Life’s Work, Living Free
by Janey Milstead, from Hollywood; FAB 208, May 6, 1972
We can’t forget, and we don’t want to. Now the awful shock has worn off, we understand that Pete has really gone from this world. But he hasn’t left our thoughts, and never will. As a last, simple tribute to him, FAB remembers the things that were important while he was here — his life, his career, and the beliefs that made him a warm, committed human being. As long as these things live on in people’s minds, they will be important always.
FEBRUARY 24, 1940
Born Peter Ellstrom Deuel in Rochester, New York, the first child of Dr. Ellsworth Shault Deuel and the former Lillian Ellstrom, his Swedish-American wife.
Pete’s brother, Geoffrey, is born in Penfield, New York, a town near Rochester where the family has moved. Geoff, as you know, also grew up to be an actor.
Pete begins his schooling. A new life enters the Deuel family unit with the birth of Pete’s sister, Pamela.
Pete enters Junior High School in the pleasant town of Penfield and, despite the fact he considers himself lazy, he is a participant in many extra-curricular activities, including sports and creative endeavors. His boyhood dream of becoming a pilot is still with him.
Becomes a sophomore in high school, is an excellent student with high grades, but still very active in the fun side of school. He was extremely popular with the girls for obvious reasons. Has several girlfriends, some serious at the time.
Although he knows the make and power of every ship in the air, Peter learns his dreams of becoming a pilot will never be realized. His vision has gone from 20/15 to 20/30, which would allow him to navigate, but not pilot aircraft.
Graduates high school with top grades and membership in something like fifteen school clubs and activities. Oddly enough, he didn’t really pursue the inkling of interest he had in drama.
Uncertain of exactly what he’s looking for, Pete enrolls in St. Lawrence University in Watertown, New York, mostly out of tradition as both his father and grandfather graduated from this college. Pete has flickerings of perhaps continuing another tradition, that of studying medicine, like his father and grandfather, both of whom are physicians. But, instead, he gravitates at last toward theatre arts and chooses as his majors: drama, English, and psychology.
Dr. Deuel and the family come to the university to see Pete in a play, which wasn’t difficult to do since Pete appeared in every single play which was produced at Lawrence during his two years there. The particular production the family came to see was The Rose Tattoo. Pete’s great aptitude and love for the theatre are so apparent, Pete’s father suggests that an acting career might be what his son truly wants.
Pete goes to New York and auditions for the American Theater Wing. He’s accepted and spends the next two years there studying drama (Shakespearian included), comedy, elocution, and body movement classes.
Continues his studies and begins ‘making the rounds’. Translated, this means calling on the hierarchy of the theater (producers, directors, casting directors, etc.) whether they want to see you or not, which they generally don’t.
Pete lands his first paid job as an actor. And, in addition to his modest role in the off-Broadway, Greenwich Village production of Electra, he also has to be the assistant stage manager. Eager to learn, Pete shoulders both jobs joyfully.
Peter continues looking for work as an actor in New York (along with several thousand other young hopefuls), but unlike most, he finds it. He has more modest parts on stage, and then an appearance on a national one-hour television show called The Armstrong Theater.
Pete signs to tour in the national road company of Take Her, She’s Mine, a Broadway comedy hit starring a very good actor named Tom EwelL. The tour takes them all over America and gives Pete invaluable stage experience plus a lot of free sight-seeing. When the play arrives in Southern California, Pete gets a look at his favorite sight thus far. Namely, Hollywood. And, after nearly a year of touring, what better place to try next? At the conclusion of the tour in Washington, DC, Pete goes back to Penfield for what he called a ‘free summer’ with family and friends. Then he journeys to Hollywood and starts making the rounds again.
Pete is successful, although his first acting job is slightly paradoxical in that it takes him all the way back to New York for a service film called The Man Nobody Likes. He then returns to Hollywood and tries harder. He does well, garnering roles as bad guys on various television shows such as 12 O’Clock High, Gomer Pyle, and The Fugitive. Then his chance to stop being a heavy comes along in the form of an offer to play the recurring role of John, the funny, good-natured brother-in-law in the Gidget series starring Sally Field. It’s not exactly The Forsyte Saga, but it’s a good chance to do comedy and a nice career cornerstone.
After Gidget is cancelled, the Love On a Rooftop series comes along. This show lasts thirty episodes, and is really quite good (so much that a number of segments were re-run five years later, in 1971, as a national network summer replacement show). So is Pete in the role of a newlywed living quite literally and cozily on a rooftop with his bride, played by Britain’s Judy Carne.
