by Laura Moretti, PDMS creator
Laura: If you could, in two words or less, tell me about the person Pete Duel was.
Ben: Excitedly engaged.
Laura: Can you expound on that? That’s rather intriguing.
Ben: You know, I can still wrap it up in a nutshell. When I first came out publicly again doing fan shows and so forth, I was interviewed many times about Peter and I just said everything that I could recall and remember and even then it was difficult to go back in my mind because I just don’t live there anymore. And I was concerned that maybe in this interview for this book that I would not be able to give you any more, because I really can’t. And I’m even less inclined to go there than I used to be because I’m no longer going out in public at all. I’ve had a few fun years. I just can’t expound anymore in a way that would do justice to Peter’s memory and would fulfill those people who want to keep him close in their memories. I’ve fallen short of that. And I’m not apologizing for it; it’s just that’s the way it is. I just don’t have memories; not interested in going back. You couldn’t get me to sit down and watch an episode probably.
Laura: So would you prefer not to have this conversation?
Ben: No, no. I will give you this conversation and I will give you all that I can, but that’s, you know, how I view it.
Laura: There have been a few pictures of you and him that appear to be on set, but you’re not actually acting; it doesn’t look like it because the two of you are laughing about something not seen in ‘Alias Smith & Jones.’ Do you remember laughing a lot with him when you worked with him? Or, again, is it so far back that …?
Ben: I imagine that we would have laughed at things, probably just the normal foibles of working life, nothing very, you know, nothing … We weren’t joke-crackers or anything like that. We were just probably laughing at whatever conditions or whatever was going on around us in the film day. We certainly weren’t laughing about the material or anything of that nature. I’m fairly sure we just sort of did that. You know, it’s just two guys working; you know, we’d laugh. It was a pretty easy relationship.
Laura: Did you think of him more as a friend or a colleague?
Ben: A colleague.
Laura: You’ve said you didn’t socialize with him outside work, right?
Ben: Correct. Correct. Although the irony is, as I’ve grown older, I’ve become more like him in the sense that I have a pack of dogs, I live up in the mountains in a rustic house, and I’m a very, uh, I’m a 60s liberal politician or political being, so I’m very much like the way Peter was then. Who knows how Peter would have evolved, but I ended up very much like him, in that sense, and we were nothing alike to begin with, you know. That’s just parenthetically.
Laura: Were you aware then of his political views and his work and his passion for the environment and Native America, or was that something he kept to his personal life?
Ben: I was aware of it, but he didn’t really proselytize that at work. And you gotta remember, we were so busy that we were just trying to get a day’s work done.
Laura: I know he’s said in audio that he tried to only use glass instead of plastic containers and tried never to use plastic utensils, etc.
Ben: You know, he wouldn’t have brought that up to me because I probably wouldn’t even have been cognizant of what he was talking about or aware, but he may well have been far ahead of his time in terms of, you know, ecological awareness. We never … I don’t recall those discussions.
Laura: You told me you weren’t a horseman.
Ben: I am not.
Laura: But it’s very clear to those of us who have horses that he was, and we know that he and his siblings grew up on the back of a horse. Did you ever feel intimidated getting on a horse around him not being a horse person yourself?
Ben: Um . . . no.
Laura: Do you remember him ever helping you with horses?
Ben: No. You know, I’d done westerns before Alias Smith & Jones. I had done a Virginian. And I’d had wranglers and people work with me and help me prior to doing that show. I only felt intimidated by Peter as a performer. He was just so good. I felt that he was a better actor. But not in terms of the physical. I never thought about the horse thing. I wasn’t aware he’d had any experience with horses. I was totally unaware of it.
Laura: So you felt he was a better actor. How did you see that manifested?
Ben: He just had a greater ease. He was more comfortable, more relaxed, in front of a camera.
Laura: I know that, during “Smiler With a Gun,” Roger said Pete helped him with some of his lines and coaxed him into asking for retakes if he wanted them, which Roger said he wasn’t comfortable asking for otherwise. Did Pete ever help you with lines?
