by Jeff Rovin, TV Babylon, Signet, New York, 1984, pp. 60-62
With a slight stretch of the imagination, the fate of some suicide victims, such as Brenda Benet, can be regarded as a happy ending. Not so the demise of Peter Duel. He wasn’t a lost and saddened figure like Brenda, didn’t have Nick Adams’s bad luck, or Inger Stevens’s fatal sense of isolation. He was simply a young man full of high ambition. Like so many actors before him, Duel’s plan had always been to suffer through the TV pap [lacking in substance] in order to make a name for himself and go on to Broadway and his pick of plays. Ultimately, however, he was trapped in a multi-year commitment in a medium of which he wanted no part. More troublesome, he was also trapped in an irreparably flawed world, which he finally decided he wanted no part of.
Duel, as Peter Deuel, guest-starred on many TV shows during the early sixties, as well as three popular series: Gidget, Love on a Rooftop, and, in 1971, Alias Smith and Jones. He changed his name for the sake of simplicity, not to make a statement—though the new spelling certainly was fitting. He wouldn’t do scenes until they rang true with him, and had a reputation for fighting hard with directors, always searching for motivation. However, Duel refused to think of himself as temperamental, merely a perfectionist.
The earnest, well-read young man was also politically active. He passed out pamphlets for Eugene McCarthy in 1968, and stood by him, literally, during the infamous flare-ups at the Democratic Convention of 1968. He also campaigned hard to land an executive post he coveted in the Screen Actors Guild. When he lost, Duel was so upset that he took the telegram that had notified him of his defeat, tacked it to a wall, dug up a revolver he owned, and drilled a hole through the document.
Intense, volatile, habitually dressed in jeans, fond of going barefoot, thrilled by the outdoors, known to have saved drowning puppies and mended the wings of injured birds, Duel was the quintessential young man of the 1960s. With one difference. Instead of escaping through drugs, he used alcohol to get away from his problems. Duel was arrested for drunk driving in 1967 and again in June, 1971, at which time he faced a stiff fine and possible prison sentence. Sobered right-quick, he stood before the judge prior to sentencing and declared, “I’m not drinking anymore. I am searching hard for a meaningful life outside of my work, and I feel I can prove to the court that I will not be involved any further with the law, particularly with regard to drinking and driving.” In light of his seeming repentance, the judge let Duel off with a comparatively light sentence: his license was revoked; he was fined $1000; and he was handed a 180-day suspended sentence with two years of probation.
Although Duel may have believed he was being honest when he told the judge he was searching for a meaningful life, he certainly didn’t spend much time searching. As Duel stood in the courtroom and spoke to the judge, he was just one week away from death. [Editor’s note: Pete’s sentencing was in June of 1971; he died on the last day of December in 1971, six months, not one week, after writing his letter to the judge.]
On Thursday, December 30, 1971, it was work as usual on Alias Smith and Jones. The people who’d worked with Duel that day said he was in fine spirits, and when he left, he seemed eager to get back before the cameras at eight A.M. the next morning to wrap the current episode.
That night, Duel reviewed his script for the following day’s scenes. Afterward, he was joined at his two-bedroom Hollywood home by his girl friend Dianne Ray, a twenty-nine-year-old secretary and aspiring actress. The couple watched Alias Smith and Jones, after which Duel tuned in to a Lakers basketball game.
Ray retired to the bedroom and, shortly thereafter, at 1:25 A.M. [on December 31, 1971], Duel joined her. Contrary to what he’d promised the judge and, if one can believe the actor, had promised himself, he had a drink in his hand. He stood in the bedroom staring at Ray and, after a long moment, walked over and quietly retrieved a wrapped box from a dresser drawer. The package appeared, to Ray, to be a gift left over from Christmas. Turning to his girl friend, Duel had an easy smile on his face and, as though he were going to finish watching the ball game, said casually, “I’ll see you later.” He went back into the living room. Several minutes later, Ray heard a loud cracking sound. Running in to investigate, she found Duel sprawled beneath the still-decorated Christmas tree, his .38 caliber revolver nearby, a jagged bullet hole spilling blood from his right temple. Swallowing her urge to panic, the young woman phoned the police. [Editor’s note: she first called Pete’s agent; she didn’t call the police until an hour after he shot himself.]
At first, detectives were not inclined to write off Duel’s death as a suicide. Ray herself had no motive, but Duel was famous for opening his home to out-of-work actors. They could be found coming and going at all hours, and detectives thought one of them, having grown resentful of the star’s success, may have done him in. But there was no evidence that anyone besides Ray and Duel had been in the house, and suicide remained the official verdict.
Nonetheless, friends maintain that Duel wasn’t the suicidal type, that the weapon had to have discharged accidentally. But they can’t explain why he had gone and gotten it if not to kill himself; after all, he hadn’t received any telegrams that day. More than likely, Duel’s drinking had plunged him into a state of severe depression, in which frame of mind he viewed the world situation as hopeless, his TV show (and that evening’s episode, in particular) as garbage, and his career as a stage actor an impossible pipe dream. When he had gone to Hollywood, Duel had given himself five years to return to Broadway. Six years had elapsed, and the success of his series threatened to extend that by several seasons.
“Fame in show business,” he once said, “is not in proportion to actual achievement.” For an aspiring over-achiever, TV Babylon offered only one way out.