by Sue Weekes; The Box Magazine, 1997
There’s one thing everyone knows about Pete Duel: he put a bullet through his head after watching himself play Hannibal Heyes in Alias Smith and Jones. Trouble is, as Sue Weekes finds, that may not be the whole truth…
‘ALL HAVE A great show’ were Pete Duel’s last words to co-star and narrator Roger Davis as he walked off the Alias Smith and Jones set. Davis didn’t think much about it at the time. The words only sounded significant when the show’s producer Roy Huggins met him at Aspen airport and told him that Duel had been found dead and asked him if he would take over the part of Hannibal Heyes.
Duel had died on the night of 30 December 1971 (although some reports say the 31st) [in fact, it was December 31]. He’d been at home, an apartment in West Hollywood, with his girlfriend. He’d watched himself in an episode of Alias Smith and Jones and his girlfriend Dianne Ray said he’d been unhappy with the show. She didn’t, however, think he was suicidal. Later that night, she was awoken by the sound of a gunshot. She found Duel dead on the living room floor, with a bullet hole in his head.
Suicide, decreed the coroner. Davis, looking back, agrees. Most actors have over-sized egos and are always worried if they’re getting the best lines. Duel, in the scenes he shot with Davis, didn’t seem to bother. This set Davis thinking: ‘There’s an absence of ego in someone who kills himself. You have to really not like yourself.’
Inevitably, given the odd circumstances of Duel’s death, there have been plenty of rumours about what really happened. Allegations of murder have even been thrown about by some fans who wish to make Duel into a martyr for the political causes he fought for. But his brother Geoffrey Deuel [Pete dropped the first ‘e’ when he got the part of Heyes] has a more plausible alternative to suicide. As he told The Box from his home in Florida: ‘Pete’s death was unwitnessed and there were a lot of unanswered questions. Pete was moody, deep, and had alcohol problems. But he was never diagnosed as a depressive. His death literally obsessed me. I was pretty manic about it and contacted a lot of people.’ In the end, Geoff laid the case to rest. ‘If anything, it probably had more to do with him screwing around with guns. There was a lot of alcohol in his body at that time.’
Suicide or tragic accident, Pete Duel’s untimely death (he was just 31) made him a legend. Over 1,000 people attended Duel’s memorial service in California before his body was flown home to Penfield, New York, where around 2,000 mourners paid their respects. He would never grow old, fat, and face-lifted; he’d never appear in some witless sitcom; he would always be the dark brooding presence that he was as Hannibal Heyes in Alias Smith and Jones.
It would be easy to say, cynically, that the only thing that’s interesting about Pete Duel is his mysterious, premature, death. But that doesn’t explain why, for a man whose legacy on film consists entirely of a myriad guest-starring roles, some TV movies, two short-lived sitcoms, and 33 episodes of a TV Western rip off of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, should be so fervently remembered that, on the 25th anniversary of his death, his British fans paid for a star in the constellation of Ursa Minor to be named Peter Ellstrom Deuel.
Ellstrom was his mother’s maiden name (she was a first-generation middle American). His father was a physician in Rochester, New York, where Duel was born on 24 February 1940. As well as Geoff, who was three years younger, he had a sister Pamela (five years his junior) who is now a gospel singer and runs a church ministry. Growing up, Geoff remembers his brother ‘would write poetry and do these satirical ink drawings.’
Duel always wanted to be a pilot, but his eyesight was too poor so he decided to follow his father into medicine and enrolled at St Lawrence University in Waterdown, New York. But he hated it. The only bright spot was the college stage plays he appeared in. After seeing their son in a production of Tennessee William’s The Rose Tattoo, Pete’s dad told him to give up medicine and become an actor. Duel moved to New York in 1960 and was accepted by the American Theater Wing for a two-year acting programme.
After appearing on stage, he headed for California and a small studio apartment in West Hollywood. He got various guest spots on TV, but his first taste of real success came in the sun and surf sitcom Gidget, about a girl whose father was a widower. In the lead teenage role of Gidget was young Sally Field (he was reunited with her when she appeared as sometime love interest Clementine Hale in Alias). Duel played a psychology student, husband to Gidget’s older sister, who practices on the family. It brought him a Most Promising Male Star award from the Motion Picture Almanac and his understated clowning in the role impressed producer William Sackheim so much that he decided that he wanted Duel (and nobody else) for his next sitcom, Love on a Rooftop, made in 1966. Duel played a poor architect to Judy Carne’s posh girl. ‘I was very fortunate,’ said Duel.’Love on a Rooftop gave me a chance to be wildly versatile. It’s all there, the whole gamut in 30 or more episodes: slapstick, comedy, drama, the rough and the tender.’
