by Douglas Snauffer; Epi-log Journal, Spring 1994
Over the years, Larson has truly experienced the best and worst of his profession. The best things, he said, are the simple things. “I’m doing something I love. I’m creating. The first time someone answered the phone on the set and said, Battlestar Galactica—it was such a rush. It sent a chill up my back.”
But there is the other end of the spectrum, and the worst times can be devastating. Twice, Larson has had to deal with the deaths of the leading men in his series.
One afternoon in the fall of 1984, actor Jon-Erik Hexum, on the set of the espionage drama Cover Up, put a prop gun to his head and pulled the trigger. He was unaware that even a blank charge, at that proximity, could be deadly. He was rushed to a hospital and died a couple of days later.
His death hits Larson close to home: “I had a teenage daughter who had just turned thirteen and had developed her first crush, on Jon. He had given her one of those nice big set chairs with her name on it, and had been to dinner at the house just two nights before he died.”
But even as he was grieving the loss of a friend, Larson had the responsibility to get Cover Up back into production or see it lose its place on the schedule. “It’s a trauma losing a human being in that way, and you’ve also got that person’s loved ones involved,” he said. “But you also have two hundred people supporting their families with the show, so you’ve got to keep going.”
He also feels that going back to work is therapeutic. “You know, there was a definite shock period, a numbing feeling. It helps if you have something that you have to do. If you focus on the job at hand, maybe the grief doesn’t hit you as hard until later.”
Tragedy had struck once before, when actor Peter Duel died on New Year’s Eve (morning) in 1971 from what was ruled a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head at the height of his stardom on ABC’s Alias Smith and Jones.
Larson’s mood turns noticeably somber and distant while discussing Duel. “Peter was a very talented kid, but he was troubled. He was difficult in many ways, and seemed to be so unhappy, which was such a shame.” Larson says that, after the performer’s death, many people who had worked closely with Duel on the set suddenly had a dawning realization of the danger signs that had been present in the young man. Yet Larson himself never saw the tragedy coming. “I heard Peter’s negativisms, but I didn’t respond to them, never knowing how dark it ran in him. And you never feel anyone is thinking that way. It’s a little hard to identify with.”
He recalls one occasion when he and Duel were in Catalina together. “We had a wonderful time. I remember the way the kids would come up to him and ask for his autograph. I was that way at that age with Roy Rogers. And to watch the kids come up to Peter like that, it gave me a great deal of pride, and I’d have thought it would have made Peter proud and happy, too—but it didn’t.”
After a thought-filled pause, Larson concludes, “I consider the most important word in our language ‘perspective’ and, if you lose it, you lose track of an awful lot of reasons for living. I think Peter had them; I just don’t think he saw them. I felt that we lost a very talented guy.”