by Paulette Lee; Movie Life, April 1972
It’s very difficult to talk about the sadness Hollywood felt over Peter Duel’s suicide. Our colunmist, Paulette Lee, is one of the few competent to explore the whys and wherefores of Pete’s final action for, over the years, she had interviewed him frequently and had come to be regarded as a friend.
The first question that came to mind as Hollywood and his fans reeled from the shock of the death of Peter Duel was Why? Why would any young man of 31, a popular TV actor, engaged to be married and, in every way, seemingly sitting on top of the world, take his own life? It seemed unreal, incredible, far less believable than the scripts of Alias Smith & Jones, the ABC-TV series in which he co-starred with Ben Murphy. The show is fiction. Pete’s sad, final act of desperation was real life.
On the surface, Pete appeared happy, satisfied with life, a man content and adjusted to the world around him. But those few people who penetrated beyond that satisfied, smiling veneer that Pete wore knew that what he presented on the outside was not at all what he felt within.
The cold facts, as they were presented after Peter’s death — which took place around 1.25 a.m. on December 31, the last day of 1971 — could not be expected to even begin to explain the confusion this man had experienced. But here the facts are as well as anyone can piece them together.
Since arriving home from Universal Studios, where he filmed his show, Peter had been doing the one thing he knew was absolutely wrong for him — drinking heavily. Later that evening he watched an episode of Alias Smith & Jones in his Beechwood Village home with Dianne Ray, whom he was planning to marry. After the show, he switched channels so he could watch the Los Angeles Lakers-Seattle Supersonics Basketball game.
Dianne, who is not as enthusiastic about sports as Peter was, went to bed in an adjoining room before the game was over. A few hours later, Dianne said she was awakened when Peter entered the bedroom and took a .38 caliber revolver from a box. Then he walked away, saying, “I’ll see you later.” Within minutes, she heard what sounded like gunfire coming from the living room and went in to investigate. She found Peter’s body lying underneath his brightly ornamented Christmas tree.
When the police came, they found the gun at Peter’s feet. Investigators said that the way the gun was found, the position of the body and the angle of the head wound led them to conclude it was suicide. The bullet that killed Peter entered the right side and exited the left side, police said. There was a half-dollar size hole in the front window of the home and it is believed the bullet passed out that way. At 9.45 a.m., Det. Sgt. John Edwards found a bullet lying in a car port directly across from Duel’s house.
Miss Ray, who was naturally in a state of shock, was questioned extensively by the police when they first arrived on the scene, and she accompanied them to the Hollywood police station. Detectives revealed that there was initial confusion about the tragedy, due to the fact that it appeared two shots had been fired from the gun. However, further investigation revealed that Peter apparently had released a bullet from the same gun a few days earlier. His aim had been at a wall on which hung a notice informing him he had not been elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild.
That last bit of information reveals a lot about the inner turmoil of Peter Duel. That is not to say he felt overly upset about the fact that he had lost on the Screen Actors Guild election. It went much deeper than that. The bullet aimed at the piece of paper must have been shot out of frustration and unhappiness — two emotions he had come to equate with his Hollywood stardom.
In as few words as possible, Peter had never been able to satisfy himself in the plastic world of filmland. Friends felt he had trouble adjusting to the hypocrisy that is gradually destroying the industry. Ironically, even after his death, that very “hypocrisy” continued. People with whom he had worked at Universal stated that Peter had been very cheerful and put in a full day of work before going home and taking his own life. They added that the young star had been in good spirits for weeks and “certainly he was not unhappy with anything in his professional life.”
Perhaps “hypocrisy” is the wrong word. Perhaps these people truly believed what they said. If so, then one must feel an even heavier sadness for Peter, and for the many other people like him. For Peter was able to easily fool those around him who saw only what he projected or, perhaps, only what they wanted to see. They never bothered to look into the agonized soul of the man himself.
In his early years, Peter, a native of Rochester, New York, was planning on a career in medicine, following the footsteps of his father, his grandfather, and great-grandfather. His mother was a nurse. But while Peter was attending St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York, his parents saw him in a play. They told him he should not feel “obligated” to become a doctor unless he truly felt that was his calling.
Armed with this encouragement, Peter enrolled in the American Theater Wing in New York, went on to work in repertory companies, then to the road show company of the Broadway hit, Take Her, She’s Mine starring Tom Ewell. Pete then moved on to Hollywood and small parts. His first Hollywood break was the part of the misguided brother-in-law in Gidget. From there he went into Love On A Rooftop, co-starring with Judy Carne. When that show was cancelled, he appeared in many other TV shows, including The Virginian, Ironside and Marcus Welby, M.D.
