Editor’s Note: Although this article claims to have conducted this interview “just days before” Pete died, it was, in fact, taken sometime in October 1971, roughly two months before he died. His sideburns, in particular, were nowhere near their length as they were in the last episode of Alias Smith and Jones. Further, these were not the last photos taken of him — nor were they his last words.
Rona Barrett’s Hollywood, May 1972
Just days before Pete put a bullet through his brain, we talked to him about life… love… and his three wishes. Here are the last photos taken of him at home before his death — and his final words. WHY did he do it? Listen to Pete himself…
He was struggling, but his heart wasn’t in it.
Pete Duel sat slouched comfortably on the couch of his Hollywood Hills home. It was Saturday morning, but the demands on a popular television star don’t end with a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday routine. The interview had been long arranged.
The young reporter, a native of the Philippines, was trying to find some common ground of experience she and Pete shared in order to spark his flagging interest.
“I understand you worked in the Philippines once,” she said softly, not wanting to jump right away into those standard topics fans usually want to know about and stars are usually bored to the teeth with.
Pete’s bored look vanished with a charming, crooked smile.
“Yes,” he answered. “We worked about 40 miles outside of Manila just outside of a little town called Columbo, a small barrio that had an Army hospital. It was an Army hospital the Japanese had occupied. We stayed in a VIP area that was built by POWs for Japanese officers. It had a pool and everything.
“It was a very interesting thing. The hospital had a lot of history to it. We were filming a story about an Army hospital and we were able to use all the facilities.
“The head surgeon and commander of the hospital was — oh, what was his name? … I can’t remember, but he was a beautiful man. He’d let us observe Caesarian sections and so on, right in this very simple, very efficient, operating room he had. And we were allowed to use the hospital facilities for our operation scene in the film.”
Warming to his reminiscences, Pete continued. “It was a story about the mop-up campaign in the Philippines near the end of World War II and the fighting in the last bit of resistance. It was just a story about wounded soldiers and what happens to them… the tragedy of the wounded.”
As his voice trailed off remembering, his questioner murmured, “Was that your first film?”
“Yeah,” Pete answered heavily, then paused before continuing. “I was just out of the American Theater and was still living in New York City. It was an independent production which I shouldn’t even mention now that I’m running for the Board of Directors of the Screen Actors Guild [SAG]. It wasn’t a union production. This was in 1962 or something like that.” Like many young actors who consider acting a “pure” art, Pete had gone through a tremendous inner struggle trying to understand and accept the “business” end of show business. Such things as unions and contracts and agents and paperwork hadn’t seemed important in the beginning. He’d only wanted to act.
But half of show business is “business,” and Pete had had to come to grips with that reality. Some of that “reality” genuinely horrified him — thus his effort to get on the SAG board himself and change some of his craft’s stringent regulations.
Neither Pete nor his questioner could anticipate the degree of frustration he would feel just days later when he would receive a telegram informing him he had not been chosen to serve on the SAG board. Neither could foresee that he would pin that telegram on the wall of his living room in a burst of bravado. And that in a fit of depression — either psychological or alcoholic — would take the pistol he kept in his house for protection and shoot one bullet through the offending telegram in an expression of his anger.
It was that bullet which would later tend to confuse police following his death, and later, to confuse many of his fans who would find it hard to believe that Pete actually took his own life. It wasn’t until the spent bullet was found lying on a concrete driveway across the street that the authorities ruled out the possibility of homicide.
Pete had never really wanted a film career. Acting on the stage had satisfied his longing for expression. But back in the early 1960s, work was scarce for him and the role in the Philippines had seemed like the answer to his immediate financial needs. And the experience wasn’t all work.
“We’d film five days a week,” Pete explained. “Then we’d jump on an old wooden bus about six o’clock Friday nights and go into Manila. We’d all go into Manila and spend two days losing our minds!” He laughed, remembering the good times. “Monday mornings we’d all get back on that bus and get out to the set a little late.
“We’d fall off the bus, pushing chickens and kids out of our way, and just go to work.
“I loved Manila. It was modern, but it also had a great feeling of the Old West. Remember Dewey Boulevard? It runs right along the bay. There are a lot of gambling clubs and so on. You’d walk in and there’d be a monster of a guy sitting behind a card table just staring at you.”
