Los Angeles Herald-Examiner, August 7, 1971
Competing against Flip Wilson on Thursday night is like holding a death wish, yet ABC stubbornly pits its mid-season western comedy, Alias Smith and Jones, against the Wilson charm again in September and the network hopes to convert a few more fans.
The fact the TV takeoff on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is still going should surprise most people. After psychiatrist Vince Edwards bit the dust in Matt Lincoln, opposite Flip, ABC substituted with the Alias show, figuring a quick 13 weeks and then oblivion.
But a strange thing happened. Instead of wheezing along, the show actually held its own and picked up a few thousand viewers. When Wilson was pre-empted for a spring NCAA quarter-final basketball game, big audiences turned in to the comedy and the show jumped to 19th place in the Nielsens. That one move satisfied the network, and Alias was inked in for more duels with Flip, TV’s man of the year.
Co-star Pete Duel, one of the best young dramatic actors, has this explanation for ABC’s thinking. “When you throw somebody to the wolves and they don’t get devoured, you keep them on. After all, it’s cheaper. You save money by not trying with a new baby.”
This summer the network is spending a few more bucks on publicity for the show and has scheduled the original 90-minute movie to run back-to-back with the Longstreet movie re-run, September 9th. On opening night, Thursday Sept. 16, Alias steps out with a 90-minute light-hearted romp featuring guests Walter Brennan, Robert Morse, Earl Holliman, Belinda Montgomery, and Slim Pickens. A fuss is being made, names are signed, and brave words are bandied about, yet nobody expects to give Wilson a serious run.
The intense, gifted Pete Duel had a high average last season with guest performances on The Psychiatrist, The Bold Ones, and The Young Lawyers, before turning to western comedy in Alias, thus fulfilling part of his seven-year contract with Universal Studio, and for Duel the switch isn’t all that easy.
“I still haven’t found my way in playing Hannibal Heyes,” he says thoughtfully. “I know what Heyes should be, at least I did in the pilot. He favors sweet talking, card-playing and safe-cracking, and needs situations to display those attributes. But when you put a series together in a hurry, it’s hard to get scrappy dialogue for such occasions. That’s difficult to do even with plenty of time. I make it a point never to criticize writers — they have the hardest job going — so I often work around the situation and dialogue, trying to have fun.”
While Duel has starred in light romantic series like Love on a Rooftop and was given his due with a certain easy polish, drama appears to be his niche. “It’s easier with my personality to perform the heavy, intense role,” he says. “I can feel it working up in my stomach and then I just open the door. Comedy takes more effort to get the juices going.”
Duel simply isn’t built along light-hearted, out-going lines, being an introspective sort who blocks out the outside world during a show. Working becomes a relief to him, shedding personal and national topics. And when the job fails to offer some enjoyment, he submerges into a form of catatonia and survives.
Industry recognition for Pete reached a peak this year, the result of his guest appearances. Movie scripts from the majors and the minors are coming in and, to top the honor, Duel was invited to play The Scarecrow in Public Broadcasting’s Hollywood Television Theater, a 2-hour drama scheduled for the fall with Gene Wilder and Will Geer. Producer Lewis Freedman was pleased enough to suggest that Duel find a script he liked and bring it in.