by Janey Milstead; FAB 208, early 1972
Dear Readers of FAB: Pete Duel is dead and we’re all missing him terribly, but added to the loss is the terrible questions of why. Why, why, why did he do it? A few days ago, I could only shake my head in answer to that question. Today, I have at least answered it for myself. As far as I (and a great many others) are concerned, he didn’t. It’s that simple. He didn’t do it. It was an accident, an inexplicable freak accident, but it was an accident.
At the time of Pete’s death, there was really no way of finding out much of anything. The police released a certain amount of information to the papers, and that’s all we had to go on. Pete was such a private person, no one except his intimate friends really knew what was going on in his life, and when his life was suddenly gone, those friends weren’t talking. They were shocked, sickened and silent.
But a few weeks have gone by, and when I asked to do a further article on Pete for FAB, I decided to try and talk with some of them, promising to mention no names. I did and I shall be forever grateful that this is what I chose to do. It has given me an entirely different perspective of Pete’s death, one I now want to pass on to you in hopes that it will make you feel a little better, too. Maybe even a lot.
The story of Pete’s death in the newspapers included a direct quote from a recent interview where he’d more or less said that working on a series was a terrible drag on an actor and the most wearying thing he had ever encountered. I don’t doubt that he did say this, nor do I doubt that he meant it because I know many series actors who feel the same way. The long hours and the eternal hurry-up-and-wait of a series is a killer to creativity.
But I discovered that Pete really liked the show despite its drawbacks, and he particularly liked working with Ben Murphy. Other actors were considered for the role of Smith, but when Pete and Ben tried a scene together, the duo was an instant success. They played well together, as well as off each other, which is so important in a screen partnership. Ben Murphy absolutely refuses to talk publicly about Pete, but I can say that, to him, working with Pete wasn’t work, it was fun.
I feel that Ben proved his respect and great affect for Pete on that awful day when his phone rang at six-twenty in the morning and the voice on the other end of the wire informed him that Pete Duel was dead. He immediately went over to Pete’s house to see that his dogs were being taken care of and had ample food and water. Then he went to the studio where he packed up the contents of Pete’s dressing-room-trailer so that the belongings could be passed along to Pete’s parents. After that, Ben went home, took the phone off the hook, and wouldn’t see anyone.
Rather than attend the memorial service and be stared at (Ben, too, is an extremely private person), Ben went to see Pete’s family who, by then, had arrived in Hollywood and went to the mortuary to say goodbye to Pete in complete privacy.
But the memorial service did include a lot of familiar faces (including Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy, David’s step-mom and dad), many of them the not-quite-famous actors one sees all over Hollywood. Faces you know you’ve seen on the television and the big screen, but faces still without names. Pete was absolutely loved by these ‘young hopefuls,’ as they’re called in this town, so much that several of them wrote a poem about him which appeared in a Hollywood industry paper a few days after his death. They knew what it was like to lead the uncertain, insecure life of an actor in a business where there are five hundred for every one acting job. And besides loving Pete for himself and the independent soul that he was, they respected him for his ability and the courage it takes to live through three consecutive TV series.
One of those friends made what I felt was a very important remark when I was trying to decide for myself whether Pete’s death had been suicide. “I’ve known Pete for five years and I know how he detested anything corny and badly done. If he were ever going to kill himself, you can bet it would never be right after his show, on the last day of the year, in front of the Christmas tree. How cornball could anyone get?” And he said this half-laughing and half-crying.
I’ve known Pete, though not especially well, for at least that long myself. His press agent of old was a friend of my boss at the time, and I was roped into doing an interview with him shortly before he became a ‘regular’ on the Gidget series. I was pleasantly surprised to find him to be a very groovy person, filled with enormous zeal and appetite for his craft. Acting was such a huge part of his life, and he didn’t just want to be good at it. I could tell from talking to him, even then, that he had to be.
Admittedly, the series acting which Pete did was good, but unspectacular (and frankly, what series acting isn’t?), but just a few weeks before his death, Pete completed a role in a project he really believed in. Working for scale, which is next to nothing compared with his series salary, Pete played a good part in The Scarecrow, a classic which was filmed for educational television and showing during Christmas week [actually, it aired on January 10, 1972]. The critics raved about the program and the players and I know what this must have meant to Peter. It was one step nearer his goal of the role and the performance he was born for, his fulfillment as a performer and as a person.
Things were going upward in his private life as well. Although the paper suggested that he was depressed over a drinking problem, I discovered that it had been quite some time since Pete had been into the old Hollywood habit of hanging out in bars and talking with actor and actress friends and maybe drinking a bit more than was necessary. He still felt he smoked too much, and didn’t want to smoke at all. He was so interested in stopping pollution, and wanted to stop it even on a personal level. He was also getting into other health areas, like vitamins and the proper foods.
These changes were largely due to his girlfriend, Dianne Ray, who is totally involved in private and public ecology. Although she was mentioned simply as ‘a friend’ by the newspapers, she was much more. She and Pete were in love, and planning to be married soon. They were even planning their first child, and from listening to a copy of the tape which Pete recently recorded for a FAB competition winner, I learned they were also planning a trip to England this summer. Not a touristy trip through the big cities. They intended to really see the country and meet the people.
At Pete’s funeral, Dianne read a poem which Pete had written to her. (He was very interested in writing, and had done quite a bit of it and intended to do a lot more.) After the services, Dianne went to Pete’s hometown with his family, and is still there at this writing.
Although Pete was intense and sometimes moody, he was also bright and fun. He was changeable, but the changes were not unpleasant. Try as I might, I couldn’t find anyone who didn’t like him. The crew of Alias Smith and Jones remember him as a courteous, deep, but regular guy whom they dug very much. He was truly a man’s man to them, as he was to so many people, and the set is like a tomb without him. The show may go on (it definitely will for the remaining four or five segments), but it will never be the same.
From everyone I talked with, I got the same type of information, the same feeling that Pete was truly on the threshold of the best years of his life. Everything was looking up, including himself. As a result of these talks, and my own feelings in the matter, I’ll never believe he took his own life.
Then what happened? I can only conjecture. Like most actors in a western series, Pete had a penchant for guns. These young men must be able to handle guns on camera, and they practice with them off-camera. Pete was in the habit of fooling around with his revolver, and I feel it was in just such a moment when it discharged accidentally and it was all over. Whatever the authorities may decide, they were not there, and will never know for sure. All I know is that Pete has my confidence and my vote, and I believe that after reading this, he will have yours as well.
[Except that the facts prove otherwise.]