He grinned. “There was a little sign — printed in English — hanging over the card table which said ‘Check all fire-arms’.” He laughed again. “You know, when a bunch of us walked into our first club and it said that, we turned around on our heels and left. Then we walked into a second club and saw the same thing. It was the last time we even noticed it. We just spent our time going to, uh, other places in Manila. I won’t even talk about the Yahoo Bar!”
His laugh was wicked now. Seeming to savor those past moments of fun, Pete lit a cigarette. He’d wanted to return to the Philippines several times in the last ten years, but with the growing demands of his career, he never seemed to have the time.
Free time — or rather the lack of it — was one problem Pete was never able to solve.
“Today — Saturday — is free time, and I’m sitting here being photographed and interviewed,” he said wryly. Camping it up he said, “Wow. One of my favorite pasttimes is waking up in the morning and having an interview.”
He laughed again, but there wasn’t much humor in it.
“Let’s say I have two or three weeks off. I like to go camping. Go to the mountains. I enjoy motor trips, nice and slow in the back areas. Anyplace — as long as there are very few people there.”
Pete’s biggest frustration was that the making of Alias Smith and Jones prevented him from having blocks of time for himself. He not only was unable to take the weeks he wanted, but even a long weekend was almost impossible to put together.
“The last trip was July 4th,” he said. “I had bought 20 acres of land in the High Sierras. I want to move to the wilderness area. A girlfriend of mine and I and John and his son [other friends] went up there and spent three days. It was lovely, just beautiful. That was the last chance.”
He said it with a sense of finality, perhaps anticipating subconsciously that it was his last chance to see the wilderness he loved. Pete was not a believer in astrology or other fatalistic disciplines, but he did believe in ESP (extra sensory perception). Perhaps he was trying to tell us something when he explained his feelings on the subject.
“It’s got so much scientific basis going for it,” he said carefully. “And I believe in it because it happens. There have been enough times I have had things happen to me. You know, the kind of thing where I’ve been about to ask someone a question and they’ve said ‘Oh, incidentally, did you know that so-and-so-and-so?’ before I asked it. It happens just enough so that I suspect there is an ability to pick up on other people.”
And what of love? Did Pete also “pick up” on that? Did he believe in love at first sight?
“There’s a thing that is very exciting which can happen at first sight,” Pete admitted slowly. “You know, that real magic, very strong — incredibly strong — attraction. But it’s a matter of degree. That’s where people misuse the word ‘love.’ They call it ‘love at first sight’ and it’s just an incredibly intense, immediate attraction between two people.
“Love is very simple. And love comes with an awful lot of work. Love and understanding. Being together. The basis for love can happen at first sight, but very often it’s misleading. Again, I think it has something to do with ESP and a lot of it is physical. You see someone and it just happens.
“Now when ‘love at first sight’ happens, it’s because you look at someone who physically just knocks you out! Their face, their figure, everything about them. It can be very painful because that kind of relationship starts off at such a high pitch. You’ll go two, three, four months really getting involved with each other, and then all of a sudden, you start having problems because you start getting into deeper areas. There are just simple areas that are quite basic. Then you find it very hard to communicate the way you feel to the other person because you’re on such different tracks. You start fighting and get very defensive. And that’s very painful. It’s worth it if you can make it last. I don’t know…”
Again Pete seemed to draw into himself and any effort on his questioner’s part to draw him out on the subject of his own love life fell on deaf ears. While Pete was obviously reluctant to discuss in detail his up-and-down relationship with his girlfriend Dianne Ray (who was later to find his body after he shot himself under his Christmas tree), his description of love at first sight could have been the story of their affair.
All he would say of it, however, was “there is a special lady in my life, but at the present time we are in the transition stage.” He laughed bitterly. “We’re…uh, not together right now.”
Then if he was not happy with his girlfriend, was he happy with himself? Were there any changes he would like to make in himself?
“Yes,” he said nodding his head vigorously. “Yes. Yes, yes, yes!”
“Well.” He sighed deeply, pondering his next words. “A lot of it has to do with geography. I would rather not live in Los Angeles. Today’s a particularly beautiful day,” he gestured toward the window, “but I can’t stand the noise and the pollution. And the traffic. I just can’t handle it.
“Plus, the climate here is not really suited to me. I spent all my life in Western New York state which has four definite seasons. It’s very cold with a lot of snow in winter and very green and lush in the spring and summer.
