Why Did Peter Duel Kill Himself?
by Sylvia Conrad; Modern Screen, April 1972
When a close friend heard the news that awful, black Friday morning, he said, his voice chocked by sobs, “I was afraid this might happen. Everyone thought Pete had so much to live for … they saw his youth, his vitality, his career going great … but he was terribly upset by the things he saw that were wrong. He was too sensitive; he had his own set of values. The things he had — the money, the fame, the adulation — meant little to him. It was the suffering he saw in the world … he was almost obsessed by it. Yes, he had a lot to live for. But this dark thing inside him that saw everything as being hopeless finally destroyed him.”
His long-time girl friend, Dianne Ray, was with him on that fatal night. He gave no indication, according to Dianne, of being particularly upset. All she remembers is that she had gotten drowsy while they were watching a basketball game on the TV set in the living room and had retired to the bedroom. Not too much later, he casually came into the bedroom and picked up his gun, as though he were going to make sure there were no prowlers around. “See you later,” he said. The next thing she knew there was a shot fired from the living room. When she rushed in, she found him slumped over on the floor near their Christmas tree, blood still gushing from the bullet shot in his right temple — a trail of blood all over the rug. It was like a nightmare, this vibrant young man, this lover of hers to whom she thought she was bringing peace and happiness, lying there lifeless.
She tried to stifle her screams, but couldn’t. When she finally pulled herself together, the first thing she did was call the police, then Peter’s brother, Geoffrey.
It seems in death, Peter had at last found peace. Before that, he had only known brief moments of peace and happiness; most of his life had been punctuated by inner turmoil and terrible guilt feelings.
For instance, that day in 1970 when he was arrested on drunken driving charges after injuring two people. Even before the case came to trial, Peter admitted his guilt; he wrote a letter to the judge admitting that he was an alcoholic and saying that he had started going to Alcoholics Anonymous.
With all his heart, he’d wanted to stop drinking. But somewhere within him there was such inner turmoil that he could not resist the bottle for long. On the night when he put the bullet through his right temple, he had been drinking heavily.
But why should a young actor who had achieved the kind of success Peter had, who was handsome and well-loved, who had many friends and a co-starring role in Alias Smith & Jones, a very successful series, why should he end up with a bullet in his head? And if, as those closest to him said, it was because he couldn’t conquer his drinking problem, what was it that drove him to drink?
A writer-friend compared Peter Duel to Richard Cory, the man in the poem of the same name, whom everybody envied, who glittered as he walked, who was rich and successful and thought to be the happiest man in town, who “one calm summer night went home and put a bullet through his head.”
A perfect analogy, because those who didn’t know Pete Duel well thought he, too, glittered as he walked, they envied him, they thought he was one of the luckiest men in Hollywood.
Even a press agent who worked closely with him said afterwards, “I can’t understand it. Why, I spent Christmas Day with Pete. He was in very good spirits. He loved his work. He couldn’t have been unhappy professionally.”
Pete Duel could deceive others, but never himself. Sometimes he despised the work he was doing; sometimes he cringed from sheer boredom. But more important, there were days when he despised himself … and that is the most dangerous, perhaps, of all human emotions.
Born in the small rural community of Penfield, New York, so far as anyone knows, there was no deep trauma in Pete’s childhood. He came from a loving, very respected family — three generations of doctors in it, including his father. The relationship between Peter, his brother, Geoffrey, and his sister, Pamela, was also filled with love. The only thing that might have made anyone suspect that Peter wasn’t destined to find true happiness in life was the fact that he was a loner. He used to take long walks in the woods, examining nature, meditating, dreaming — but then many quiet, introspective young men find happiness in later years.
When Peter first started going to college, his father, Dr. Deuel (Peter later shortened his name to Duel) hoped that his son would take a pre-med course and go on to become a physician. But Peter had enjoyed acting from the time he was a child acting in school plays. The courses he took in college didn’t interest him; he did very badly in them. His father, realizing that Peter would never go through the long training period required to become a doctor, suggested, “Why don’t you go to drama school instead of wasting my money on college courses you’re not interested in?”
“All of the sudden I committed myself to acting,” Peter said later. “That’s when the real work began — the pain, the self-searching, the asking, ‘What do I do?'”
It was a commitment that was to last as long as he lived. But it was primarily the struggle that made him happy. He was brought to Hollywood after understudying Tom Ewell in the play, Take Her, She’s Mine, and there he tried his luck in TV. Tall, handsome, and looking very all-American, producers eagerly gave him guest shots.
He had intended to try his luck at TV for five years, then go back to Broadway, but after his co-starrer with Judy Carne in the TV series, Love on a Rooftop, he became so entrenched in TV that he never went back.
At about the same time that he hit his stride on TV, he fell in love with an older woman, Jill Andre. She was divorced from Richard Franchot, one of Peter’s best friends, and had two children he absolutely adored — Gabriel, who was three when he first met Jill, and Pascal, who was only one when he first knew her.
It was some time after Jill’s divorce that he and Jill discovered how much they meant to each other, and after that they lived together openly.
That was five years ago and Peter, who was twenty-six at the time, had confessed, “I’m very deeply in love with her.” When I told him I thought his feelings might be infatuation for an older, more experienced woman, he indignantly denied this. “First of all, it isn’t an infatuation,” he told me. “We are in love. Jill isn’t much older than I and she looks even younger than I do. Why, one night we were at a pizza stand with her two children and the fellow behind the counter asked me, ‘Are those your kids?’ I told him they weren’t; they were hers, and he wouldn’t believe me. He said, ‘She doesn’t look old enough to have children.'”