The show was cancelled after a year, but Duel made enough impact to win an exclusive seven-year TV and movie contract with Universal Studios. Over the next few years, he guest-starred in everything from The Virginian, to Ironside and The Fugitive. Then, in 1970, he was offered a part in The Young Country, a two-hour feature Western for ABC in which he played alongside Roger Davis. ‘I was in the tradition of Gary Cooper,’ says Davis, ‘whereas he was more Machiavellian. We had great chemistry.’
After his performance in The Young Country came Alias Smith and Jones, created by Glen A Larson. The tale of two good-looking, lovable reformed outlaws was an obvious spin-off of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry had been given a secret pardon by the Governor of Kansas [Wyoming, actually], as long as they could stay out of trouble for a year. This wasn’t going to be easy as they still had a price on their heads. But, as the voiceover at the beginning of the show always reminded us, ‘in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone.’
The series was far more irreverent than the TV Westerns which preceded it, like The Virginian, Bonanza, and The High Chaparral, and set the tone for much of the male bonding that was to follow on American television in ’70s shows such as Starsky and Hutch and The Dukes of Hazzard. The chemistry and quickfire exchanges of dialogue between Duel and Murphy carried the show. The tone was set by an exchange in the opening voiceover: ‘There’s one thing we gotta get Heyes!’ ‘What’s that?’ ‘Out of this business!’ This tone enabled Alias to buck the shift towards cop shows, making it American television’s last primetime Western hit.
‘Pete had a wonderful look on screen,’ says Roger Davis, who had one of the hardest jobs on TV when he took over as Hannibal Heyes after Duel’s death. The ratings didn’t slide, although Davis lived very much in Duel’s shadow: ‘There were people on the set who would never let me forget it.’ One of those people was Murphy who came up to him years later and said if he’d realised Alias was the best thing he [Murphy] would ever do, he’d have been a lot nicer to Davis.
This was exactly the kind of egotism Davis never got from Duel. ‘He was a complete natural,’ he says of his late co-star. ‘He didn’t even have to learn his lines until just before he went on. Such a complete absence of nerves gives you great strength as an actor.’ He particularly remembers the episode ‘Smiler With A Gun,’ in which he co-starred as a villain. ‘Pete and Ben were at a poker table and Pete had the script on his lap. He kept having to get up and in the end just let it fall to the floor and got on and did the scene. It was great ensemble acting. Nobody wanted to let the other two down and Pete knew he could always rise to the occasion.’
But his brother Geoffrey says it wasn’t long before Duel felt trapped by the show’s success and began to talk about ‘jumping ship’. He’d begun to feel restricted by the shooting schedule which didn’t give him the time to pursue his favourite hobby, camping alone in the wilderness. It was probably about this time that he began to argue with script writers. His brother recalls: ‘Pete could play things on different levels. He had an uncanny sense of honesty which is partly why the kids related to him.’ That sense of honesty spilled out into his life outside showbiz. Although film stars like Paul Newman were politically active in the late 1960s, TV actors weren’t supposed to emulate them. But Duel did: he supported and worked for the Democratic presidential candidate, Eugene McCarthy (known as ‘the peace candidate’) in the 1968 primaries. But Duel was just as committed to a less fashionable cause, the plight of America’s native Indians.
‘I remember going to his house once and he was playing this song ‘Indian Nation’ incessantly,’ recalls Davis. Duel’s house and lifestyle eschewed the usual Hollywood glitz and glamour. ‘He had a rustic apartment and liked to spend time alone with his dog,’ says Davis. ‘The dog and the Indians were both part of this affinity he had with people and things which weren’t on top. His lifestyle wasn’t typical of that of most actors.’
Inextricably linked to this was Duel’s own melancholia, which was completely at odds with his ‘cute and charming’ on-screen image, according to Davis. ‘He really didn’t handle the highs and lows very well,’ he says, suggesting a reliance on uppers and downers. His habit of driving under the influence eventually led the authorities to ban him from driving.
As his private life became increasingly problematic, his public life went from success to success. Cashing in on Alias‘s popularity, ABC re-ran Love On A Rooftop in the summer of 1971 and aired a TV movie called How To Steal An Airplane, which had been acquiring dust for some years. He took time off from the show that summer to film a version of the stageplay The Scarecrow in which he co-starred with Gene Wilder. He claimed that this was the work he was proudest of. The exhilaration didn’t last very long. Only a few months later, he left the Alias set for the last time bidding a casual, but chilling, goodbye.