by Chris Cross; Movie Stars, April 1972
“TV Star Peter Duel Kills Himself” screamed the headline of one New York newspaper on Friday, December 31. It was the kind of news shocker that knocked the war news right off the front pages of papers around the country. Because the first question everyone asked was, “Why did this successful, good-looking, rising young star suddenly decide to end it all?”
Photo Caption: Peter appeared with Kim Darby in the movie ‘Generation,’ and it was rumored he fell in love with her and never recovered.
To understand the answer, you have to understand the man. Yet, even as this is being written, his closest friends have not come up with a satisfactory answer. Peter could be moody, he had periods where he would just sit and brood, but he seemed to finally be putting his life in order. After a lengthy struggle with personal problems, Pete gave all appearances of straightening himself out. His long-time girlfriend, Dianne Ray, was with him on that final night.
There had been reports that Peter and Dianne had broken up for several weeks. But, according to Dianne, Peter had called her up and invited her over to his house for Thursday night. There they watched his TV show, Alias Smith & Jones, and talked. Later Pete wanted to watch a basketball game that was on TV, so Dianne went into an adjoining bedroom.
About 1:30 in the morning, Dianne reported to the police, Peter walked into the room, went over to his dresser, took his .38-caliber revolver out and returned to the living room, saying to Miss Ray, “See you later.”
Within a short time, Miss Ray heard a shot and ran into the living room. There, beneath a beautifully decorated Christmas tree, lay Peter. The police report stated that he was killed by a single shot in the ear which went through his head. His death was called a probable suicide. Some doubt remains, as he could have tragically killed himself accidentally. Of course, where was he going at 1:30 a.m. with a revolver if he had no intention of using it?
When questioned, Miss Ray reportedly told police that Peter had been especially despondent lately because of his drinking problem. She didn’t say if that had led to their relationship problems, but Dianne is not the type of girl who approves of abusing the body in any way.
Photo Caption: Geoffrey Deuel greeted friends and relatives who came to pay their respects at Peter’s funeral.
Peter, the son of a third generation doctor, Dr. Ellsworth Deuel, was on two-year probation period as the result of an accident he was involved in on October 24, 1970, when he was driving under the influence of alcohol. This past June 15, he had pleaded guilty to the drunk driving charge; it was almost a relief to get it off his chest. Peter was, above all else, a completely honorable man; he never for a moment tried to “beat the charge” or have it fixed because he was a well-known actor.
He stood before Superior Court Judge Bernard S. Selber in Santa Monica, California, and took his medicine like a man. The judge had carefully studied the case and saw that Peter was greatly shaken by the incident. So he placed the 31-year-old actor on the two-year probation, gave him a suspended 180-day sentence in the county jail, and ordered him not to have any alcoholic beverages and to avoid bars and cocktail lounges. He also dismissed another drunken driving count and the count for leaving the scene of an accident.
Undoubtedly, Judge Selber was impressed by Peter’s sincerity, which was very real. In a way, Peter was the sort of man you would least expect to have a drinking problem. He was an outdoorsman, the kind of guy who would take off for the weekend in his camper truck for California’s rough and rugged High Sierras. He loved roughing it. “It’s a great way to recharge your batteries,” the six-footer would say. Dianne had a similar love of nature.
Photo Caption: A moment of levity was added to the otherwise grim proceeding when friends of the Deuels arrived with his young son in tow.
And Peter came from a loving family, one which tried to help and understand him. When Peter allowed as to how he preferred acting to following in the family footsteps and becoming a doctor, his folks encouraged his ambitions.
They didn’t fuss when he left St. Lawrence University for the American Theater Wing in New York City. In fact, a few years later, his younger brother, Geoff, also spurned medicine in favor of acting. And their sister, Pamela, is a member of a singing group called Entourage.
Once he decided to act, Peter had little trouble finding roles. Possibly his biggest break was the co-starring role in Take Her, She’s Mine for the national tour. When he moved to Hollywood, he was a frequent guest star on all the top dramas. He made his mark in comedies as well, co-starring in such series as Gidget and Love On a Rooftop, the two flops that preceded his hit Alias Smith & Jones.
Photo Caption: Peter’s sister Pamela was visibly shaken as she drove up to the funeral home. Pamela’s career in show business was given a boost by Peter, who was eager to help her.
This last series has been very popular with young fans across the country and was recently renewed. So it would appear that Peter’s career was in good form when he decided to take his own life.
And while he and Dianne had admittedly been having problems, both were making a concerted effort to get back together again.
Which brings us back to the question of why Peter would do such a thing. Doctors will tell you that Christmas for many is not the season to be jolly. Those with a tendency to brood must be watched closely. These people begin to ask themselves what do they really have to live for, and at such a time they are especially vulnerable to suicide. This may have been what happened with Peter. Despondent, fighting an agonizing drinking problem, trying to straighten out his personal life, Peter may have felt the sweet darkness of death was preferable to the harsh reality of his present life. Who knows?
Photo Caption: Peter’s close friends Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy looked shocked and solemn as they arrived for the last rites. The Cassidys knew Peter since his first TV series.
Like all successful actors, he left behind a legacy of words. Few professions afford as intimate a glimpse of an individual’s life as acting. Peter had been interviewed many times. Perhaps the key to Peter can be found in these quotes excerpted from an interview he gave the Los Angeles Times just three weeks before he died.
Peter told the interviewer: “That series, this series, any series is a big fat drag to an actor who has any interest in his work.
“It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive.”
Was Peter unhappy because Alias Smith & Jones was such a whopping success? He shouldn’t have been because he still had time for more serious acting. Said Alan Cahan, the TV show’s publicist, “Peter was an intense kind of guy. I saw him Christmas and he was excited because a TV movie for the educational channel he did was a success. His series had been renewed. He didn’t seem unhappy.”
A few days later, Peter was dead. How well do we really know the people around us? We may see them eight hours a day, five days a week, but do we really know their innermost thoughts or fears? Or are we afraid of getting too deeply involved with other people’s problems? Was Peter right about being caught in a trap?
Photo Caption: Meanwhile, back at Peter’s deserted house, his camper sat in the driveway and two curious children wandered around the grounds, where days before his body was found.
Could it be that Peter saw all too clearly that behind the gaudy glitter of Hollywood is a big empty nothing? It appears that as soon as the studio and network were notified about Peter’s death, they started searching for a replacement. Peter’s body hadn’t been in the ground 24 hours before the announcement was made that Roger Davis would replace Peter on Alias Smith & Jones.
It is expected that the show must go on, but certainly there could have been a decent interval. It’s as if all they wanted was a warm body to replace the cold one, as if all the TV actors were faceless numbers filling space.
Did Peter Duel really commit suicide? Or did Hollywood kill another sensitive, deeply committed young man by waving the elusive glow of stardom before his hungry eyes then enmeshing him in the system and slowly grinding out all his vitality and talent until only the hulk was left for burial services? Most are strong enough to withstand the punishment. Some aren’t. Was Peter one of the latter?