Ben: No. That’s something partners … it’s like a husband and wife … you just don’t do it. Certain things you don’t do, you know what I mean?
Laura: (laughing) Okay.
Ben: And, plus, knowing Peter, remembering Peter’s personality — I was aware of that story about Roger, but I wasn’t aware that he was doing it at the time. Peter would have done it in a way that would have been so low-key, you know? And I just don’t remember Peter and I ever … I’m sure we tried to work things out, but we just sort of … it just seemed to work instinctively.
Laura: There’s a clip of Pete backstage with Dick Cavett when Dick Cavett guest-starred in one of the episodes in ‘Smith & Jones’ and he appears to be standing there biting his lip like he’s really nervous.
Ben: Who? Cav?
Laura: No. Pete.
Ben: When Dick Cavett was on Smith & Jones, Pete was nervous?
Laura: There was a shot of Dick and Pete kind of backstage because Dick was in an episode; he played a sheriff in —
Ben: Right. When you say backstage … see that implies to me that he was backstage on Cavett’s show.
Laura: Pete was dressed as Heyes.
Ben: I can’t tell you why Peter was biting his lip, but in most photographs, uh, people are doing very different things from what the viewer thinks.
Laura: But did Pete ever strike you as being a nervous person?
Ben: No, not really. I didn’t say nervous. I just said he was excited-like. Excited about the adventure of life, you know? Not nervous. That’s a different thing.
Laura: That’s why I was wondering — because, in that clip with Cavett, he looked rather —
Ben: Well, who knows? Who knows what was going on off-camera?
Laura: In another clip off that Dick Cavett piece, of course, was … Pete walks on the set; he’s smoking a cigarette, and I’ve heard he smoked a lot on the set. Was that something that ever bothered you?
Ben: No. Because smoking hadn’t become one of those workplace issues in those days. I never thought of it one way or the other. I don’t remember. I’m not saying there couldn’t have been an isolated time when he was smoking that I may have choked (laughs), but he would have been … as I remember his smoking, he was almost furtive about it, so it was almost like he was a bad boy sneaking a cigarette. It almost had that quality behind it, you know.
Laura: Did you ever meet Pete’s brother, Geoff?
Ben: Yeah, I’m sure I have at one time or another. But Geoff in my memory was a pretty angry young man. I mean, that’s just my vague memory of him, and Peter was a very easy-going guy. But I’m sure I saw them one time or another together. I knew his sister a little better and she was pretty fun-loving
… What was her name again?
Ben: Pam. Yeah, I knew Pam more and she was a pretty likable and easy-going gal. She struck me as pretty down to earth. Geoff always struck me as a very troubled person and Peter was troubled in his own way, but Peter was very, very charming, the kind of charm that comes instinctively. [Geoff recalls meeting Ben only once — when he attended the Alias Smith & Jones ‘wrap’ — which came within months of Pete’s death. It’s no wonder Geoff appeared ‘troubled.’]
Laura: I’ve read there was sibling rivalry between Geoff and his brother. Did you ever see any kind of tension between the two of them?
Ben: See, that’s a sibling that views him very different from someone like me, a co-worker.
Laura: So you didn’t see that kind of —
Ben: Oh, no. I’d be curious to know what Geoff’s relationship was with Peter. I couldn’t have told you from being around them.
Laura: You’ve also said that you had a chemistry with Pete that you’ve never been able to find again in the business.
Laura: What did you owe that to, that chemistry with him?
Laura: Luck? But you must have had, I’m thinking, some personality connection in there, right?
Ben: Nope. It was luck. I’ve heard other actors talk about this and maybe some actors better than myself can perhaps create this chemistry with different actors, but this was blind luck and it only comes along once in a while. And even among other actors — much, much more successful actors than myself — you look at the scope of their careers and one or two performances will emerge. And you hear directors talk about making films, great directors, and one film will just come together and they’ll go ‘Why?’ and they’ll just go, ‘I don’t know; if we knew why, we would reproduce it over and over again.’ It’s just … luck.
