…but either way it’s not the image that seems to fit Pete Duel.
by Judy Stone; TV Guide, May 15, 1971
In 1965, Peter Deuel had a private five-year plan. Five years in Hollywood to show his stuff, and then back to Broadway to name his price and his play. Instead he mushed through the goo of Gidget and Love on a Rooftop, suddenly whipped into political action and then subsided into a Zen-like meditation. He emerged in a mood to simplify his life, stripped away some nonessentials, and changed his name to Pete Duel.
It sounded terse. Clean-cut. The right name for the new role. Pete Duel stars as Hannibal Heyes in Alias Smith and Jones, ABC’s new humorous Western series. Heyes is a wide-eyed safe-cracker in the dying days of the Old West. He wants to go straight, more or less, and win amnesty along with his pal, Ben Murphy [of course, they mean to say Kid Curry]. [Kid] is the cool gun-toter. One is alias Smith, the other alias Jones. Which is which doesn’t really matter. Duel plays it puckish, displaying his dimples.
Except that it’s the wrong image for the real Duel. There’s nothing either clipped like the new name or ingratiating like the new character about the introspective young man. He lived, until lately, in a state of congenial clutter in a $65-a-month, one-and-a-half room garage-top apartment in a middle-class Los Angeles neighborhood. [He has since moved to larger, more rustic and ramshackle quarters, but equally simple. —Ed.; original notation.]
Duel is wary about interviews. “This is a part of the business I find amusing and also frightening,” he says, pushing his straight, longish dark hair behind his ears. Wearing blue jeans and a blue-and-white T-shirt, he sits in an antique rocker, bare feet tucked under him. “There’s a kind of reality to all this press-personality myth, but fame in show business is not in proportion to actual achievement. What happens so often is that things get out of sync.”
Duel’s determination to preserve a certain privacy shows when he introduces his girl, Dianne. First name only, please, they both insist firmly, but warmly. She is tall, slim, serene-looking, with long brown hair and a long, intelligent Modigliani face. She had been working as a TV producer’s secretary when they met on location for The Psychiatrist pilot in which Duel played a junkie. They share a love of the outdoors and a desire to preserve it from further encroachments, an interest in the world outside the TV tube, and a taste for health food.
While Pete checks on the activity of their three dogs outside, Dianne whips up a sample drink for me: natural wheat-germ oil, lecithin, a real banana, molasses, Malabar (desiccated liver and defatted, defibered beef organs), brewer’s yeast and dolomite (magnesium and calcium). I drain my cup, but pledge my allegiance to Julia Child.
The room itself says a lot about Duel. Behind the corncob-decorated front door, a bulletin board holds a dozen Eugene McCarthy campaign buttons (and one for George Wallace, received in a trade). A blue-and-white quilt-covered bed takes up most of the space, along with a sofa covered with red-and-white Indian cotton cloth. Classical records and books are jammed together at the far wall and Dianne explains that the book on obstetric practice is not a reflection of the fact that Duel’s family is packed with doctors; it was given to him when he had his first major film role in Generation, with Kim Darby as his pregnant wife.
Mixed in a crazy jumble on the shelves are an art-book series, Felix Greene’s Vietnam! Vietnam!, The Psychology of Self-Esteem by Ayn Rand’s No. 1 disciple Nathaniel Branden, House Made of Dawn by the American Indian Pulitzer-Prize winner N. Scott Momaday, How to Buy Stocks, Look Homeward, Angel and the complete works of Shakespeare. Thoreau’s On Man and Nature and Dylan Thomas’s poetry have the place of honor in the bathroom, surrounded by vitamin and health food pills.
Paintings decorate the walls, including Duel’s own delicate, whimsical sketches, a wildly colored surrealistic series, one “Keep the Faith” sign and a now obsolete admonition to “Boycott Grapes.” A door panel is covered with clippings on civil rights. Over a photo of demonstrators being turned away from the First Methodist Church in Americus, GA, Duel has written “Worship Next Sunday. It’s the American Way.”
When Duel, 30, finally returns, he introduces the dogs. The black-and-blue Australian sheep dog is Shoshone (“named for the Indian tribe — the WASP trying to atone for his guilt”); a toy poodle called Champagne and “the crazy-looking one is Carroll, for Lewis Carroll.”
Still ill-at-ease about the interview, Duel turns on the TV set for the Saturday football game and looks yearningly from time to time at the play soundlessly flashing by. Football is a passion that has come comparatively late. He was a loner who liked to walk in the woods when he was growing up in Penfield, NY, a one-stoplight, politically conservative farming community that now serves as a suburb for Rochester. His father was the town’s general practitioner, his mother the nurse.
