by Gary Denton; TV Radio Mirror, April 1972
Why his friends feared murder!
The Mystery girl he’d been seeing!
His terrified plea for help!
His last letter!
At approximately 1:25 a.m., December 31, the beginning of the final day of 1971, a bullet ripped through Peter Duel’s brain ending the life of one of Hollywood’s most popular young actors.
“I’ll see you later,” he told his girlfriend, and reportedly with his own gun — a .38 caliber revolver — in hand walked into the living room. Moments later Dianne Ray, 29, heard a sickening blast. She dashed out of the bedroom to discover a most horrendous sight. Beneath a colorfully trimmed Christmas tree (Pete had decorated it himself the week before) the lifeless body — the head in a pool of blood — was sprawled bizarrely on the floor.
Ironically, the actor’s big brown eyes were wide open and deathly staring, or so it seemed, at a tiny Santa Claus hanging from the tree. Dianne screamed out hysterically, then quickly called the police. But she was in such a state of shock that the desk sergeant at the Hollywood police station recalls — “the woman caller could hardly talk and blurted out something about a shooting at 2552 Glen Green Terrace (an address in the Beachwood Village section of older homes). She was so emotional that she hung up before giving her name and we listed it as an anonymous caller.”
Immediately, though, the sergeant issued a Code 3 police call (proceed to scene as fast as possible) to a squad car which was on a routine patrol in the area. The two officers responding to the call didn’t know what to expect. They approached the moonlight-lit small wood-frame house with extreme caution. Their guns drawn in case a killer was lurking on the premises.
Entering the unlocked front door, they found Dianne sobbing uncontrollably near the body. She was so grief-stricken that she couldn’t offer any explanation at that time, so the two officers suspected that a homicide might have been committed. Homicide detectives were dispatched to the scene.
The homicide team noted that the revolver lay at Duel’s feet, and there was a bullet bole the size of a half dollar in the front window. The body was completely nude, and in the kitchen an empty vodka bottle stood in the sink. There were no overt signs of violence — though there were two empty shell casings in the .38. Only one shot had been heard by Dianne.
In the pre-dawn hours at the Hollywood Police Station that morning, Dianne regained enough composure to be questioned at length by detectives.
Dianne told them she works as a secretary and that she occasionally drove Duel to work. Following the actor’s conviction for felony drunk driving last spring his driver’s license was revoked for a year. So either Dianne or a friend had to drive Pete to Universal Studios where Alias Smith & Jones is filmed.
According to the statement she gave police, Peter had started drinking heavily after he had finished the day’s filming. Reportedly, he had dinner with two friends earlier that Thursday evening and they had returned to his rented house to watch his show — which comes on at 8 p.m.
In that particular episode, Hannibal Heyes (Duel) is called upon to help clear his buddy Kid Curry of a murder charge. After watching it, Pete switched channels to watch the final quarter of a Laker-Supersonic basketball game being televised from Seattle.
Shortly after 10 p.m. the game ended and Pete poured himself another drink, turned off the television, and began listening to music on an FM station. Ironically, one of the selections played by the station was Don McLean’s hit “American Pie” — part of those lyrics are, “This will be the day that I die.”
Detective Eugene Kamadoi says Dianne told him that she had gone to bed in an adjoining room before the basketball game had ended. The two friends left later (they were also questioned by the police), and she only heard music from the stereo from the next room. Around 1:20 a.m. (she noted a clock on the nightstand), she said the 31-year-old actor suddenly entered the room with a drink in his hand.
“He appeared dazed and confused,” she said later. “His eyes were glassy.” Dianne figured Pete was getting ready to go to bed as he had drunk a staggering amount of alcohol. Instead he fumbled around the top drawer of the dresser and took out a box containing his revolver.
He carefully unwrapped the cloth that he kept around the weapon to protect it from rusting. Dianne reportedly told friends that Pete had purchased the gun some months ago for protection. There had been several robberies in the area, and even a couple of murders.
Perhaps Dianne should have realized that a tragedy was about to occur when Pete left the bedroom saying, “I’ll see you later.” However, she figured he was taking the gun into the next room to clean it. Both the girl and Pete’s brother, Geoffrey Deuel, admitted later that the TV star was despondent over his drinking problem. Neither believed, however, that he would kill himself because of this hangup.
Investigators came to the conclusion that Peter Duel in all probability did commit suicide. They surmised that he stood by the tree next to the window and with his right hand fired a single gunshot into the right temple. The impact of the bullet was so powerful that the slug came out the left side of his head, went through the window, and lodged in a carport across the street — some 200 feet away.
Police Sergeant Dan Cooke later that morning found an explanation as to why a second bullet had been fired from the same gun. In front of witnesses, a week earlier, Duel received a telegram from the Screen Actors Guild informing him that he had lost election to the board of directors.
He was not angry or despondent about his defeat, according to Dianne. He started laughing, and when he noted there was no period at the end of the sentence, he pinned the telegram to a wall, took his revolver, and fired squarely into the message.
“This now makes my loss official,” he quipped. “I put a period into it.”
Though despondent over the past year or so, most of his friends believe the real Pete Duel didn’t kill himself. Actually, there were two Pete Duels — sober he was a perfect gentleman — drunk, he was entirely the opposite, a bitter, confused, angry young man.
His friends believe the “bad” Pete Duel murdered the “good” Pete Duel.
“If he had been sober that night,” his brother said, “there is no doubt in my mind that he would be alive today.”
An extremely intelligent man, Duel was fully aware of his problem. And he had tried to help himself. He realized he had become an alcoholic and was fighting an inner battle to conquer the disease. He was going to a psychiatrist plus attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous.
Any alcoholic knows that the only cure known is not to take even a single drink for the rest of his life. This sounds so simple. But it can mean inhuman physical and mental torture for those who are trying to be cured.
Duel had managed to stay on the wagon for nearly six months. Then, suddenly he found the Demon tempting him to have “one drink.” What harm can one drink do? Nothing to a non-alcoholic — but it can lead to a tragedy to those afflicted, because that one drink inevitably leads to myriad others.
Though no suicide note was found, the official verdict was that Duel did deliberately end his life. If so, this fatal decision was certainly not premeditated. Earlier that evening he had left a call with his answering service to wake him at 6:30 a.m. the next day. He was due at the studio at 8 o’clock to finish filming another segment called “The Biggest Game In The West.”
For the following day, New Year’s, Pete had already made plans to watch the bowl games on television. He had invited his co-star on Alias, Ben Murphy, over for the afternoon, and also several other acting buddies had planned to stop by the house.
Shortly after his death was announced, another tragedy occurred. In the San Fernando Valley, a young girl took a fatal overdose of narcotics — presumably because she was so heartbroken over the actor’s death. She had never met Peter, but idolized him as a fan. If only Peter Duel could have realized what joy he brought to others appearing in the series he once described as “trash!”
Perhaps, he would have had the strength to tell his Demon “to go to hell!”