Laura: We’ve also noticed that Pete seemed — or Hannibal Heyes, I’m not sure which one of them it was — seemed physically affectionate with you, Kid Curry. Do you remember that sort of thing, that he was a little more demonstrative? He seemed to really like you. I don’t necessarily mean you, Ben Murphy, but you, Kid Curry.
Ben: Wasn’t he supposed to? (laughs)
Laura: (laughing) Yes, he was supposed to (laughs again). You’re funny.
Ben: Well, I think that was the idea: they were supposed to like each other. That’s what made the characters work.
Laura: I watched you watch a memorial video of him when we were in North Carolina. And throughout it you didn’t say a word until the 18-second clip of Pete walking across the street from a hotel to a stagecoach in the episode “Miracle at Santa Marta,” and you finally said one word. And when you said it, you said it as if you were amazed all over again by what you were looking at. You said: “Effortless.”
Ben: I was describing his performance. It was effortless.
Laura: In that particular clip? Or would you describe his acting overall as effortless?
Ben: I’ve already said so. That was the exact word I used.
Laura: See, but I have these questions all set up in order.
Ben: (laughs) Okay. Just cross them off then.
Laura: Pete has been quoted as saying he really despised ‘Alias Smith & Jones,’ the series, but that he liked and was quite fond of and seemed to have a great affection for Hannibal Heyes. What did you think of Hannibal Heyes?
Ben: I never thought about it. I never separated actors from characters. Characters don’t exist. I just didn’t . . . they’re one and the same to me.
Laura: You didn’t have any feeling for Kid Curry?
Laura: You just get in there and make them come to life?
Ben: No. I create a character in relationship with the other character, the other actor. It’s the way I approach it.
Laura: How does it feel to be asked about Pete Duel four decades later?
Ben: I’d have to say, um, it’s, you know, like, having a mild splinter under your fingernail and you gotta pull it out. You know, it’s not fun, but it’s no big deal, either. It’s just, you know, I’ve moved on. It would be different if he were still here. I would have a much more … and had he been around longer than he was around, I’m sure I would have more to say and a lot more fun saying it. But he’s not here and he hasn’t been here, so …
Laura: Do you understand why some of us still think about him as much as we do?
Laura: You don’t get that?
Ben: Uh-uh. I don’t get it. I don’t make judgments about it, but I don’t get it, either. I mean, I can only come close to getting it — and let’s say when I was young — James Dean was my hero and he always will be; he had some great films at the time, at an impressionable age for me, and it must be very similar for you, you know? There was a certain age that [Pete] came into your life and it clicks at that age and, for some reason, we never let those memories go. There’s some psychological things going on that I can relate to, sort of as a scientist, but I, you know, don’t share it. That’s your love and your understanding. I can only compare it to my own life with Jimmy Dean, someone I saw and admired from afar and never really knew.
Laura: Well, with Jimmy Dean, wasn’t that hero thing more about Jimmy Dean and not some character he played, right? I mean, for most of us, at least for me, I can say that the attraction wasn’t so much Pete Duel. I didn’t know Pete Duel, but Hannibal Heyes, whom Pete Duel brought to life.
Ben: Well, I guess we have different views. I see an actor. I don’t see a character.
Laura: Well, I guess that’s why some of us are curious about the actor after all this time.
Ben: You mean, the person, the actor himself.
Laura: Yeah. Because, around that time, for me, my father was an alcoholic. I’d been molested. I had this terrible fear of men having lived in third world countries and been exposed to cruelty and poverty like most people in this country never see. So when Hannibal Heyes came along, as a little girl, it was like, ‘wow, here’s this wonderful, warm man who comes across as someone who wouldn’t hurt me.’
Laura: Or hurt anybody. And then, as a person, as you get older, you wonder, well, how much did that actor give that character?
Ben: Or how much are you reading into it?
Laura: Or that.
Ben: I think most characters exist in the viewers’ minds. They create it because, you know, it’s a three-way deal; well, it’s a four-way deal: it’s the viewer, the media, the actor, and the character as it was created by the author, and all those things come together to create this impression that you’re left with. Had you seen Pete Duel on a stage, same person playing the same character, you might have had a different experience. Had you been a different age … you know … So I think it all comes together, but I think it’s in the eyes of the beholder.