Although Pete started acting in kindergarten, the idea of becoming a professional was “too weird to contemplate.” He was an indifferent student, but felt he should get a college education. He considered going to Annapolis to become a Navy pilot, but finally decided against it.
“It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me,” he says now. “I’d probably have nosed down in Vietnam with a jet wound around me.”
He did poorly at St. Lawrence University. At the end of his second year, Dr. Deuel saw him in The Rose Tattoo and said sympathetically. “If you want to go to school, why don’t you go to drama school instead of wasting my money here?”
Pete auditioned at the American Theater Wing school in New York City, fell in love with the town, went to classes on time and buckled down to work. “I realized I knew nothing about acting. But all of a sudden I committed myself and recognized that this is an art and it isn’t easy. That’s when the work began, the pain, the self-searching, the asking ‘What do I do? What is acting?’ It’s only in the last two years that I’ve started to get some answers.”
After graduation, he performed in a Family Service play about syphilis, got his Equity card through a short-lived Shakespearean company, won a small film part in Wounded in Action and understudied Tom Ewell in Take Her, She’s Mine.
When it played Los Angeles, he decided to try his luck in TV, get a series, and then return to Broadway.
“It worked out well, except that at the end of the five years, I got Love on a Rooftop. It was a fine series. It was sentimental without being maudlin, although every once in a while it got a little sticky. I don’t usually like to watch gooey sentimentality myself, but sometimes it’s a release. It allows you to sit and cry, and you may be crying for a lot of other things. Many people go through a period when all they want is reality, the blacker, the better. But oh, that’s a heavy burden to carry.”
He carried such a burden for a while during the McCarthy campaign for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1968. “It was my first experience as a real activist. I had blinders on before because I was career-oriented and under contract to Universal. But after Love on a Rooftop, I felt a vague discontent. Then that phenomenon took place in New Hampshire and I got involved.”
He saw McCarthy as the “philosopher-king” he wanted for president: someone with the “vision and awareness of a philosopher, plus political acumen.” He stuffed envelopes, gave out leaflets, and stayed on right through to Chicago, where he found himself face to face with a terrified young National Guardsman wearing a gas mask and pointing a bayonet at him. “Chicago was the closest I ever want to come to war,” he said. “I couldn’t put a price on the education [I] got from that campaign.”
Looking back on his work as the architect-husband in Love on a Rooftop, he says he didn’t know anything about comedy and he still doesn’t know as much as he’d like to. However, his co-star Judy Carne believes he is one of the few actors with masculine appeal who can also handle comedy. She watched him progress from a cocky kid to someone “who doesn’t deal on an ego level.” “He’s instinctively a giver. He looks into your eyes and a lot of actors don’t. He acts with you and for you and not for himself. That’s a very enviable thing.”
Producers vouch for the fact that Duel can raise hell with the most temperamental of them if a script is inadequate or the acting not up to his standards. He’ll pester the director with pertinent questions about character motivation.
“I like the challenge of being his agent,” says Marc “Butch” Clavell. “He is terribly headstrong and willing to take a suspension at the drop of a hat if the property is not up to par. He’s not afraid to fight with the biggest people, but he’s honest and a beautiful friend. When I was in the hospital, he offered to finance my three children’s educations in a private school.”
Dave McHugh, a New York composer, recalls the time they both plunged into the icy Hudson River to save a strange puppy. Roy Thinnes mentions the wild bird with a broken leg that Duel took home while they were on location with The Psychiatrist. Some time later, Pete appeared on the set looking disturbed and the emotion spilled over into his scene. Thinnes asked what was wrong and learned that the bird had died that morning. Duel’s ability to bring the feeling in his real life into his creative work moved and impressed Thinnes.
Duel himself thinks the best thing he has done so far is his portrayal of a junkie. “I wanted to show that addicts are not that different. They are people who are addicted and they’re not from another planet. I wanted to show that Casey was a human being who didn’t like being hooked and was terrified that he was not going to be able to kick the habit.”
Duel, who occasionally used to drink too much, has given it up now. Like drinking, he says, addiction comes not so much from need to escape devastating personal realities, but from the desire to escape daily boredom.
Daily boredom is not one of Duel’s problems these days. Whether he’s alias Smith or alias Jones, he’s working hard and gradually beginning to feel confident that he can actually become the consummate actor he’s been struggling to be.