem. Alcohol, they say, was only an outward symbol of the conflict with himself that friends could only guess at.
Perhaps it was summed up best by the Los Angeles County probation officer who talked to Pete at length before he paid a drunk driving fine of $1000 on June 15, 1971. Reported the probation deputy, David Folsoi: “He is sensitive to the fact that he is somewhat depressed at times, due in part to his work situation, and that this has contributed to his use of alcohol in the past.”
Had Pete Duel succumbed again to a fit of depression on the fatal night when he walked into his bedroom, drink in hand, to find the gun he used on himself seconds later? Something was on his mind, but what? Was there a sudden overwhelming sense of “what’s the use of it all?”
Pete’s girl friend, Dianne Ray, and his brother Geoffrey, as well as his other closest associates, maintain that he was “just fooling around” with the gun, as he had two weeks earlier when he fired another shot in his Hollywood Hills home. He said he was going to put a period to a telegram informing him that he had been defeated in an election to the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild. He pinned the telegram to a wall in the hallway and seemingly felt much better after putting the bullet hole in it.
However, he made a strange remark to Dianne just as he picked up the gun the night he died. “I’ll see you later,” he said, and then walked into the main room of his rustic house, stood before a Christmas tree with its lights still blinking, and pulled the trigger.
Whatever was on his mind apparently was at odds with his announced plans for the future, assuming that he was doing more than “just fooling around.” Before watching an episode of Alias Smith and Jones with Dianne earlier that night, he had asked his answering service to wake him at 6:30 the following morning so that he would be up in time for work at Universal Studios. He and co-star Ben Murphy, as well as other members of the cast and crew, were going to spend the last day of the year working.
Pete had also arranged for Dianne to drive him to the studio that morning. He gave every indication of having a firm intention to keep on living—indefinitely.
Still, the stark fact that someone else always had to drive him (usually it was his stand-in who took him to Universal) could easily have preyed on his troubled mind. He could no longer drive his own car, or any car, by order of the court. As he said himself, he recalled the fear, panic, and terror he felt on the night of October 24, 1970, when two people were injured as the result of a collision with his car on a West Hollywood street.
He had been charged both with driving while intoxicated and leaving the scene of an accident. Because of various technical problems, the case was continued until the June date in 1971, when the hit-and-run charge was dismissed on the grounds that he had walked only a short distance from the intersection where his car collided with another.
It was in connection with Pete’s application for probation after a plea of guilty to the other charge that he wrote in longhand the poignant, revealing letter to Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Bernard S. Selber, sitting in the Santa Monica court.
“Dear Judge Selber,” he began. “In writing this letter it has meant that I have had to relive the circumstances which led up to my arrest and plea. On the night in question when the accident occurred, I had been drinking and I do not want this letter to appear to be an excuse for driving while intoxicated, because looking back now I can see there is no excuse.
“When I left the scene of the accident, I cannot frankly say if I intended to remain away from the scene or not. In recalling it, I believe I intended to go to a friend’s house, and after gaining some composure, face up to it. I am satisfied that part of my action was the result of my being momentarily terrified, knowing that I had been drinking and, fearing arrest panic set in. A short while later I resolved in my mind to go back and face it but events happened so quickly I did not get the opportunity to prove my good intentions.
“In recalling my feelings on that night, shame and terror literally filled my mind. Sitting here eight months later it is very difficult to recreate the events of the accident or to 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 would not knowingly do harm to anyone. But, knowing that this resulted from my drinking, I have sought professional help.”
He went on to explain that he was consulting a psychologist to try to get whatever help he could from the latest developments in mental science. He also added that he had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous meetings.
“I am not drinking any more,” he informed the judge. “I am trying to find out the cause for my drinking which led me to this incident. I am searching hard for a meaningful life outside of my work and I feel that I will not be involved any further with the law, particularly with regard to drinking and driving.
“I truthfully realize the seriousness of the situation and I am humbly grateful for the court’s consideration in this matter. Respectfully.”
He signed his full legal name “Peter Ellstrom Deuel.” (He had before the Alias Smith & Jones series dropped the first “e” in his last name.)
The probation report said: “With regard to intoxicants, it appears that the defendant has had a serious problem with alcohol. Defendant states that he used to be a heavy drinker when younger and this pattern continued until the accident constituting the present offense.”
The report declared Pete “appears to be of above average intelligence” and that “he is no longer touching alcohol at this time and will not allow it to destroy him.”
Probation was recommended. So although Judge Selber imposed a 180-day jail sentence, this was suspended on condition that Pete pay the $100 fine and “abstain from all alcoholic beverages and stay out of places where they are the chief item of sale.” The probation was to have lasted for two years.