Laura: So how much of yourself, may I ask, do you give to a character? Nothing? Is it all an act or is there something you bring to that character, a warmth to that character, that’s you … or — ?
Ben: I think actors probably bring different aspects of themselves to characters. Obviously, the actor’s always there; there’s a human being there, you know? But you can either, um, emphasize certain aspects of your personality and deemphasize others that will fit a character’s concept better, but it’s always the actor. I mean, that goes without saying. The character doesn’t exist. The character is only an imaginary thing. It’s not real.
Laura: What part of Pete Duel do you think he gave to Hannibal Heyes?
Ben: I think he probably gave Heyes his … Peter’s sense of optimism and fun. Fun-loving. He didn’t bring to Heyes his … Peter’s darkness and Peter’s anger. He left those things out, and he brought other aspects of his personality. And the ease in which Peter lived in his own skin, at least on the outside. Obviously, that ease couldn’t have been totally easy, you know. Obviously. People don’t kill themselves when they’re totally at ease in their own skins.
Laura: It’s true. (pause) So, did you like him?
Ben: I did. Yes, I can say, unequivocally, I liked Peter. I admired him. And I was jealous of his skills and his abilities. And I tried not to let any of that transcend, you know, the fun of doing a television series together. I enjoyed doing the work apparently much more than Peter did.
Laura: And apparently you still are.
Ben: Well, I’m still doing it because he’s not here. If he were here, he might still be doing it, too, you know. We don’t know. (grunts)
Laura: I get what you’re saying … that because that happened decades ago that’s kinda where you pretty much —
Ben: I left it. I left it when he died. That was it. Goodbye. You know, I had a life to live. I had a career to live. And I’ve never looked back.
Laura: Why then talk to me tonight about this?
Ben: Well, because I came out of the closet, so to speak, a few years ago, and made myself available to fans and I enjoyed that process and I enjoyed meeting fans of the show out there and I enjoyed sharing their feelings for the show even though I don’t feel it the same way. I share their joy. I share their love for it. For whatever reasons they have. I share that with them. And so I have a bit of responsibility since I came out and invited people and put myself back in that world to not totally be unresponsive to people.
Laura: But you’re not out in that world anymore is what you’re saying now, right?
Ben: No, I’m, I’m, I’m … retreating back into being totally a private citizen, but I have made … I mean, I have a wonderful girlfriend because of all that. I have some wonderful key friends in my life because of Alias Smith & Jones. I saw some old friends back in England. I had some very poignant dinners back there with fans, English fans — very poignant — that I never quite had here because they were set up in a different way; they were much more personable. So I shared a lot with people and I don’t regret a moment of that. I have other things in my life that I want to do and I can’t keep it up, you know. I can’t give it all my time or even a little. And I don’t want to do fan shows anymore. I think I’ve met the core fans. I still hear from them. I can’t respond to all of them or otherwise I’d just be writing letters and talking to people all day, you know? So … but I give thanks for having been able to go back and share that with people. And I like the lot … well, I like almost everybody that I’ve met … so that’s why I’ll do this interview and I’ll do other little things, but I’m kind of winding it down. But by the same token, I’m saying thank you, my way of saying thank you back. I don’t have the same memories of Peter, but …
Laura: Well, that would sort of be impossible, wouldn’t it? I mean, we —
Ben: Well, of course. We’re all different. Like I said: that hit you at a time in your life that was very key to you.
Laura: And we’re a different gender. I know a lot of women have said their draw to him was very romantic and sexual and he was their ‘first boyfriend’ kind of thing. For me, he was a light in the dark, though I had no idea his own life was so dark —
Ben: No one did.
