by Richard Morris; Motion Picture, April 1972
Peter Ellstrom Duel died the same way he had acted — with passion and precision and in the shadow of his grim, stubborn judgment. He turned his back on a life that he’d found inadequate as an alternative to death. It was fitting — tragically fitting — that he’d gained fame as the star of a television series called Alias Smith & Jones, because Peter Duel was an alias in real life, too. In his 31 years on this earth, he had never been able to find himself. Changing his last name from Deuel to Duel hadn’t helped much.
The past holds many clues to Peter’s destruction, the seemingly self-inflicted death that stilled his body on December 31, 1971, when a .38 caliber revolver’s speeding bullet tore its way through his brain and emerged, blood-flecked, to shatter the street window after passing through him. And it also helps to explain why Peter was so alone when it all happened, why he only had his girlfriend, his anger and his gun for company on the night before New Year’s Eve, one of the most sociable and joyous times of the year. In a strange and sorry sense, his death had been a long time coming.
Peter Duel’s bleak and brief life began when he was born to Dr. Ellsworth S. Deuel and Lillian Ellstrom Deuel in Rochester, New York, on February 24, 1940. His family had produced three generations of doctors, but Peter had rebelled at the thought of a medical future or any future in which he would lose his identify to gain professionalism. At an early age, and in a dignified way, he made it perfectly clear that he wanted to be the sole determiner of his fate.
“I chose the line of least resistance in choosing my career,” Peter admitted later. “I just fell into something I love — the only thing I ever really like doing. There’s something that happens to me when I’m working in front of a live audience … an excitement forms in the pit of my stomach.”
Unfortunately, his acting career became locked into television (Love on a Rooftop, Alias Smith & Jones, and numerous guest spots), and the video screen was only a pale ghost next to Peter’s theatrical aspirations. Shortly before his death, he had wearily complained that “a television series is a big, fat drag to any actor who is really interested in his work.”
Love was just as elusive as peace. Peter was linked with actress Jill Andre, Judy Carne, and, most lastingly, with Dianne Ray. He and Dianne seemed to be headed for something more permanent, more stable than anything previous in his life. It was her influence that made him move into a new home, learn to enjoy himself, reach but for the love he so desperately needed to offset his lethargy and fear.
Motion Picture had run an earlier story on Peter in September, 1971, and it has sadly proven to be the truth. Titled HE CARRIES THE WORLD ON HIS SHOULDERS, the first page showed a stern-faced photo of him with Dianne, the blurb next to which read: “Things bother me too much … war, pollution, prejudice. I can’t smile.” And underneath the photo was the simply-worded caption: “Dianne Ray is the magic that keeps Pete’s life sorted out.” The only question one can ask is: what made the magic fail?
From the report issued by the Los Angeles Police Department, it appears as if time alone was the victim’s executioner.
“You wouldn’t believe the mail I’m getting,” Detective Sergeant Paul Estrada, who has been assigned to the case, confided to our reporter. “I’ve been hearing from high school girls all around the country who want to take over the investigation.” And he added in grotesque understatement, “They don’t believe there was anything in the world that would make Pete Duel want to shoot himself — but actually he had quite a bit on his mind.”
Our representative asked Estrada to reconstruct Peter’s final evening. Here is a summary of the official police record:
On the evening of December 30, 1971, at approximately 7:50 p.m., Harold Frizzell (Duel’s actor stand-in and “man Friday”) swung his car into the driveway of the late actor’s home at 2552 Glen Green Street. As usual, Duel was with him, and both men vacated the car and walked into the house. (Editor’s Note: Since his conviction on drunken driving charges on October 24, 1970, Duel’s license had been indefinitely suspended. It was usual for a friend to drive him to and from the studio and to transport him at other times whenever possible.) Dianne Ray had her own key to the house and had let herself in upon her earlier arrival at 7:30 p.m.
The three of them sat around inside and watched Alias Smith & Jones on Duel’s portable television set. At approximately 9:00 p.m., Frizzell left the house. It had been a peaceful visit; though Duel hadn’t carried on a lively conversation, he had not appeared to Frizzell to be either sullen or despondent.