Judge Selber talked with Pete in the court’s chambers and was impressed with his sincerity. Although known as a kindly and understanding jurist, he knew that he had the responsibility of making sure that no new driving incident would occur during the two years. He therefore required the actor to surrender his California driver’s license and refrain from operating a motor vehicle for at least one year or until the license might be restored. This could only be done by filing an application with the State Department of Motor Vehicles, which would make an investigation and evaluation before ruling on the application.
Pete was never behind the wheel of a car again, not at least while it was moving. His friend Allen Cahan, publicist assigned to the TV series, declared: “From the day of the decision, he was always driven everywhere he went. He was extremely careful about that.” Cahan was one of those who insisted that Pete was not an alcoholic.
“I have known people with drinking problems, but truthfully I would never have put him in that category. I have seen him have a beer to get through a press conference and that sort of thing, but I wouldn’t have classified him as an alcoholic. It was just one of those things that bugged him.”
Something more seemed to be bugging Pete Duel, however. He was working hard, probably too hard.
“He was tired,” Al admitted, “but any show that comes in at midseason, as this one did last year, has a tough ride. There were times during the year when they were doing two at once, but both Pete and Ben Murphy understood that it was strictly because of the midseason start.”
One day in August, Pete worked too hard. He collapsed from exhaustion in the middle of a scene and was taken home in a studio ambulance to rest, but in true show business tradition he was back on the set the next morning, working as hard as ever.
Everyone said: “Pete Duel is a professional.”
That was one reason he was popular. Another reason was that he was concerned — concerned with working conditions (that’s why he wanted to be on the Screen Actors board), concerned with ecology (he made a documentary on the subject) and “just generally concerned with his fellow man.
According to Dennis Fimple, who played “Kyle” in the series: “He was a good man. He really was. The company worked well together. Everybody loved him. That’s unusual, you know.”
Dennis who was another of Pete’s close friends, will never be convinced that the shooting was other than an accident.
“I don’t think he checked out purposely at all. I think it was an accident, without any question or doubt in my mind.”
He had been with Pete the night before. Pete brought out a collection of poems and thoughts he had written over the years. He had just had them bound and allowed Dennis to read them. One was a four-line piece of verse titled, “Love,” written by Pete in 1965.
Pete died at 1:25 a. m. on Friday, December 31. At a memorial service for him on Sunday afternoon, January 2, Dianne Ray, who had gone through so much during the previous three days, read the little poem with great emotion.
“Love: an infinitesimal
piece of starbreak
That drifts into consciousness,
Entering in pastel waves
To become simply — LOVE!”
The service was at the beautiful Lake Shrine of the Self Realization Fellowship in the Pacific Palisades section of Los Angeles. John Napier, Pete’s manager, who often attended SRF meetings at the shrine and once or twice took Pete and Dianne there, thought that the actor would have liked the setting. The brilliant California sunshine and the peaceful lake and gardens would be the kind of environment he would have wished for the rest of the world in his active support of conservation and ecology movements.
The memorial service was a blending of Eastern and Western philosophies, as were the teachings of the late founder of the Self Realization movement, Paramhansa Yogananda (widely known for his book Autobiography of a Yogi). The Fellowship emphasizes the continuity of life before and after death, the laws of Karma (cause and effect) and reincarnation.
The SRF minister read passages from the Bible and the sacred book, the Bhagavad-Cita. During a short period of meditation, those present were asked to send love and prayers to Pete, wishing him peace. There was also a musical tribute — a friend played an original composition on the organ in his memory.
Besides members of the cast and crew of Alias Smith & Jones who attended the memorial service were Shirley Jones and her husband Jack Cassidy, who had planned to be in a stage play with Pete Duel. Cassidy was to play Cyrano in Cyrano de Bergerac, while Pete would have been the stand-in lover, Christian.
Also present were two of the girls Pete had dated in the past, Leslie Parrish and Thordis Brandt, more recently seen with Jim Arness. Director Richard Benedict, who worked with Pete on the series, and Jeff Corey, who had been Pete’s drama coach, likewise were present.
Pete’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Elsworth Deuel, flew to Los Angeles for the services from Penfield, NY, Pete’s hometown. Pete’s younger brother, actor Geoffrey, and sister Pamela, a singer were with their parents. All returned to Penfield for final services and burial. Dianne made the sad journey to New York, too.
Peter Deuel was a member of a family that was primarily concerned with preserving life. Not only was his father a medical doctor, but his grandfather, great-grandfather, two uncles, and a cousin as well. His mother had been a nurse.
Despite the family tradition, Pete always had a deep yearning for an acting career. After finishing high school in Penfield and completing two years at St. Lawrence University in Canton, NY, he began training with the American Theater Wing in New York City. Eventually he joined a Shakespeare repertory company and later joined the Family Service Group which staged shows for schools and Parent-Teacher Associations.