Laura: So I can see where it would be so impossible for us to really grasp your experience with it, as it is for you to grasp ours. In fact, we’re not even sure ourselves. I try to figure out, after all these years, why I still care THIS much —
Ben: But if you talk to other women or men, either one, and you go back to some core time in their lives, there was a public figure, especially on television — since we all came of age in television — that struck us. I mean, it’s gonna be different for different people, different shows, but everybody has somebody that, for whatever reason, had an impact on them at a certain time, an impressionable time, and usually a lonely time; well, not always that way … some people have very joyous memories of sitting around with their families watching Alias Smith & Jones. It reminds them of their families because, in those days, especially in England, when I talk to English fans, there was only one channel; maybe there was two by the time Smith & Jones … so the whole family would watch it together and I will see people well up with tears as they remember Smith & Jones because they’re remembering their now-deceased parents who used to watch it with them. So, it’s very different memories that I’ve experienced with other people, and I both treasure and I honor their experiences, and they’re very, very different. Yours is one experience. But for somebody else it may be the fact that that was the only time she ever sat with her father to watch something, or you know, she or he, because guys will tell me … a guy crying about, you know, a situation when he was young and connected to Alias Smith & Jones; this is a grown man, you know, I mean, retired Army … he’s just crying with tears streaming from his eyes telling this story. And so, you know, I’m not, I came out … I experienced that … and I honor that. As Peter would have honored it.
Laura: How would you want us to remember him, having known him?
Ben: Well, I mean, that’s … you just answered it. Everyone’s gonna have a different point of view. Uh, unfortunately, you saw him at a time when, you know, people were one-dimensional, when you’re very young, and so people tend to be either this or that, and he was just a multi-dimensional human being, and I didn’t have enough time with him to understand all the dimensions because I only spent a little over a year with him.
Laura: But that was a pretty intense year, wasn’t it? The hours you worked —
Ben: Yeah, but it was intense because of the work, you know, and the work wasn’t about our relationship, and that’s why I didn’t get to know him personally because we were so busy working. There was no time, you know what I mean? Cuz there was a job, there was an objective job to do that you never see, that has nothing to do with these characters we create. You know, it was a full day’s work, there’s other stuff out there …
Laura: Did you like ‘Alias Smith & Jones’?
Ben: (emphatically) I did, yeah. I enjoyed it.
Laura: But he sure hated it.
Ben: He was very restive, yes.
Laura: The stuff I’ve read that they say he’s said, that he was very not happy being in a series.
Ben: Yeah, I think it was less Smith & Jones than it was being in a series, period. Another one. Because he had a different arc for his career in his mind and it wasn’t working out that way. Although he and I never had these discussions, I just know this from retrospect from, you know, the reading that I’ve done about him in the past, after he died.
Laura: How does it work then? You get up at the crack of dawn and you drive to the studio and you —
Ben: In my case, I was only two blocks away. I rolled out of bed and so I was there. I lived two blocks away. And then you just … that kind of show … that was a two-man show and you’re in every scene; it’s a grind, especially when you’re doing physical stuff all day long, you know?
Laura: Did you work every day, seven days a week?
Ben: Oh, no. Five days a week if we were in Los Angeles; six days if we were on location somewhere.
Laura: Did you have a dressing room then or did you get dressed at home and go over there?
Ben: Well, no, you never get dressed at home because you’d be wearing the wardrobe and they’d never let you take the wardrobe home. Are you kidding me? What if an actor wore the wardrobe home and didn’t bring it back the next day?
Ben: Are you kidding? They’d shit in their pants. I mean, they’d have doubles, but still … uh … in those days, it was pretty rudimentary. I didn’t have much of a dressing room. Actors didn’t have much in those days, and I had even less because I was working on a minimum salary. I was making … doing Alias Smith & Jones for the least amount of money an actor could possibly make.
Laura: And yet you had the look they wanted.
Ben: I understand, but they had me under contract.
Laura: Did you get Pete’s hat when he passed away?
Ben: I remember taking Peter’s hat and then years later I cannot find it. I don’t know what happened. Someone liberated it from me or … but I do remember taking it, yes. That’s the one item of his that I took, as I remember it. And I went looking for it years later … You know, I could be wrong. I may have taken … I took something. I don’t know what it was anymore. [It wasn’t Peter’s hat; Geoff Deuel has Pete’s hat. See “It Rests Safely With Me” for details.]
