by Morris Townsend; Silver Screen, April 1972
It was like a bizarre tableau from a horror movie. There was a shot. Dianne Ray sprang out of bed and ran to the living room. Her terror-filled eyes found nothing upright — except the still-standing Christmas tree. Then she saw Pete crumpled at the foot of the tree where only a few days earlier they had shared the pleasant laughter of opening presents and exclaiming over them.
Christmas was nice, they had agreed. In fact, that was why the tree was still there on December 31. Throwing the tree out would be like turning a loved one out into the streets. So they let it stay; let its cheerfulness warm them a bit longer, and prolong the peace and joy and fellowship that the holiday was supposed to represent.
Besides, this was not one of those Christmas trees that would end in ashes or be carted away in a dump truck. It was a living tree, nurtured in water in Pete’s living room, and it would be nurtured in the soil around his rustic two-bedroom home in the Beachwood Village section of Hollywood Hills. Peter Duel was no cocktail party ecologist. He lived ecology, breathed it, and practiced it.
Dianne screamed. A muffled, Oh-my-God, not-wanting-to-believe scream. She faltered dizzily and the room began to swim. But somehow she managed to reach the phone and call the police.
It was almost 1:30 a.m., the last day of 1971. And Peter Duel had chosen not to wait until midnight to ring out the old year.
Or had he indeed chosen? A .38 calibre revolver lay at his side. Had he meant to fire it or had it somehow been an accident?
Had Peter Duel and Dianne Ray been more conventional, they would have married. But Dianne grieved no less than a widow would have, nor loved him less than a wife.
Pete, in retrospect, would surely have married her, although neither of them thought about marriage as anything but a superficial tribal rite that had long ago become outdated.
They keep saying he died because he drank too much. He drank that night, and death was his nightcap. Don’t they know that Pete drank not because he didn’t care about life — but because he cared too much?
Services for Pete were held in the pastoral surroundings of Self Realization Temple in Pacific Palisades.
One hundred and fifty friends and relatives crowded into the small chapel. Almost a thousand were outside as the services were funneled through an amplifying system.
A handful of the mourners were fairly recognizable. Roy Thinnes. Joe Flynn. Fellow ecologist Henry Gibson. Ben Murphy, Pete’s co-star on Alias Smith & Jones, had been at the mortuary earlier with Pete’s parents, Dr. and Mrs. Ellstorm Duel, but was too broken up to make it to the Temple.
Dianne Louise Ray, her natural brown hair gathered in a severe bun on top of her head, no makeup on her face (the way Pete had always liked it) stood and spoke as one who had known Pete. She read a five line poem Peter had written, called “Love.”
Their common passion for a world of gentility and justice had brought Dianne and Peter together. Sometimes they fought, but that was because their convictions came with strong will. Once they had broken up, but they could not stay apart.
They had watched Pete’s show on television that fateful night and when it was over he switched on the Laker basketball game. He drank a lot that evening, and it pained Dianne that he did. And it pained Pete — and he drank more to dull the pain. That’s how it always was — that Pete drank because he was despondent, not the other way around. And that he was despondent because he cared so much about everything, not because he didn’t care at all.
After a while Dianne had dozed off. That night, while Dianne slept, Pete brooded and drank.
A rattling newspaper woke her. She blinked and looked up, and saw Pete standing nude at the dresser, getting something out of one of the drawers.
Peter, Peter, why are you so restless?
He finished peeling off the newspaper and took out a .38 calibre revolver he kept there.
“I’ll see you later,” Pete said.
Dianne rubbed sleep-lidded eyes. Was she dreaming all this?
Then there was the shot, and she sat bolt upright. That was not a dream.
She ran to the living room. She found Pete in front of the Christmas tree.
After the services, five friends of Pete’s got together and talked about him and they wrote a poem for him. They suspected maybe Pete had fooled everyone, and that he’d managed to have it his way after all:
You’ve fooled the mob, but not fooled me.
Now deep rest and worry no more,
While the rest of us pace the hardwood floor,
Waiting for phones that never ring,
And trying our damndest to laugh and sing.
Well, Peter, we hope you’ve found your peace.
We, your friends, will be your wreath.
At Universal Studios, where he filmed his television series, his drinking problem never had spilled over into his work. It never had interfered with his reliability or his professionalism — or his likeability.
Pete had been on the set until 7 p.m., working with Chill Wills and Ralph Montgomery. They had noticed his animation and good spirits. He had been looking forward to the New Year’s weekend.
A week earlier in a burst of anger — or futility — Pete had fired a bullet into the wall. He had been an independent candidate for a place on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild. His union had sent him a telegram notifying him that he had not won. He had mounted the wire on the wall and fired at it.
It was when the police found two expended bullets in his revolver that they briefly entertained a suspicion of homicide. When they found out how much Pete drank that night, they began to consider suicide.
Pete’s drinking had long been a problem. His driver’s license had recently been revoked for one year because he had been convicted of drunk driving in an accident in which two people were injured. A few years earlier Pete had been arrested and convicted on another drunk driving charge. Pete’s remorse and determination to conquer his drinking habit so impressed Superior Court Judge Bernard Selber that he imposed only the mandatory five days in jail required of a two-time drunk driving offender in California.
It mattered to Pete that he had fallen from grace — more than he could say and more than he could cope with. He cared that he was drinking again and he was drinking again because he cared too much.
He cared that he was an actor trapped in a TV series. Yet he knew he was lucky to have a top-rated one.
He cared that he and Dianne Ray had reached an impasse after all their years together.
However, many people thought that Pete was still carrying a torch for Kim Darby whom he had dated for a long time.
Whether that meant anything, or not, it was Pete’s drinking that his friends were most worried about.
“He did have a drinking problem,” noted Jo Swerling, Jr., producer of Alias Smith & Jones. “I was aware of that. There wasn’t too much any of us could do about it. It was his own problem and he had to face it. We tried to make his work as easy for him as possible. It’s a grind — making a television series.
“He was a very sensitive individual,” Swerling reflected, “I mean his feelings were intense. Whatever it was that affected him affected him very deeply — whether it was something happy or something sad.”
Pete’s pretty sister, Pamela, who followed in his acting footsteps, put it another way.
“He couldn’t cope,” she murmured. Even before her brother died she had felt uneasy about the way his problems had piled up. She had noticed, with increasing concern, her brother’s inability to make light of problems as others did. His problems seemed to own him. He took them too seriously.
In the end she was to be proved right.
“Someone’s got to care,” Pete used to say plaintively.
But did Peter Duel care too much, and the rest of us not enough? His death only asks the question but doesn’t answer it.