Was He Only Trying To Grab Some Peace?
by Brooke Scott; TV Radio Talk, April 1972
He said he had only a few friends, yet hundreds turned out to bid him a last goodbye. The Windmill Chapel at the Self Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Los Angeles was full to overflowing, and outside, sober-faced mourners listened via a loud-speaker to Reverend Brother Dharmanda’s final prayers. “He was a man who loved … who cared … perhaps too deeply …”
Peter Duel was dead by his own hand at 31.
“We are all basically alike,” he had said. “We all have similar problems, fears — fear of failure, fear of success, fear of other human beings. Some of us simply take a different way out.”
For Peter the way out was to lay a snub-nosed .38 calibre revolver at his right temple, and send a bullet crashing into his brain. It was roughly 1:35 a.m., December 31, 1971. Death was instantaneous. His nude body was found slumped to the floor under the Christmas tree.
It was Peter’s long-time girlfriend, Dianne Ray, who found him. She was there that night in his small frame house in the Hollywood Hills. They had watched Peter’s show, Alias Smith & Jones, at 8 p.m., and afterwards the Los Angeles Lakers basketball game. Peter was drinking heavily, Dianne later recalled, and sometime during the game, she went to the bedroom to lie down. The next thing she remembers, he was standing over her with a gun in his hand. “See you later,” he said. She was half-asleep. What was he doing? What did he mean? A moment later, she heard a shot. In the living room she found his body, blood trickling from the small hole in his temple.
Dumbfounded, trembling so that she could barely hold the telephone, Dianne called Pete’s brother, Geoff. “Come quickly,” she sobbed. “Come quickly …” Next, the police were notified. “Will you please send someone to 2552 Glen Green Terrace?”
Officers arrived within minutes and at first thought Duel had been murdered. Two shots had been fired from the gun. Dianne immediately fell under suspicion. “I loved him,” she moaned, “it has to be an accident. It has to be!”
There was a half-dollar size hole in a plate glass living room window. Apparently the bullet passed through Peter’s head and out the window. Investigators finally determined that the second spent chamber had been fired some weeks earlier. In a room nearby the living room they found the bullet lodged next to a telegram which had been pinned to the wall. The message informed Peter that he had not been elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild.
So the death was listed as a “probable suicide” and Dianne left the Hollywood police station with Geoff and a friend, Jane Sogner. “It’s a nightmare,” Dianne whispered through trembling lips. Clutching Geoff’s arm, she dabbed at red-rimmed eyes. “I can’t believe it. God, I can’t believe it.”
A small, pretty brunette, Dianne Ray had been Peter’s constant companion for nearly two years. She is not an actress, but a secretary who quit her job to devote full time to Pete.
“When I first met him,” she said, “there was an immediate response and nothing we could do to stop it. Marriage,” she once mused, “I don’t know. It might be difficult to be married to an actor. All I hoped when he moved here to this house was that he would feel it was home, because there’s nothing like being home …”
“I was a basket case when I first met her,” Peter had confided. “I was living in a ratty garage apartment. Would you believe I was afraid to leave that place? I was like a child with a security crisis. Then Dianne moved me out and I saw the sun for what seemed like the first time in years. I almost threw-up thinking of the life I had been leading.”
It was Geoff who talked to his parents, who told them about Pete. The Senior Deuel (Peter dropped an “e” when he became an actor) is a doctor. The brothers, in fact, come from a long line of physicians. If only Pete had chosen medicine, perhaps … But that sort of thinking got you nowhere.
Dr. and Mrs. Ellstrom Deuel still live in Penfield, New York, in the house where Peter grew up. “We’re going to Los Angeles for the services,” the doctor managed an explanation to home town callers. “And then,” his voice thickened, “the body will be flown here for burial. His mother and I … we … we loved him very much.”
Peter’s sister, Pamela, had to be located. She’s a singer and often on the road. It would be terrible for her to hear about her brother’s death on the radio or read about it in the newspapers.