Laura: I thank you for talking to me about this. I have very mixed feelings. I feel very excited about it and have gratitude beyond what I can even tell you, and at the same time, I feel like I’ve sort of dragged you into something you didn’t really want to come into —
Ben: Well, I’m sorry. I don’t mean … Well, you haven’t dragged me. You’ve been quite sweet about it. What you hear is … I’m just a little pissed that I can’t bring more to it or I’m not willing to bring more to it or I’m not willing to go back there. I just don’t want to go back. And I want … what you hear is my own aggravation at myself because I believe I should give everything the best I’ve got. And the truth is I just don’t want to revisit the area anymore.
Laura: I don’t, and I haven’t done this on the web site or in the books, want to get into his troubled life or his death. To me, that’s like, you know, that’s somebody else’s trip, but I have wanted to know his life and to at least think that somewhere in it, particularly in that last year, that he had some good feelings about life. You know, you hate to be a fan and in love with a show that the hero that’s in that show hated and then kills himself. It’s almost like —
Ben: Yeah, I know. But it is what it is.
Laura: He gave a lot to a lot of people and, like you say, in ways it’s different for everybody.
Ben: I get that feeling. Don’t you get that feeling when you talk to people, that Peter was very giving?
Laura: Yes. And Roger Davis has said that, too. And ‘gracious’ is another word I’ve heard —
Ben: I would agree with that. I mean, I wasn’t all that aware of it at the time, but in retrospect, I would say … I know he was very likable and lovable. And I’m sure, and I probably never asked anything of him, so I don’t know how giving he was … you know, I was pretty roguishly independent and on my own, and going off where I was going in life once I left that show, but I would say that Peter was, you know, a sweet, but troubled man. You know? But I think that if he saw someone else in trouble or in plight … so your instinct is correct there: he would leave his own troubles aside and look after them. I get that feeling about Peter. In other words, other people’s … being involved with another person’s problem or issue or sympathy actually allowed him to escape his own, you know?
Laura: Which might be why he was into causes?
Ben: Could be. You know, unfortunately, he and I never sat down and talked about those things.
Laura: Roger said Pete would drive him nuts trying to get Roger to listen to, say, a song about Native America, that Pete sort of obsessed on things he wanted to do to make the world a better place.
Ben: Well, Peter would have instinctively understood that that was not probably what I wanted to hear or the way to approach me. He would have been absolutely correct, basically because we had work to do. There was just no time. And I may have … I’m pretty sure I was much more standoff-ish than Peter psychologically, in general. There was a ‘Do Not Tread On Me’ sign … even though I was a very fun-loving guy, too, in my own way, but Peter was much more affable and approachable. I was less approachable. So he would have instinctively … plus I was his partner, you know. There are just certain things you don’t do to your partner. You might say things to your friends you don’t say to your husband or your wife, you know what I mean?
Laura: Yeah … I guess …
Ben: (laughs) … because you’ve got other fish to fry.
Laura: Yeah. I do thank you so much. It might mean a little to you, it might even mean a lot to you, but it’s still a lot more than you know it is.
Ben: Well, good. Whatever I’ve given you … just use it … use the hell out of it. And turn it into what you want it to be. You know, in many ways, it’s a shame Peter and I couldn’t laugh in our old age together, but we can’t. And I don’t know … maybe I resent that. I’m sure I’ve gotten over the resentment of it, but it would have been a lot of fun to get old and look back and laugh at that show together.
Laura: How do you remember ‘Alias Smith & Jones’?
Ben: I have a great fondness for it. I have great fondness. I’m lucky I did it. I’m glad I did it. There were other decisions later in life for other things that I wish I hadn’t done. But that was my own decision. But Smith & Jones was a wonderful, gratuitous thing and I have absolutely no regrets about it.
Laura: We’re glad you did it, too.
Ben: Well, thanks.
Laura: We are. And we thank you for —
Ben: Hey. I was lucky.
This interview was originally published in ‘Remembering Pete Duel’ and ‘Remembering Pete Duel: The Abridged Version.’