What Drove Pete Duel to Suicide
by Carol Harrison; Screen Life, May 1972
The tragic suicide of one of television’s most promising young actors has brought tremendous grief to all of Hollywood. Pete’s television credits seemed to be growing every day; he appeared on series such as Combat, 12 O’Clock High, The Fugitive, Ironside, The Virginian, The Name of the Game, Marcus Welby, M.D., The Young Lawyers, The Bold Ones, and ABC’s Movie of the Week. He also lent his talents to the other facets of the industry, appearing in a motion picture (Wounded In Action) and co-starring in the road company of Take Her, She’s Mine.
In an attempt to find some motive, some reason, for this young star’s tragic suicide, reporters have looked into his past history. But it takes more than a reporter to understand what drove Pete to suicide. We have consulted a well-known psychiatrist, hoping he can shed some light on the tragic death — why it happened and what led up to it.
Pete and his girlfriend, Dianne Ray, were great ecologists. Dianne had gotten Pete quietly excited about health-food. In an interview, Pete discussed his admiration for health food.
“I was interested in health food for a while, but I really didn’t know where to hang my hat on any of it. And Dianne was really into it. She grew up as a Seventh Day Adventist and they’re pretty much vegetarians — they have their own company called Loma Linda that makes great canned vegetarian food. She also introduced me to Adelle Davis’ books which really interested me, so I went a little further.
“I’ve always been interested in eating well. I believe in treating my body as well as I can — ‘specially with regard to the food I take into it. So I naturally observed Dianne’s eating habits while she explained to me the philosophy behind her different kind of diet. It was very easy. I said, ‘Sure, I’ll try this. I’ll try that.’ And I found that I like it.
“But the first thing that I ate I didn’t really like — it was a vegeburger, a hamburger with all the vegetable content as opposed to meat. The second item was imitation chicken and I liked it. So from that point, we were off and running. Anything she suggested, I would try.”
For the interest that Dianne had in health foods, Pete had a matching one in ecology. It didn’t take long for Peter to convince Dianne to join him in his recycling drive, and before long the entire environment of the small apartment they shared showed their ecological considerations. They used their lights and electrical appliances only when absolutely necessary, in order to save electricity. They saved their newspapers in huge piles to be recycled in hopes of saving a few trees. There was a huge pile of aluminum cans in the kitchen also awaiting recycling. Pete tried hard not to let his personal fanaticism about ecology interfere with his social life, but he admitted that sometimes it did.
“I talk about it only if the subject comes up. I don’t walk into a room full of people and say: ‘I’ve got a speech to make!’ I like to have fun, too, for God’s sake. Naturally, nobody likes a preacher at a party. But, as I said, if the subject does come up, as it often does in a normal conversation, it will hit a certain area. Then, very naturally, I’ll say something either in reply to a question or a statement made. It all happens very naturally.”
Pete remembered that he and Dianne would often work almost as a team when they were socializing. “We really did. If we were around a group of people and started talking, Dianne would take over, talking about ecology, almost introducing anything further that I might want to say. She’d just go through the basics, then I’d follow through with specifics once the people were interested. Then we’d do the opposite with nutrition — because that’s fairly new to me. So I’d lay the ground work this time, and she became the technical one.”
Pete did have a strongly contradictory habit to his ecological ways. This habit, cigarette smoking, was a great problem for him. He did kick the habit at one time, but shortly returned to it. He discussed his habit in an interview shortly before his death.
“Nothing would terrify me more than to have a dream where I’d have a cigarette. But when I’d wake up in the morning and realize that I hadn’t really, I felt great. What a difference it makes just leaving the house! You get up. You wash. You dress. But when you’re a smoker, you get up — and you have a cigarette. Then you shower: Before you shower, you say, ‘I think I’ll have another cigarette.’ Then the first thing you do when you get out of the shower is grab another cigarette.
“After slipping something in, you’re ready to eat something. Only by now you’ve had three or four cigarettes and you’re really not that hungry. But you’d better eat something — so you go into the kitchen, fix something, and have another cigarette. Then you put the pack down, but forget where you left it. You’re ready to go out and you’re looking for your cigarettes. ‘Where are they? Do I have enough matches? Wait a minute, I’ll be right there. I’ve got to get some matches.'”