A Universal Studios executive told police that Peter had reported for work on Alias Smith & Jones as usual the previous day and had been “cheerful.” “Certainly he was not unhappy with anything in his professional life,” the man argued. But he didn’t really know Peter. Few people did.
“A television series is the ultimate trap. It makes you weary, weary, weary. The boredom, man, is like a slow death. It kills actors and it’s killing me,” Peter had complained.
Peter was an anomaly. In the weeks that followed his death there emerged a picture of a man almost unrecognizable to many who thought they knew him. It would seem he lived behind a carefully constructed facade. He was a good actor so he could play the carefree, if slightly eccentric, bachelor TV star. Yet by his own admission he was a tortured man, afraid, or unable perhaps, to give of himself completely to anyone, a man obsessed with the pains of the world, pessimistic about the future. His “thing” was ecology. “But if he was really an eco-freak,” someone asked, “what was he doing with a gun in the house?”
By day he was a competent professional, yet he was an alcoholic who had twice been arrested on drunk driving charges, once in October of 1970 for leaving the scene of an accident in which two people were seriously injured. According to police, Duel flunked the on-the-spot, sobriety test and was booked at the West Los Angeles precinct.
Before his case came to trial, Peter won a chance to reform by promising Los Angeles Judge Bernard Selber he would quit drinking. In a letter to Judge Selber Peter wrote in part:
“In recalling my feelings on that night, shame and terror literally fill 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 conduct, but I do want Your Honor to know that I am person basically interested in other people and I would not knowingly do harm to anyone. But knowing that this resulted from my drinking I have sought professional help and have been seeing Dr. Gladden, a psychologist, and I started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I am not drinking anymore. I am trying to find out the cause of 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 can prove to Your Honor that I will not be involved any further with the law, particularly with regard to drinking and driving.”
In his decision, Judge Selber said Duel had volunteered to surrender his driver’s license and seemed to be a basically responsible and humane person. Said Judge Selber, “He (Duel) has been shocked by the horrible consequences of his drinking and has taken steps to gain insight into the problem to prevent it from controlling him.” Because it was his second conviction, Peter spent the mandatory five days in jail, was fined $1,000 and placed on two years’ probation on condition he stop drinking and stay out of all bars and liquor stores.
For a time, he held to his promise. He steered clear of haunts like Barney’s Beanery and old drinking buddies. He became actively involved in the ecology movement. A friend made a film titled, Ah, Man, See What You’ve Done, and Peter consented to narrate it for selected audiences. He collected cans and bottles and urged his friends to use only white toilet tissue. The dyes don’t break down. Then gradually his idealism began to desert him.
“I used to believe a person could help make the world a better place to live in, but it’s difficult. You get discouraged. And in this town there are always so many things on my mind, things I have to do, things I am in the process of doing and I find it hard to relax.”
Recently Peter had admitted to a siege of melancholy. He’d become less and less enchanted with the life he’d made for himself. There were rumors that he and Dianne weren’t getting along and that he was seeing other women. His work was bugging him. Not long before he died, he reportedly made the statement that he hoped the television pilot made by his younger brother wouldn’t be accepted by the network because he didn’t think it would make Geoff any happier than he was. “I can’t help myself,” Peter said. “I live with a constant feeling of futility and frustration.” His voice had a ring of doom.
Ten years ago, fresh out of the American Theater Wing in New York City, Pete landed a part in a road show company of Take Her, She’s Mine. When the troupe hit Los Angeles, Pete took a look around and decided he could do all right by staying. A short-haired, barrel-chested, athletic, All-American type, Pete had no trouble getting work. Not because there weren’t actors better looking by the hundreds, but Pete had talent. He auditioned for NBC casting director Richard Wookey, who remembers him vividly. “He was simply amazing, bright, enormously talented, outgoing. I’ve heard since his death about the drinking, his depressions, his reclusiveness. I can’t believe it. It’s like they’re talking about someone else altogether.”
The fact remains. Peter didn’t make friends easily. At a recent party, he was talking with fellow actor Roy Thinnes. “You’re one of the very few friends I have in the world,” Pete told him.
