By Cecil Smith; Los Angeles Times, December 9, 1971
Pete Duel’s younger brother Geoffrey, who still spells his name Deuel, is costarring with Patrick (son of John) Wayne in a pilot by Stirling Silliphant called Movin’ On which sounds a great deal like Silliphant’s famous old Route 66. Pete wishes him well, hoping the series will die by morning.
“That series, this series, any series is a big fat drag to an actor who has interest in his work,” said Pete. “It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive.”
He rubbed his sleep-lined face. They were shooting Alias Smith and Jones, in which Pete plays Joshua Smith to Ben Murphy’s Thaddeus Jones, on a hillside back lot above a phony lake. The day was blindingly bright. Cold winds from the north had blown the smog away. The sky was like being inside a polished steel ball. The sun hung glittering like a Christmas tree ornament. Pete had stretched out on the grass under the gentle winter sun and had fallen into a deep, deep sleep.
“That’s what happens to you,” said Pete, coming groggily out of sleep like a diver surfacing. “It isn’t the work that tires you, it’s that it’s all such a dreadful bore that makes you weary, weary …”
THE CONTEMPORARY DUEL
We’ve had what amounts to a Pete Duel festival in the last year or so and I had come up to talk with Pete about it. There’s the contemporary Duel of his series and of that splendid performance as a junkie on The Psychiatrist last spring, there’s the earlier Duel (or Deuel) of Love on a Rooftop re-shown by ABC last summer; there’s the forthcoming Duel in the best work he feels he’s done recently in the Hollywood TV Theater production of Percy MacKaye’s classic, The Scarecrow, due over the PBS network Jan. 10 with Gene Wilder and Norman Lloyd among those involved.
And Friday night, there’s How to Steal an Airplane, an NBC World Premiere Pete made a couple of years ago.
It’s strictly melodramatic hokum — Duel and Welsh actor Clinton Greyn trying to repossess a $1 million Lear jet from the son of a Latin American dictator (Sal Mineo) who paid the down payment and no others. There’s a stranded party girl (Claudine Longet), a couple of pretty Peace Corps gals (Katherine Crawford and Julie Sommars), soldiers, electrified fences, snarling dogs — the whole schmear. Jo Swerling Jr., who produced it, said it was particularly memorable because they totaled the jet making the picture — and it cost more than the movie!
This was obviously the pilot of a series and I wondered if Pete would have been happier doing it than his western. He shrugged and said, “Exchange one kind of trash for another.”
Then he added: “No, it would have meant starting two years earlier on the grind. As it was, I was lucky. I had nearly three years doing various things before they found a series for me.”
GOOD PEOPLE IN SHOW
“I’ve enjoyed the odd show here,” said Pete, gazing wearily down at where the crew was setting up for a scene. “We get good people.” That day, the guest cast included Steve Forrest, Linda Marsh, Walter Brennan, Glenn Corbett, and Dick Cavett on his first and probably his last western. Tonight (Channel 7 at 8) Lou Gossett is guest star.
“It’s not the show,” murmured Pete, “it’s the system. Finish a show one night, start another the next morning. If we had a few days between to study the script, to prepare… At first you’re on guard against sloughing off the occasional good script. After a while, you don’t care.”
He grinned that crooked grin and said he wished his brother well. Then he added, “But my sister Pamela Deuel, she’s singing here in clubs. She’s doing what she wants to do, her thing. She’s the lucky one.”
I believe if he had just held on one more year with the series, he could have done anything he wanted to do because of his enormous talent and the show’s success, He could have walked away and jumped into a feature film with a good, if not starring role.
Based upon everything I have been reading about him, I’ve come to a few conclusions that may or may not have any merit to someone else. What I’ve concluded is this:
1. Pete was probably manic-depressive all of his life, but it didn’t worsen until his late twenties
2. Pete most likely had a very high I.Q. I haven’t read anything to confirm this
3. Pete was probably a black-out drinker, meaning that when he drank heavily, he lost periods of awareness, though still awake. This may have been the case on the night of his death. I have a hunch he was in a black-out when he pulled that trigger.
4. Pete was a dreamer. But more than that, he had abilities that were far -reaching than just his talent for acting. And this may have been a contributing factor to his depression. He wasn’t doing everything he thought he could do with his life. Yet, he felt trapped in what he was good at.
5. When someone feels incomplete as a person, they will not feel complete with anyone else.
Hence, Pete’s troubled love life. I have a hunch that Pete was not in love with anyone at the time of his death. But he dreamed of love, family, and a full life. So, he went through the motions wherever he could. That’s not to say that the woman in his life at the time of his death wasn’t a good person. It’s just that Pete wasn’t all he could be. He was a fraction of what he could be. And when you’re on the wrong track, you meet the wrong people. Not necessarily bad people. Just the wrong people.
Why do I have these theories? One reason is because Pete was born one day before me, fifteen years my senior. He was, from what I have read, a true Picesean(for those of you who enjoy a bit of Astrology). Pete was a fish who swam in dark waters, got lost, and couldn’t find the light. Yet, as many have said, his presence is so strong, even today in 2016! There is no denying the impact he has had on fans and other actors. I predict Pete Duel allure will be timeless.