by Melissa Mames; TV Star Parade, April 1972
As most of us were preparing to usher in the New Year last December 31st with singing, dancing, and partying, a young man out in Hollywood — a talented, intelligent television star with everything going for him — apparently decided that 1972 wasn’t worth living.
And so, Peter Duel, the co-star of the popular video series Alias Smith & Jones, allegedly put a gun to his head and fatally shot himself early in the morning of New Year’s Eve day. Shot himself just moments after he took a revolver from the bedroom in which his fiancee, lovely, long-haired Dianne Ray was sleeping, and whispered to her, “I’ll see you later.” There was never to be any later; moments passed and Dianne was roused from her sleep by what sounded like a shot in the living room. Jumping out of bed to investigate, Dianne found Pete’s body by the Christmas tree.
According to the police, everything pointed to suicide: the investigators had found the gun near the body in a position which indicated that Pete had taken his own life. The nature of the head wound itself led everyone to believe it was suicide. The bullet reportedly entered the right side of Peter’s head and went out the left side, then apparently passed through the living room window of the modest home where Pete had lived, leaving a rather noticeable hole the size of a 50-cent piece. Yes, there was every indication that Peter Duel had taken his own life.
One question haunts all who knew him and his fans the world over — why? Why would a guy like Peter, who seemed to have the fates on his side, commit suicide? Why would someone who was involved in one of the most successful periods of his life, someone who after remaining a bachelor for 31 years, and was planning to wed a wonderful girl, kill himself? The answer is unknown, but a lot of things revealed about Pete show him as a very intense, complex human being, often given to moods and periods of uncertainty. No one will ever know why Pete shot himself, but after getting to know more and more about him, you understand what may have caused him to end his life.
For one thing, the dark-haired actor with the brooding eyes just never seemed to be all that happy. At the height of his success with Alias Smith & Jones, he still sounded like an insecure, struggling young actor, rather than the confident television star he should have been. He often complained that his long hours on the set filming episodes kept him from retreating to the mountains where he could relax.
“Making a TV series is the same thing day after day, after day, after day,” he grumbled often. “I confess to being a little restless. I was footloose and fancy free at Universal before this came along.”
Perhaps Pete, who has received acclaim for his acting talents, didn’t feel that the comedy western was a proper outlet for his ability as an actor. He often commented that the series was a fun show, but he probably felt that it offered no chance to demonstrate all his skill. Pete always fondly remembered two difficult roles of his career: one as a junkie in a sequence of The Psychiatrist, which he thought was probably the best thing in his career (“I wanted to show that addicts are not that different. They are people who are addicted and they’re not from another planet.”) and a role as a patient in need of a kidney machine on The Interns. Both were roles which were serious, dramatic, demanding, and much more proof of Pete Duel, the actor, than his continuing part of Hannibal Heyes, alias Joshua Smith on Alias Smith & Jones.
Openly and frequently confessing his repugnance for interviews, Peter especially hated to talk endlessly about the show when questioned by the press. It was as though he were afraid that people weren’t interested in Pete Duel, the person, but simply in Pete Duel, the television star. And he very much resented the comparisons made by the press between the show and the popular movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
“So ‘what else can we talk about?’ was my attitude every time the question came up,” Pete revealed to a reporter. It was clear that he wanted to reach people as a person, not as a superstar, that he wanted to remain himself despite the fanfare, that he didn’t want Hollywood to get to him. But maybe it finally did anyway.
And Pete tried his damnest all through his short life to not live like a ‘Hollywood’ phony, but to live simply and contentedly.
Born in Rochester, New York, Peter was raised in the small town of Penfield, the son of a doctor and a nurse. He always kept the small-town, unpretentious lifestyle. His favorite leisure time activity was heading for the wilderness in a camper or driving cross country when he could spare the time from work. Instead of staying in luxurious hotel suites, Pete preferred to camp out at night. His lifestyle in Hollywood was pretty down to earth, too. Until recently, he had lived in a very plain $65 a month apartment over a garage. He then moved to a slightly larger, but equally unpretentious house, which had the woodsy, rustic and simple atmosphere about it that Peter loved.
A love of the simple life was what Pete shared with his fiancee, Dianne Ray, a former secretary for a TV producer. Pete and Dianne were a couple who didn’t make the Hollywood scene together; their thing was much too private. Pete himself was so protective of her privacy that he refused to introduce Dianne with her full name, only her first name. A svelte, quiet looking girl, Dianne was happy just making Pete happy, and often as not, this amounted to their being alone together out in the woods.
Although Pete played a happy-go-lucky sort of guy on Alias Smith & Jones, in real life he was quite a serious young man. Friends describe him as intense, introspective, gifted, and thoughtful. To Pete, lover of classical music and devotee of Thoreau and Dylan Thomas’ poetry, life was certainly not just a bowl of cherries. Although his present TV role was in comedy and the series he did a few seasons back with Judy Carne, Love On A Rooftop, was comedy, he felt he was really better suited to serious drama. “It’s easier with my personality to perform the heavy, intense role,” he admitted in a quote that probably captured his character better than anything he ever said. Work was a relief for a serious, introspective guy like Pete, who shed the bugbears of his personal life when he was performing. The only other way he felt relief from his problems was to escape to nature, to retreat to a wild and untamed area.
Love for the great outdoors was a passion that Pete discovered as a child growing up in Penfield, New York. He was a loner who enjoyed walks through the woods and camping. From Penfield, he went on to St. Lawrence University where he spent two years as a medical student. He then enrolled in American Theatre Wing in New York City, a town which offered a lot more than the politically conservative Penfield ever did — and which Pete promptly fell in love with. His first real break resulted in a role in the Philippine-filmed Wounded in Action, which led to a co-starring role in the national road company of Take Her, She’s Mine with Tom Ewell.
He loved Broadway and the theatre and it was his big dream to make it big in Hollywood and then return to New York a star — a star who could get any play produced for him to star in. He was never to live to see that dream fulfilled.
Pete was not an actor on a selfish ego trip; he cared about things and human beings deeply. He campaigned doggedly for Eugene McCarthy for the Presidential election and came face to face with a bayonet-toting National Guardsman in Chicago as a result of his devoted efforts. Although the people he worked with admitted that Pete was headstrong, they also admitted that he cared about what he was doing — enough to question the level and quality of writing for the show. His agent described him as “honest and a beautiful friend. When I was in the hospital, he offered to finance my three children’s education in a private school.” And that wasn’t the end of Peter’s quiet generosity. He and a friend once dove into the freezing Hudson River to rescue a puppy, and once he took home an injured wild bird with him from the set of The Psychiatrist.
Peter cared enough about acting to try out for election to the board of the Screen Actors Guild. The notice reading that he had lost the election was pinned on the wall, with a bullet through it, in the room that he died.
Caring as he did for so many things and so many people often depressed Peter. He once commented that such was “a heavy burden to carry.” Perhaps that is why he turned to drink. He had been drinking heavily for a long time — it was probably the best way he could find of numbing himself from what he found to be the terrible reality of the world. But this, in turn, caused more problems for him. He was arrested for drunken driving on more than one occasion, and one incident involved Peter in an accident that injured two people. He revealed during the court proceedings following the accident that he was seeking psychiatric help and was attending meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous. Friends said that he was repeatedly extremely depressed about his drinking problem and about his drunken driving record.
Perhaps the questioning, caring Peter Duel just found life too difficult to bear. Perhaps he thought that life was too gruesome to stand anymore. Whatever the reason behind his untimely death, the tragedy of the loss of a talented and sensitive young man hangs heavy over Hollywood.