He needed love desperately and usually settled with one woman for a length of lime. In between there were casual affairs with girls like Love On A Rooftop co-star Judy Carne and Gidget co-star Sally Field. There was a deep and turbulent love affair with Kim Darby with whom he worked in Generation. He said he wanted to marry Kim, but then he shied away. There was an actress named Jill Andre who was older by some years, a divorcee with two children. Pete adored children, and Packy and Gabby got under his skin. For a while Pete envisioned a life with them. “It’s true, I’m in love with Jill,” he confessed. “The only qualm I have is that a guy, when he first gets married, would like to start his own family from scratch. But, rarely, if ever, does one find the ideal situation — I guess.”
At the beginning, back in the early sixties, Peter went the established route for new, young bachelor boy actors. He was photographed romping on the beach with blonde beauties like Indus Arthur. But he let it be known even then that he thought it a sham and he hated himself for going the “Hollywood route.”
Love On A Rooftop brought him his first taste of success. He could finally afford a few luxuries. Yet he remained holed up in that $65-a-month garage apartment. He was changing. He talked of a new awareness of things. He let his close cropped hair grow long and allowed himself one luxury. He switched from beer to a good white wine. And his final trip may have seen its beginning.
He opened his home to young struggling actors who constantly streamed in and out of Hollywood. If the neighbors didn’t like things, that was their problem. A man who came to complain once too often was met at the door by Peter who had come via the kitchen where he’d grabbed a knife. “What do you want, man?” Peter asked. Speechless, the man fled, never to be heard from again.
The day before he died, Peter had a full schedule at the studio and was expected at 8 o’clock the following morning.
“I’d like to be able to tell you I saw it coming,” says Alan Cohan, Universal studio publicist assigned to Alias Smith & Jones, “but I can’t. Pete had his good and bad days, of course, but who doesn’t? I know he had a drinking problem only because he admitted it, but he never once showed up late for work or did he drink on the job. He was an extremely talented guy and everyone here at the studio is shocked. He and Ben were close. Pete had been around longer than Murphy and taught him a few things.”
When Ben Murphy, Peter’s Alias Smith & Jones co-star, was told of the tragedy, he at first refused to believe it. Finally convinced Pete’s death was a fact, Ben left for the house and then the funeral home in Hollywood. “I saw Ben at the mortuary on Friday,” Cohan says, “and he was comatose. That’s about the only way to describe it. Later in the day, Peter’s parents arrived at the mortuary and Ben spent a long time in a small adjoining room talking with Mrs. Deuel. Yes, it’s true he didn’t attend the services. He told me he didn’t think he could take it.”
However great his disillusionment, however numerous his disappointments, Peter could always count on his family. They never let him down and in return they had his love and complete devotion. Last summer, Pete’s grandmother fell ill and he informed Universal executives that he would have to leave the show for a few days to return east to see her. When the producers argued time schedules, Peter threatened to quit. “I have to see my grandmother,” he told them. “I’ll work day and night when I get back to make up time, but I have to see my grandmother.” He did.
She didn’t make the trip to Los Angeles for the services, but Pete’s parents were there, his sister, Pamela, Geoff, Dianne. A friend played an organ solo and just before the service ended, Dianne rose to address the congregation. Her eyes shining with tears, she recited a poem entitled “Love” written by Peter, a brief, touching moment.
A representative of the Self Realization Fellowship said after the service that she was moved by the “spirit” of the crowd. “A Hollywood funeral can turn into a circus,” she observed, “but there was a great feeling of reverence here.”
It was Peter’s business manager, John Napier, who suggested that memorial services be held at the Shrine. Napier had often visited the retreat which is located in suburban Pacific Palisades. There on a few acres of rolling countryside are towering trees, lush foliage. Peter had visited, too, and he was completely enthralled by the site’s natural beauty. There were the trees of his childhood, birds, wild animals. “I grabbed onto some peace,” he told a friend later.
Which, if you think about it, is as fitting an epitaph as one could find for Peter Duel, a darkly handsome young man who died too soon.
He’s finally grabbed onto some peace.