Would he like to live there again? “I… I don’t know,” Pete said hesitating. “I don’t know anymore. I think I would like to live… I think I would like to live… well, part of the year in a climate like that. To be able to have a place where I could go… and experience the seasons.”
Pete became silent, twisting his hands together nervously. There were to be no more seasons for him and perhaps he sensed it.
Trying to pull him out of his depression his questioner asked, What is the first feature you notice when you meet a girl?
“It depends on what mood I’m in,” he answered, clearing his throat. “Ummmm….
Say you were in a good mood. Happy.
“Now we’re getting into the sexual areas, you know.” Pete agonized through several minutes of detailed explanation, then asked that his answers not be repeated.
“Just say I like attractive people,” he said. “And they can be attractive in many different ways. I guess I’m the sentimental type. What else is there?”
How about your work on Alias Smith and Jones?
He coughed before answering. “I like it fairly well. There’s only so much you can do on a television series like that. You’re really limited. You work long hours and hard hours and you don’t have much to work with. There’s only so much to do in the scripts.”
Then, has there been nothing he’s done professionally that he liked?
“The part of Casey Poe on The Psychiatrist,” he said. “I enjoyed that. I played a junkie. And then I came back and did the series’ first episode as the same character, only this time I had a full beard…”
At some length Pete explained why he related to the role, revealing his own inner tensions and the struggle with the self he, too, was undergoing. But again, he asked he not be quoted. He was very critical of his own series and did not want to embarrass others in it.
“I need a special place to think,” he concluded. “I don’t care where I go as long as I get out of Los Angeles. I just DON’T like this area!”
But what of Alias Smith and Jones? How could he continue his series if he didn’t live here? Would he go on with it or quit?
Pete shook his head, indicating he wouldn’t quit the show “providing it doesn’t go on too long and I have my sanity left…”
Maybe he knew he didn’t have much longer to go. Maybe he knew even then that two weeks more would be two weeks too much. Or maybe not.
But the fact is — the night before New Year’s Eve after picking up a check for $52,000 in residual fees — Pete Duel watched his show in the company of his girlfriend Dianne. And decided at that moment to “get out of Los Angeles” the only way he could think of in his despair.
He put a bullet through his head.
Photo Caption: “What do I do when I have free time? Today, Saturday, is free time and I’m sitting here being photographed and interviewed. I like to go camping… go in the mountains. Nice and slow.”
Photo Caption: “You can walk into a room and see someone you’re intensely attracted to. That’s where people misuse the word ‘love.’ Love is very simple; it comes with an awful lot of work. It’s worth it if you can make it last. I don’t know.”
Photo Caption: “My fondest memory? One was a trip I took when I was 15. I took a bus from Rochester, New York, to San Francisco and back. I was really feeling my oats. Everyone treated me like an adult.”
Photo Caption: “I enjoy women’s fashions if they’re not absurd. I can’t stand hairdos. When she starts getting into elaborate curls, teases, and sprays, forget it.”
Photo Caption: “The traffic. I just can’t handle it. Plus, this climate is really not suited to me. I don’t know. I don’t know anymore. To be able to have a place where I could go to experience the seasons.”
Photo Caption: “What would I save if my house was burning? I have some letters from my grandparents who are now deceased. I might grab a bunch of those. I have a lot of memories stored in different places.”
Photo Caption: “Drama is satisfying even in front of a camera because once you’re through, you feel you’ve really cooked. Comedy is not my cup of tea.”
Photo Caption: “My three wishes? First, that I’d be on a nice size sailing boat heading for Samoa. Second, to live on a farm with wife, kids, dogs, and horses. Third would be to go back and start all over again.”
Photo Caption: Mourners at Pete’s final services at the Self Realizaton Fellowship Temple in Pacific Palisades included his girlfriend Dianne Ray (in top knot) and his brother, Geoffrey Deuel.
Photo Caption: It was a time of sadness for Pete’s mother and sister Pamela. Mrs. Deuel flew out for the services from Penfield, N.Y., where Pete’s body was sent for burial.
Photo Caption: Pete and his co-star Ben Murphy made an enormously popular team on Alias Smith and Jones and the two men liked each other. But Pete called the series, “the ultimate trap and destructive.”
Photo Caption: This photo of the rustic hillside home Pete rented in the Hollywood Hills shows half-dollar size hole left by the single bullet after it passed through his head.