As soon as Frizzell had left, Duel changed channels to a basketball game. He sat watching it alone for a few minutes, then picked himself up and walked into the bedroom. When he left the bedroom (time lapse undetermined at this report), Miss Ray caught sight of him while she stood in the hallway of an adjoining room. He was carrying a .38 revolver in his hand.
“I’ll see you later,” Duel told her. He disappeared into the living room.
At approximately 12:10 a.m., a shot sounded in the house. Miss Ray ran into the living room. Duel lay beneath the Christmas tree, dead. By his side lay the .38 revolver.
A subsequent medical report revealed that the bullet had completely torn through his head and had also shattered a front window, eventually landing in a carport across the street.
It has not been indisputably proven that Duel’s death was self-inflicted, but, as Detective Estrada puts it, “It is doubtful that somebody else could get that close to him while he was standing there and put a gun to his ear.” (And the crime lab report has undeniably endorsed the belief that the gun muzzle had been less than an inch from his ear when it was fired.)
One thing, though, does disturb the police. “The autopsy showed that Duel had consumed a lot of alcohol just prior to the shooting,” Detective Estrada pointed out. “I can’t give you the exact figures on the blood test, but I can tell you they were pretty extreme.” But according to the testimony of Allan Cahan, unit publicist for Alias Smith & Jones, Duel had not been in a bad mood over the holiday week. “I spent Christmas Day with him,” he recalled. “Pete was in fine spirits.”
Two facts sharply contrast with the general contention of friends that Duel had been in relatively good spirits:
A) At the time of the search, carried on in his home on the night of his death, a second bullet had been found — a bullet that was about one week old. It appeared as if the late actor had fired it at a telegram that was framed and hung in the hallway. It was a telegram announcing his defeat in an election to the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild.
B) It is a well-known fact that Duel was depressed about his drinking problem — and that he was managing to stay off the bottle. Something very stressful must have occurred within those last few hours which finally culminated in the pulling of the trigger.
Dianne Ray has not alluded to their having had any sort of argument on the fatal evening. In fact, no one could figure out just what had depressed him so — even those who were closest to him. They eventually agreed that the cause was his general nature, the personality that had dominated his actions throughout his life. Thus, in a very dark and dismal summation: Peter Duel died the way he did because his whole life had been geared to it. It seemed inevitable that he would someday take his own life. And — whether you’d like to believe it or not — if Duel had not committed suicide on December 31, he probably would have done it at some later date.
Sounds scary? Even far-fetched? Then consider what Pete said in 1967.
“My father took great pains to get me ready for college. But I had been watching the world and I didn’t see one thing in my future that I really wanted. Everything seemed phony. I was down, terribly depressed. I knew that if I went to college I’d be educated like every other guy who ever went to college. I’d be given little chance to become Peter Duel…”
“That’s when I decided to commit suicide. I thought about it a long time. I felt useless. I was ambitious for nothing. I kept feeling I was on the wrong track and would never get off. I didn’t know what was going to happen to me if I died, but it seemed the only sensible thing to do. Then I discovered there was one thing I didn’t have — the guts to take my own life. So, in truth, I just chickened out and after a while the urge went away.”
And it is probable that the urge had returned prior to his death. Peter fought it off, desperately trying to use his girl, his acting, and his friends as antidotes to the poison of hopeless that grew through the years like a cancer inside of him. But, as with many cases of cancer, it proved just a little too subtle, too complex, too stubborn to remove. Finally, he was just too tired to fight any longer. So on that fateful night of December 31 at 10 minutes past midnight, Peter Duel sighed one final sigh of resignation and regret and carried out the life-long decision he hadn’t: the “guts” to execute at the age of 16 in Rochester, New York.
In his own words, acting was something he loved, “the only thing I ever really liked doing.” And although it’s almost certain that Peter Duel has made it to heaven, it’s a pity and an irony that he could never find enough reason to stay on earth.