Movieland and TV Time, April 1972
What happened to end the life of this fun loving, eager-to-get-ahead young man just when everything seemed to be going exactly right for him? What do you say about a 31-year old TV star who by all appearances “had it made” — but who reportedly died from a self-inflicted pistol wound?
Especially when the man was your friend. Not because you were so special to deserve his friendship, rather because you were one of many he befriended — always in a very sincere way. He cared about people. He cared about animals. He cared about any living thing. And when he cared about something, he assumed the weight of their problems, their burdens, as a matter of course.
What do you say about a sensitive, depressed young man who carried the world on his shoulders until it killed him?
It was a dark and terrible way to wake up. It was the last day of 1971, and I was not yet aware that Pete had already been dead several hours when my telephone rang about 8:00 a.m.
“Did you hear about Pete Duel?” the voice on the other end of the wire asked. The caller was an acquaintance who had been listening to the early morning news reports and knew that as a reporter of the Hollywood scene I should know that Pete Duel’s lifeless body had been found by police, sprawled on the living room floor beneath the still-twinkling Christmas tree, a gunshot wound through his right temple.
What the caller didn’t know was that Peter Duel was my friend. That, if I had ever needed to turn to Pete, he would have cared. That he never deserted any friend — or anyone — in time of need. Pete was forever opening his home to struggling young people who needed a roof over their heads or some food to keep them going.
Pete felt deeply for everyone. His problems worried him and, were that not enough, he was always taking greater burdens by taking very seriously his role as “his brother’s keeper.”
Pete’s sister, Pamela, with whom he was very close, explained that there were many, many problems Pete had — and that he magnified them out of all proportions by wanting a better life for everyone, instead of the hopeless state of existence he saw all around him. Pamela said that Pete “just couldn’t cope.” The problems of the world and the personal responsibility he felt were just too much for him.
I learned later, after that initial phone call, that Pete and Dianne Ray, the girl he told me he was going to marry, the girl he’d been with for almost two years, discussed Peter’s drinking the night of his death. Dianne reported that he had been despondent over his drinking and, in fact, they had argued about it on a number of occasions.
Hollywood is full of stories about actors who drink on the job — but that was something Pete was never guilty of. He was always the professional actor. A remarkably fine actor, in addition to being a popular young star.
He worried endlessly about the rut he considered himself to be in. He felt that doing a series for television was a form of prostitution. He felt it was rare that an actor could do more than read lines the expedient way a series must be put together.
He was a bitterly depressed young man feeling that any TV series “is a big fat drag to any actor with interest in his work.” Pete felt imprisoned in that series (he’d never wanted to do it, but was under studio contract for whatever they saw fit to assign him). He felt thwarted and frustrated.
“It’s the ultimate trap,” he said just weeks before his death, referring to being committed to a series designed for quick dollars rather than artistic achievement, further complicated by the fact that the series might continue almost endlessly. “It’s destructive!” And in Pete’s case, it proved to be.
He was not in the business for the money or the glory. Pete knew his craft and his performances showed his great sensitivity and his promise as an actor. But in TV, one seldom has the opportunity to do a role that is a challenge to the professional. Nonetheless, he was always impressing people with his talents. Good actors respected his abilities.
But all his potential, all the expression he was capable of, was snuffed out with one bullet.
Investigators said his death was a “probable suicide.” A coroner’s office spokesman said the single gunshot wound in the right temple “was consistent with a self-inflicted type of wound.”
Dianne, who was in Pete’s modest Hollywood Hills home at the time of the shooting and who notified police of the slaying, was held for questioning, later released, after the authorities ruled out the possibility of homicide.
Dianne and Pete had spent Thursday night at home watching his show and a basketball game on television. Dianne told police she was in a bedroom when Pete came in, took the pistol, a snub-nose .38-caliber revolver which he usually kept in the bedroom, and said, “I’ll see you later.” He headed back toward the living room.
Moments later, Dianne heard the single shot that was fired. She ran in that direction and found the dead body of the man she was going to marry. A grief-stricken Dianne discovered the body in the living room of the two-bedroom home she had found for him months before, the gun no longer in his hand, but lying along Pete’s lifeless form. All the Christmas decorations were still up, the lights of the various ornaments sparkling.
