Films Illustrated, March 1972
“It takes much more than a handsome face to make it big in films and television today. You just have to look at people like Dustin Hoffman, Elliott Gould, and Donald Sutherland to realise that is true. I don’t mean that it is the Age of the Ugly, but audiences have come to expect many dimensions in an actor, rather than a singular ability. The reality achieved from an ordinary, not-so-handsome actor who has substantial talent and who can play both heavy drama and light comedy is what audiences appreciate today.”
When Pete Duel said that, he stood at what was sadly to be the peak of his career. The television series Alias Smith & Jones was just underway and though nobody could quite predict the size of its success, it was patently obvious that the series was going to bring the intense young actor to a larger and more appreciative audience than any other single thing in his career.
He was totally right in his assessment: versatility, substantial talent, and a keen sense of character were the hallmarks of his success (though a thousand fluttering hearts would disagree with the not-so-handsome part). Duel had served a long and arduous apprenticeship and earned well the success that was fleetingly his. Neither he nor his brother Geoff were originally expected to become actors. The brothers were born to Ellsworth and Lillian Deuel (Pete later simplified the spelling of his name, but Geoff still uses it). Their father was a physician and Pete put aside his childhood dream of becoming a pilot to study as a doctor. Two years of training revealed that he had neither the instincts nor the stomach for medicine. But it was during those two years that he discovered his love of acting. Though he was not even a member of the drama society, he appeared in every play they produced, fell in love with the theatre, and transferred his studies to the American Theatre Wing.
It was from his elder brother that Geoff took his interest in acting and throughout their careers there was the friendliest of competition between them. Curiously, although Pete had a head start, they made their first films almost simultaneously; Pete in the war film The Hell With Heroes and Geoff as Billy the Kid in Chisum.
Pete had undergone a gruelling training in a series of off-Broadway productions before taking the decision to move to Hollywood. The first film landed him a long-term contract with Universal but the studio used him predominately in their television productions, whereas Pete yearned more and more for movie parts. Apart from The Hell With Heroes, he completed only two other films: the comedy-drama A Time for Giving and an adventure shot in Spain, Cannon for Cordoba which stars George Peppard. But, despite his leaning towards movies, Pete was happy in the Alias Smith & Jones series: he was an outdoor person by nature and felt quite at home in the sometimes grim and demanding locations used. He owned a Jeep and would often head off into the wilds for the peace and solitude he could find there, away from the bustle of the Hollywood market-place.
Everyone agreed in the business that, with the series a huge success on both sides of the Atlantic, 1972 would be the Year of Pete Duel. But near the eve of that year he died in his West Hollywood home. Pinned to the wall, a telegram informing him that he had not got a seat on the Screen Actors Guild for which he had recently applied. Alias Smith & Jones continues first with him, for there were several episodes in the can, then with a replacement.