Pete stars in The Hell With Heroes [with Rod Taylor], a feature for Universal Studios and does such a great job, he’s signed to a long-term contract. Between then and the beginning of Alias Smith and Jones, Pete appeared in many major series, such as Name of the Game and Marcus Welby, MD. During the guest-star stage of his career, his most critically acclaimed roles were the two premiere episodes of The Psychiatrist, in which he played the role of Casey Poe, an embittered young drug addict.
Pete is ‘loaned’ to another film company to star with Kim Darby, in a perfectly delightful movie called Generation. (If only the distribution had been as beautiful as the script and the acting. Unfortunately the film was released with no apparent advance publicity, and changed titles in midstream. It became Loving, which pushed it further into oblivion.) The two young stars are excellent in their roles and, to make things even better, are in love with each other. Pete’s closest friend believes Kim was the most important girl in Pete’s too-short life. Mid-romance Pete is called away to location in Spain for a film with George Peppard called Cannon for Cordoba.
Pete decides to do another television series, this one with a new young actor named Ben Murphy, whom Pete immediately likes. The show is called Alias Smith and Jones.
The show is a success and, early in the year, Pete moves out of his apartment and into a house with his two dogs, Shoshone and Carol, both ladies. Also on the distaff side, Pete’s romance with Kim Darby has broken up (although they remained friends) and Pete is now with Dianne Ray. Things are going very well for Pete.
DECEMBER 31, 1971
Incredibly and unbelievably, Pete Duel is found dead in his home, killed by a single shot fired from his own gun. In the police report, the tragedy is legally termed a probable suicide and possible accident, but the feeling among Pete’s friends is unanimous. They don’t just think it was an accident. They feel they know. And that is good enough for the others who also love and miss him.
A major portion of Pete’s energies were directed toward his work. Acting was more than a profession to him, it was almost a way of life. So what were his attitudes to work, and where did he hope to get? And what mattered to him from the political side of an actor’s life?
During his own life, Pete had little to say about working in a series, and what he did say wasn’t flattering. I don’t know of any actor who doesn’t feel pretty much the same way. The quantity of work is Herculean, and the quality is quite often non-existant.
But Pete did series work because he loved to act. And somehow I think acting loved him back. He worked so hard at his craft and expected so much of himself. A recording Pete made for his fan club members explains his attitude in a nutshell. “Acting is a difficult perfection,” he said, then laughed a bit, excused himself, and said “I mean profession.” A slip of tongue, but in his own eyes he was right the first time.
He also took on the responsibilities of a series to enable him to do his own thing with the production company he’d started. What he really wanted to do was films, good films, and he had lots of plans for the future. But that didn’t mean he’d take just any series that was offered to him. Not too long after Alias Smith and Jones came on the scene, he went on suspension from the studio, rather than star in a pilot for a series called Young Country. He thought it was ‘a piece of trash’, and said so. He did appear in the pilot as a guest star (one appearance only) and Roger Davis had the lead. I didn’t see the pilot, but it never did sell, so perhaps we can chalk up another mark for Pete as to the aptness of his critique. (Pete and Roger would have cracked up laughing if someone had predicted that Roger would later replace Pete in another series due to reasons of death. Death was the last thing on Pete’s mind.)
However, Pete had a good feeling about Alias Smith and Jones and, although doing any series was hardly his ideal, he pitched in and did his absolute best, a habit of his.
To clear up a couple of mysteries about things that get a lot of publicity after the accident: the reference to drinking in the report of Pete’s death was ninety-nine percent supposition. Pete never drank anything stronger than beer and only a few of those after a hard day’s night of filming.
As for the telegram which he supposedly shot at in a fit of pique, that was all a big joke. Pete has always been very interested in politics. During the campaign of anti-war presidential candidate Gene McCarty in 1968, Pete went to McCarty headquarters every day for weeks, doing anything he could to help, which included long days of addressing and stuffing envelopes, answering phones and running errands. Hardly glamorous, but necessary tasks which he loved doing because he believed in McCarty, as did so many young people.
When Pete was approached to run on a slate of liberal candidates prior to the the infamous Screen Actor’s Guild elections, Pete agreed. But he knew there was no chance of upsetting the conservative factions, and never took the candidacy seriously. It was just something fun to do.