He became sufficiently recognized as an actor to win a part in a movie called Wounded in Action. Directors soon found that he was dependable, creative, and talented and deserved more and more important parts.
In Hollywood he was lured into television production, where he was equally in demand. He appeared in segments of Combat, Twelve O’Clock High, The Fugitive, Ironside, The Virginian, The Name Of The Game, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Young Lawyers, The Bold Ones and eventually a starring role with Judy Carne in Love On A Rooftop. He also was in several Gidget episodes.
“He was so talented it was unbelievable,” said Al Cahan.
When Alias Smith & Jones came along, Ben Murphy was chosen as one of the stars, while Pete and another popular actor, Roger Davis, were considered for the other starring role. They had both won applause for their work in a movie for TV, The Young Country, made at Universal. When the new series started rolling, Pete had won the role over Davis and had decided to change his family name of Deuel to plain Duel.
So it was a true irony of fate that, within hours after Pete’s death, Roger Davis was called in to replace him. This necessitated re-shooting many of the scenes of the episode on which Pete had been working, but Davis pitched in and the show went on. Ben Murphy, though obviously shocked and unnerved by what had happened, sadly joined his new partner in their Western adventures.
Although there seemed to be no outward reason why Pete should not have wanted to go on living, it was known that he was dissatisfied with the demanding grind of his daily work on the series. Three weeks before his death, he told entertainment columnist Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times: “Contractually, I have to do this series — or some other trash. … It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive.”
Pete said he was trying “to patch together my private life which fell apart with the help of this series.”
Smith described Pete Duel as “a bitterly depressed young man” (he was 31), and his sister, Pamela, who tried to advise and comfort him, talked of his having many problems which he magnified out of all proportion. Maybe one such problem stemmed from Pete’s living with a very well-known actress.
He told Smith he was looking forward to watching The Scarecrow, a Hollywood Television Theater production on January 10, because “it’s the only thing I’ve done in a long time that I’ve really looked forward to seeing.”
Pete portrayed Squire Talbot in a story of witchcraft and demons in which a scarecrow is brought to life by evil magic.
Pete never got to see the TV play. His own demon had won the last draw of the gun ten days before.
Nevertheless there was a mystery about his death that probably never would he solved, in spite of a coroner’s investigation by a panel of behavioral scientists who were to decide whether death was accidental or suicidal.
Even Roy Huggins, executive producer of the Alias Smith & Jones series, said of Pete’s work during the four days before the tragedy: “He was never better.” Huggins was one of several who had written letters to Judge Selber in support of Pete’s request for probation. The probation report itself said that Pete had worked without pay for the U.S. Interior Department in a program “directed at the youth of this country” and had taken a keen interest in “environmental ecology.”
He even cared about stray dogs, and one of the first concerns of his friends after his death was the collection of dogs he had brought into his home off Beachwood Drive in Hollywood. Ben Murphy was one of the first to show up after he heard of the shooting and was ready to take care of the dogs. However, brother Geoffrey and another friend arranged for them to have a temporary home. Dianne would see to their permanent care later.
It all seemed so strange — a man who had so much to live for and nothing really apparent to die for. Dianne told police that he had been despondent over his drinking problem. Yet Columnist Smith wrote: “On dozens of occasions that I saw him, he was always clear-eyed, steady, a professional. His boozing, such as it was, was elsewhere.”
However, a friend conjectured: “I think he found himself again with a drink in his hand and realized he could not beat it.” This was a violation of his probation. He had been ordered to “abstain” from the use of alcohol.
“But,” added the friend, “I guess he has paid for that violation.”
Faces and scenes in the tragedy: 1. Pete and his friend Dianne Ray at a party shortly before the tragic shooting. 2. The house where the tragedy occurred. 3. The carport opposite the house where the bullet was found — it had gone through Pete’s head, then through the window. 4. Police Sgt. Edwards kneeling in front of the spent bullet. 5. Pete’s younger brother, Geoffrey, at the memorial service. He, too, is an actor. 6. A police sergeant peers through the front door of the home which Pete himself had decorated for Christmas. 7. Self-inflicted death or a murderous intruder? As part of the routine investigation, a detective dusts Dianne Ray’s car for fingerprints. 8. The police guard which was put on the house when the tragedy was discovered. 9. Pete’s camper. Because of the actor’s brush with the law last year on a charge of drunken driving, he was unable to drive this, or any other car. 10. Dianne Ray at the service for Pete. Though rumors linked his name with actresses, the 29-year-old secretary seems to have been a stabilizing force in Pete’s life — she drove him to the studios when his driving license was revoked. But, tragically, she was at hand to find his lifeless body in the living room. Pete’s last words to her were a puzzling “I’ll see you later” — minutes later she heard a shot.