In a segment of the latter, he played a young American Indian doctor, torn between modern medicine and his Indian philosophy. It was one of his favorite roles because, as he revealed to this writer, “I feel very much like that, myself. Torn. I’ve had a middle-class moralistic upbringing, yet today’s ways are so different. I want to be free and let myself go, but the guilt feelings creep in.”
Peter never married, though he had several close brushes with matrimony. He kept putting it off until, as he recently said, “I can get it all together for myself. How can I take on the responsibility of a family until I know where I’m at?” He dated Sally Field, star of Gidget, for a long time. Then he became involved with actress-model Jill Andre, a divorcee with two children.
One of the women he related to best was his Love On A Rooftop co-star, Judy Carne. But they were never a romance. Pete introduced Judy (who had just divorced Burt Reynolds at the time) to the joys of motorcycling. They’d both jump on their cycles after work and ride into the hills. But it was never a romance. “We dig each other,” said Judy at the time. “Pete’s been good for me. He’s taught me to leap into life and live every moment to the limit.”
Maybe this philosophy helped lead Peter to his untimely end. He was always getting involved and his home was always open to young struggling actors; he became more and more involved in the problems of others and the world. His head never grew one bit larger with success, but his heart did. He was a concerned young man, and it bothered him that he couldn’t actually do much to change or better the world.
So Peter turned to drink. Last June 15, he had his second drunk driving conviction in four years. The first came after being arrested in 1966 for being drunk. The second conviction stemmed from an October 1970 incident for which he was booked by the California State Highway Patrol. Troopers said they had picked him up walking glassy-eyed away from a crash that injured two people. Peter flunked their on-the-spot sobriety test. When the case came up on June 15, 1971, Judge Bernard B. Seiber granted Pete probation due to a letter the actor had written the court. In part it said:
“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 even try to find justification for my actions, but I do want your Honor to know that I am a person basically interested in other people and I would not knowingly do harm to anyone.”
Peter’s letter went on to explain that he had sought psychiatric help and also was going to Alcoholics Anonymous. He added, “I am not drinking anymore. I am trying to find out the cause for my drinking and I feel that I can prove to your Honor that I will not be involved any further with the law, particularly with regard to drinking and driving.”
But try as he did — and he did try — Peter could not lick the drinking problem. He did attend A.A. meetings. He did make pledges — and he meant them. But then he’d get so uptight that a drink seemed to be the only answer. He began to try and live the A.A. philosophy, “It’s A Day At A Time,” meaning you take each day and do your best, without guilt for yesterday or worry for tomorrow. Somehow it just didn’t work for Peter. The night of his death found him drinking again.
Peter once told this writer, “I think that everyone is an institution and everyone with deep problems believes that if they really look at their problems, and analyze them, they will die. It is a fear I live with all the time.”
Perhaps that is what eventually happened to the handsome, warm-hearted, loveable Peter. Did he scrutinize too hard and decide he could not face another year because he had not yet “gotten it all together?” None of us will probably ever know. But this writer cannot help but be touched by a long piece of prose Peter once gave us. It is too lengthy for these pages, but it begins thusly:
“Don’t be fooled by me. Don’t be fooled by the face I wear. For I wear a mask. I wear a thousand masks, masks that I’m afraid to take off, and none of them are the real me. Pretending is an art that’s second nature to me, but don’t be fooled. FOR GOD’S SAKE, DON’T BE FOOLED. I give you the impression that I’m secure, that all is sunny and unruffled with me, within as well as without, that confidence is my name, and coolness my game, that the water’s calm, and I’m in command. I need no one. But Don’t Believe Me, PLEASE. Don’t.”
Looking back, it’s easy to see that Peter wasn’t just trying to be dramatic — he was making a genuine plea for help. Peter wasn’t secure and he wasn’t confident. He couldn’t lick his drinking problem, and no one ever really got deep enough into his soul to help him.
Because of this, a beautiful young man has been lost to us all.
Photo Caption (from left): Pamela Duel, Peter’s mother, and a family friend attended Peter’s funeral.
Photo Caption: Pete met Kim Darby when they co-starred in Generation. They dated steadily and some say Pete never got over his love for the wide-eyed, popular actress.
Photo Caption: In the usual, “the show must go on” tradition, ABC-TV wasted little time in signing Roger Davis to replace Peter in Alias Smith & Jones. Roger starred for several years on daytime TV in Dark Shadows and has been in several movies. Likeable Peter Duel will be a tough act to follow. The future success of the show will depend upon the fans’ acceptance of Ben Murphy’s new partner.