When the telegram arrived at his house, announcing that his slate had not won, which they never expected to, his friend was present. What Pete did was read the telegram, say “hmmmm, they forgot to put a period at the end of the sentence. I’d better put one in for them.” With this, he got the gun from his bedroom, tacked the cable to the wall and bang, lodged a bullet at the end of the sentence. Everyone then cracked up and that was that. No one would have ever known of the incident if Pete hadn’t left the ‘decoration’ on the wall for a lark, where it was seen on that awful morning of December 31. [Geoffrey Deuel confirms this account of how and why the bullet was delivered to the letter.]
And, on that day, the acting profession lost someone who had already proved that he had what it takes. But for the tragic intervention of Fate, who is to say how far he could have gone? Nobody can say for sure, but I for one am convinced that the only answer is “all the way.”
The person who knew Pete Duel best is dead. That person was himself. But he left impressions on everyone who knew him, and on millions who’d never met him.
Enough has been said of his death, but there is so much which has been left unuttered about his life. It was common knowledge that Pete was not a Hollywood night-clubber, and that he lived modestly for years in a garage apartment (where his brother Geoffrey now lives with Pete’s dogs) before moving last year into a very unflashy two bedroom bungalow in the Hollywood Hills. But somehow, no one has ever really been able to capture on paper what Pete truly loved most, which was an even simpler life, and how he felt about his beloved outdoors.
I mean, who doesn’t like the outdoors? So he liked the mountains. Big deal. Most people do. But it wasn’t that simple. Nature was almost a religion to Pete.
Communication with nature brought him up, calmed him down, made him whole. If this seems a bit strange to some, because Pete’s isn’t here to explain it, let me try because it’s a religion we share, possibly because of somewhat similar backgrounds. Pete came from a small country town surrounded with beautiful woods and bright clean farms with traditional red barns and clear air and changing seasons and peace and quiet.
Also his family spent their vacations at a lake in Northern Ontario, some of the most beautiful country on earth. As a result, his emotions were rooted in the beauty of the outdoors. I understand this completely, for so are mine. I grew up, similarly, through far from Pete, surrounded by wonders of nature that moved me from the time I can remember. I grew up crying at sunsets, because they were so beautiful, and to this day when I am in trouble or when I need my emotional batteries recharged, I must get away from the city and back to the natural environment I was born in.
I know exactly how Pete felt one morning when he stood atop a hill near his friend’s house, watching the dawn breaking over Southern California (another sight I’ve cried over). He was so moved he broke into a speech from Hamlet. The he cried out “I love you, sun!” And that makes me cry, too, because the feeling really is beauty.
The mountains Pete preferred to our smog-rimmed surroundings were the High Sierras. In December 1970, Pete purchased twenty acres of land in a staggeringly gorgeous area near Sonora. It had everything. Trees, snow-capped mountains, unfiltered sun, stars you could almost touch, unpolluted earth and air, and it was private to say the least.
It was, in fact, fifteen miles from the nearest main road and attainable only by a four-wheel drive vehicle such as Pete’s jeep. Pete loved to get away to his special spot on weekends and camp out. He was rejuvenated, brought back to life, and at peace.
It follows that nothing made Pete so uptight than the ravage of nature. He wrote fierce poetry about beer-can highways and was aghast when even his own hometown began to spread out and much of the beautiful countryside was eaten alive by bulldozers.
When Pete signed an autograph, he prefaced it by the words Peace and Ecology Now, and they were words he lived by. He did a lot of camping, as I said, but always tried to leave the land cleaner than it was when he came to it. He wouldn’t purchase containers that couldn’t be recycled, and donated his time in hopes of everyone else doing the same and showing big business that we mean business. He was upset by polluted air and water and it’s understandable because his roots were there and they were being dug up by society.
Pete was a truly involved human being, and intensely creative. Not only as an actor, but as a poet (and please see my April 29th column to find out where you can obtain some of his poems, recorded by Pete himself). He began writing poetry at a very early age.
He wrote pungent, driving poetry about his beliefs, and he wrote gently of others. My favorite poem of Pete’s is very short, but unforgettable. He wrote:
An infinitesimal piece
That drifts into
Entering in pastel ways
To become, simply,
Pete was in love with the celebration of life, in his own way, which is the only way any of us can really be involved. He is dead now, through some inexplicable accident. But he was so alive, he will always remain alive. And in a way, he really is. No matter the terrible vehicle, he is at last where he always hoped to be, truly one with nature.