Though he loved Jill very deeply, Peter hesitated to take the plunge into marriage.
“I’m not ready for marriage,” he told me. “It isn’t because Jill has two children. I love them; they’re used to seeing me around the house. I might be ready to take on the responsibility of the two children, but there are other responsibilities connected with marriage that I couldn’t take on.
“I came close to marriage only once — when I was about 21 or 22. I almost married my childhood sweetheart. But thank goodness, she had a head on her shoulders; she was just starting college and she didn’t want to get married. It was so much better not to marry than to marry and have to get a divorce later on.”
In Peter’s romance with Jill, he became more and more attached to the children. Sometimes they’d ask him, “Are you going to marry Mother?” And he’d reply, “Well, maybe.”
But the romance ended, and perhaps both of them were thankful that they hadn’t gotten married. Yet there must have been a vague guilt feeling — what with two children who had grown to regard him almost as a substitute father, two children who had learned to depend on his companionship. He knew they’d been wounded by the break-up and there was nothing he could do about it.
About four years ago Peter got really excited, really involved in something completely outside his personal or professional life. It was 1968, the year in which the Eugene McCarthy boom started, and he was one of the eager young men who worked in McCarthy’s Presidential campaign. He gave out leaflets, addressed envelopes, and tried to convert people to the idea that the Vietnamese war was all wrong. He even went to Chicago in hopes of McCarthy winning the Presidential nomination. Then one day he had a face-to-face confrontation with a National Guardsman. It made him sick. Here he was trying to believe in a world that could be made better, when in reality a bayonet was pointed at him.
A sad, sensitive young man, he was full of compassion for wounded, hurt things — whether they were people or animals or birds. Once in New York, he plunged into the icy cold waters of the Hudson River in an effort to save a stray puppy.
Actor Roy Thinnes remembers the time when Peter Duel played the part of a junkie trying to shake the habit in the pilot of The Psychiatrist. Peter gave a magnificent performance because somehow he could sympathize with the conflict of the junkie, so at odds with the world, yet trying so hard to get rid of his addiction. Of all his own performances, it was probably the one he liked best. “I wanted to show that addicts are not that different; they’re not from another planet. I wanted to show that Casey was a human being who didn’t like being hooked and was terrified he was not going to be able to kick the habit.”
How ironic it was that Peter should have empathized so with Casey’s difficulty in trying to kick the drug habit, only to find himself, later on in his life, addicted in much the same way to alcohol.
Even while working on the pilot for The Psychiatrist, Roy Thinnes saw something very vulnerable in Peter. He remembers the day, while on location, that Peter found a wounded bird and took it home with him.
A couple of days later when Peter came to the set with a stricken face, Roy asked, “What’s the matter?” and Peter said, “It died.” The bird he had tried to nurse back to health just hadn’t made it.
There are people, doctors tell us, who suffer terribly when they see any other living thing go through pain. Peter was like that.
When he and Dianne Ray found each other perhaps each sought to make the other’s life a little happier. There was magic between them from the moment they met. Dianne, a producer’s secretary, was amazed to find him living in a crummy $65-a-month garage apartment, and persuaded him to move into a pleasant rustic home in the hills. The house was great, though he had trouble getting used to it at first. Gradually he seemed to find some contentment. He did love Dianne, as he had once loved Jill Andre, but he was still afraid of marriage. Yet Dianne didn’t demand marriage any more than Jill had.
Dianne seemed so quiet, so tranquil, it seemed impossible that he wouldn’t find peace with her. And so far as it was in his nature to find peace, perhaps he did find it at odd moments.
But he was living with a guilt that had to destroy him. A man who hated to hurt anybody, his conscience was riddled with the guilt of injuring two innocent people on that day in October of 1970, because he had had too much to drink. He couldn’t deny it to them, to himself, nor to God — nor did he try to deny it.
He was very remorseful. He wrote to the judge and told him, “In recalling my feelings on that night, shame and terror fill my mind.” He promised that he would never drink again, never go into a bar again. And it was on those conditions that he was given probation. For a time he was able to keep his promises; then he wasn’t.
His feeling of frustration grew and grew. Though he did his work as an actor well, he wasn’t satisfied. He felt emotionally drained. Though he loved Dianne, there was something missing — his love for her wasn’t great enough to fill his life.
His sister, Pamela, a singer, later said that there were many problems which he exaggerated out of all proportion. Much of the time he was in a despairing mood, sunk in deep despondency.
His brother and sister tried to cheer him up; they gave him pep talks, but the pep talks didn’t help much. He longed to return to the days of his childhood, to the peace he had known when he walked through the woods, but he couldn’t. All he could do was sit in his living room, watching himself on TV in Alias Smith & Jones, or watching a basketball game, while in his heart he felt everything was futile, the world was plunged into darkness. He drank more, perhaps in order to close out that darkness.
The liquor was powerful; his heart was heavy. He felt powerless in a world that had run amuck, a world where streams of blood were flowing through Vietnam, where no one was doing very much to stop it. He had tried to change things, but his efforts all came to naught. There was only one way to end the pain: He picked up his .38 calibre gun and shot himself through the right temple.
Perhaps, if he had waited a few hours, the dark mood would have ended, and he might have come to realize that if each of us did his or her share the dreams of men like himself could still be achieved. But he didn’t wait; he couldn’t wait — for Peter, at that moment, there remained only one road to peace.