Officers, upon arrival following Dianne’s telephone call to report the shooting, found two empty shell casings in the revolver. One of the shells apparently had been fired a week or so earlier at a telegram Pete received from the Screen Actor’s Guild saying he had lost an election to the Guild’s Board of Directors. The wire had been pinned to a wall.
The bullet that killed Pete passed on through a window and landed on the floor of a carport across the street.
Several hundred friends, relatives, and fans attended memorial services for Pete at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Los Angeles before his body was flown back to Penfield, N.Y., his hometown.
The chapel could not hold all the mourners who came to pay their respects to Pete. His parents, Dr. and Mrs. Ellstrom Deuel, flew in for the services here before taking the body back to Penfield. Pete’s brother Geoffrey and sister Pamela — already live here; he’s an actor and she’s a singer. The family, including Dianne, flew back east with the body for the funeral in New York.
The memorial services here were conducted by Brother Dharmandanda, an official of the Self-Realization faith practiced by Pete during his last years. This is the same faith in which Dennis Weaver and Elvis Presley and other famous actors are involved. Brother Dharmandanda comforted the mourners with the promise that Pete’s spirit “is now free from the body and has risen and rests in the bosom of God.” The rites included readings from Hindu scriptures, the New Testament, and the 23rd Psalm.
Pete was into metaphysics, and we had talked about it shortly before his death. He was brought up with a love for nature, the outdoors, animals, and for Pete it was very natural to lean toward metaphysics and the acceptance of reincarnation. Dianne complemented him in this respect — and everyone agreed she was a wonderful influence on Pete. In the last year and a half, he had improved considerably. He was, more peaceful, hopeful — still he succumbed to periods of despondency. And in one such moment Peter died.
Dianne and Geoffrey both said during the investigation they believed his death to be accidental, rather than a suicide.
Either way the world has lost. This man cared. He wanted everyone to be free.
Few have cared so much for his fellow man as Pete Duel.
Photo Caption: Pete and Ben Murphy were a great combination on Alias Smith and Jones and the show was very popular. Ben is puzzled and sad. He is trying to help Pete’s replacement, Roger Davis, because it is difficult to take over a role like Pete’s.
Photo Caption: Dianne Ray was with Pete on New Year’s Eve when he evidently gave up. She was in another room when she heard the shot. She said he’d showed no signs of wanting to take his life.
Photo Caption: Back when Pete was just starting his first lead in a series in Love On a Rooftop, in Hollywood, we ran a date layout of him … he brought along an unknown girl, Susan St. James. Not too long after, she began to get jobs. They were both carefree, full of fun, and ready to tackle the world.
Photo Caption: They clowned around with the train that was there and didn’t seem to have a care in the world.
Photo Caption: His old friend, Susan St. James, did a show with Pete and Ben. She is currently on McMillan & Wife, which is rapidly gaining in popularity.
Photo Caption: They added a touch of romance to the layout. Through the years they remained friends. Susan married and later divorced. They kept in touch, but not much recently. They were both working hard. He had been going with Dianne Ray for some time now. Many friends came to the funeral, like Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, Lynn and Roy Thinnes, Kent McCord, Thordis Brandt, Kim Darby, and many others who liked him will miss him.
Photo Caption: Sadly, Susan and her new husband Tom Lucas attended the services. They are very happy and expecting a baby … but this was a blow to her.
Photo Caption: Pete’s brother, Geoffrey Deuel, has made a TV pilot with Pat Wayne that may come on next season. He recalled how Pete liked to go up in the mountains and camp out in his camper. He preferred really untouched country to life in Hollywood.
Photo Caption: Ironically, Pete had left word with his answering service to wake him twice the next day. First at about 6 a.m. and then again at 6:15.
Photo Caption: Practically everyone who met Pete liked him. He was extremely talented and full of life when he visited the office about five years ago.
Photo Caption: Perhaps Pete gave a clue in a letter he wrote a judge promising to give up drinking after his second drunk driving charge in four years. He explained that he’d sought help from a psychologist to find the cause of his drinking.
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…
Evidently even then, his work was not enough for him … like so many young people today, he wanted a “meaningful” life.