Pete once quit smoking cigarettes, but then he got a part in a show and, because of stage fright, he joined the wardrobe man in a cigar two or three times a week. “But it was still a mistake. Every book on breaking the habit mentions that you cannot touch anything even if you’re not inhaling. So those three cigars a week set the stage. Then, when I went back to Pennsylvania to visit my grandfather, I’d go to a little bar in Altoona and have a few beers and cigars after he went to sleep for the night.
“After two or three beers, I’d start inhaling the cigars while listening to sad music on the jukebox. A month later, I was smoking many cigars each day — inhaling every one of them. So it all started again.”
In addition to the information Pete gave in interviews, it has been reported that he had some difficulty in his relationship with Dianne prior to his death. Also, Pete’s grandfather died of lung cancer. This may well have had some bearing on Pete’s discouragement at his inability to give up smoking.
A well-known psychiatrist, who practices south of Los Angeles, recently completed a thesis entitled, Depression, Anxiety and the Death Wish: Their InterRelationships. This doctor has had many professional associations with actors and actresses and is generally considered to be a specialist with people in the television and film industry.
Although his paper was not written specifically about Pete Duel — as a matter of fact it was written prior to Pete’s suicide — many parallels can be drawn between the problems mentioned in the paper and problems admitted by Pete Duel.
It is reported in the thesis that, “Depression, when not properly treated, can frequently lead to a strong death wish. The death wish, in turn, can, in extreme situations, lead to suicidal tendencies and, in severe cases, to suicide.”
Following this is a description of anxiety, including its presence in the minds of actors and actresses. “Anxiety is present in all of us. The degree and frequency of anxieties in a person may often be a factor of their occupation. It is found to be a stronger and more consistent problem to people whose occupations are surrounded by tensions. These people would include stockbrokers, professional men, and executives. However, another occupation which shows an unusually high anxiety index is acting. The reason for the high degree of anxiety in actors is simple; their occupation forces them to change jobs frequently. Often this change means starting fresh by going through an audition rather than a promotion, so naturally — a great amount of anxiety is present for many in that career.”
It is mentioned in the paper that, “The death wish is frequently manifested in personal habits. At times, individuals who feel a subconscious desire to die will allow themselves to become victims of unhealthy habits, such as smoking, drinking, etc. In addition, guilt often compounds the situation in cases where the individual has had direct contact with the result of the habit, such as cancer for smoking or alcoholism for drinking, through relatives or friends. If an individual has been directly faced with the death of a loved one through an overindulgence in some vice, but yet proceeds to employ that vice of his own accord, there is a good chance that the person suffers from a high anxiety index and perhaps a death-wish.”
Finally, the paper included a final remark about the psychiatric problems most frequently found in actors. “Actors and actresses are found to be more highly susceptible to strong anxieties and mental difficulties of all kinds than most other occupation groups. They are forced to constantly lead at least two separate lives — their private lives as well as the lives of the characters they are portraying. Frequently there are conscious and/or subconscious conflicts between the two personalities that the actor is currently working on which could easily lead to anxiety. Also, in some cases, the primary desire to work in theatre stems from an unhappy personal life. A person who does not like himself may wish to go into drama as a means of escaping from himself. He may well find that he is only comfortable when leading another man’s life, so he turns to acting for a career. That way he hopes to escape from himself through assuming the personalities of various characters. This, of course, is not the primary reason that all people in the industry decide on their careers, but it often plays at least a minor role in their choice of a career.”
Pete Duel had a lot of difficulties before he decided to take his own life. He was confronted with great problems in his relationship with Dianne Ray; he was an excessive smoker; and many considered him to be a heavy drinker. According to the thesis quoted above, all of these situations could well have, with their combined forces, changed Pete’s normal feelings of anxiety into a death-wish, which, in turn, grew strong enough to drive him to suicide. The death of this rising young and talented actor is a great loss to the industry and to the people the industry serves. May he rest in peace.
Photo Caption: Although most people were aware of the fact that Pete Duel had some problems, most everyone thought that with the help and love of his girlfriend, Dianne Ray, Pete would be able to work things out.