by Stephen Lewis; Movie World, April 1972
The driveway of the small wooden house blazed with colored Christmas lights that had been set out only a few days before. In their reflection, and the lights of the parked police cars, the girl stood still, her face numbed with shock and tragedy.
Reporters held up cameras and shouted questions, but the girl couldn’t answer. And as the stretcher was carried to the waiting ambulance, even the questions stopped — the coarse blanket that stretched over the lifeless body answered them all. The girl was Dianne Ray, and the body was that of Peter Duel, the star of the hit series Alias Smith & Jones. The night of Thursday, December 30, had started out to be a quiet one for the couple who had recently gotten back together after a breakup. In the early hours of December 31, it had ended in a tragedy that was headlined in newspapers and talked about on national news programs.
Pete had asked Dianne, his steady girl, to spend the evening at his house. They had watched television — a basketball game and then his series — and he’d been upset at the evening’s episode. When the show was over, Pete had excused himself and gone into the living room, stopping first to take another drink. He’d also taken his .38 pistol. Moments later, he lay dead beneath the Christmas tree in the living room, a bullet in his head!
On the surface, the story is sad and simple, and the headlines of “Young Actor Takes His Life!” might have written themselves. But to those who knew Pete Duel not as the TV star he was but as a man, the sadness of the story is tragic.
“There was always something tragic about him,” an executive who had worked with Pete at Universal Studios, where his show was filmed, said. “He seemed so strange and so somber — as if he were lost in Hollywood.
It wasn’t so much in Hollywood that Pete was lost, but in himself. In interviews, stories, and official studio press releases he was a rising star who had a great future ahead of him. In reality, he was a 31-year-old man who had been in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous several times, and who was deeply troubled by what he felt to be the problems of his career.
For an indication of the real Pete Duel — born Peter Deuel — one had to know the behind-the-scenes story of Alias Smith & Jones, the story that was talked about on the lot, but kept from the public.
The story began happily. Last summer, when the show was selected by ABC-TV for prime time viewing, Pete was thrilled. He’d guested on series such as Marcus Welby, The Virginian, and The Bold Ones. He was working steadily, but he felt he was getting nowhere.
At thirty-one, executives told Pete he still had a lot of time to make it. True, some of his movies — such as Generation — hadn’t exactly set the fans or critics on fire, but the right break was sure to come along. Pete wanted to believe them, but at Universal he saw too many hopefuls who had been signed to the studio’s talent program knocked off the payroll when their “big breaks” never seemed to arrive. Many of the kids who made the guest-star circuit at the studio were a good five or even ten years younger than Pete — and distortions on an official studio biography didn’t make it any easier for him to lie to himself about his age.
When Alias Smith & Jones came along, it seemed like the answer. The series was funny, clever, and loosely based on two characters like those who made Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid such a successful film. It wasn’t the most original idea in TV history, but by studio and network standards it was marketable.
Part of the sell was to young audiences — and that meant Pete had to play the Hollywood game to the best of his ability. For several years he had a drinking problem, and though he’d been able to kick the habit for a while with the help of AA, he had fallen off the wagon with a thud while depressed about his career. Now, Pete had to be careful — but it seemed his spirits might lift with the success of the show, and that his drinking problem might cure itself.
The first episode aired and Pete received good reviews. He was happy — for a while.
The happiness, though, soon faded. For one thing, Pete and his co-star, Ben Murphy, didn’t get along. Ben has never been the easiest person to get along with around Universal, and in time the animosity that Pete had tried to conceal turned into a deadly silence that saw the two stars speaking only in front of the camera.
Then, too, there were problems with producers. Pete was unhappy with the scripts for the show, and when the ratings began to slip, he complained. But he could only verbalize some of his feelings —others were expressed in the way he refused to pose for publicity shots and turned down numerous interview requests.
His hopes for stardom seemed to fade with the decline in the show’s popularity, and Pete began to drink again.
There were a couple of bright spots in Pete’s life and Dianne Ray was one of them. They had dated for over a year, but just when it seemed that they might get married, they had broken up.
Pete drank again — and he was arrested on a drunk driving charge that let to two years probation. He missed Dianne, friends said. But shortly before his death, the couple had gotten back together, and Pete was full of hope.
“This will be a new feeling,” he predicted optimistically. “We’ve both changed quite a bit. We’ve both learned quite a lot from whatever we’ve done before. And we’re going at it just one step at a time.”
Pete had changed all right — but friends sadly recall that he’d grown even more introverted than usual. He seemed to carry the problems of his show wherever he went, taking the troubles of the set far more seriously than most actors. Pete thought that Alias Smith & Jones might be canceled — and perhaps he felt that with it his own chances might be gone.
There were those who told him he was wrong. Dianne, his brother Geoffrey Deuel, his family in Rochester, New York — all gave him their love and understanding. But Pete needed to feel that he had made it.
Unlike his brother, Pete had changed his family name to a more common spelling. Though “it’s easier” was the studio’s official reason when asked why Deuel had become Duel, it is a fact that the name change came after Pete lunched with numerologist Guerin Moore and was advised that his original name was unlucky.
But luck, no matter what he called himself, wasn’t with Pete. There were times when he seemed fortunate — like when he was selected for a leading role in Hollywood Television Theatre’s production The Scarecrow, the show that would kick off the prestigious series. It was a story of the occult and the supernatural — and on the set Pete seemed thoroughly involved in the subject as he read The Devil and Daniel Webster. But there were failures, too. Pete had seen, time after time, hopes of his come to nothing. His movies had flopped. He’d gone through sad love affairs, such as the romance with Kim Darby that had almost led to marriage.
Recently, there had been a new kind of rejection. Pete had run for an office in the Screen Actors Guild elections, and it had seemed that he might win. But the telegram that arrived at his house told him that he’d failed once again.
As if the news epitomized the problems of his life, Pete framed the telegram, hung it on the wall, and shot a hole in it with the same gun that later killed him. This took place just a week before his death.
The holiday season failed to life Pete’s spirits. Everyone he met seemed determined to be happy and carefree, but faced with a sinking series, this was one time when Pete could no longer play the Hollywood game. Instead, he became more withdrawn then ever, sulking on the set and talking only with friends like Belinda Montgomery, who visited him on the afternoon of December 30.
A stunt man drove Pete home that day, and once in the house he had a drink. Dianne arrived after Pete called her, and they watched TV. She complimented him on his Alias Smith & Jones performance, but Pete was unhappy. He didn’t like the script or the direction or the cast — and maybe he didn’t like himself.
As another New Year approached, perhaps the prospect of more disappointment was too much to bear. A shot was fired, and by the time Dianne reached the living room, Pete was dead under the Christmas tree.
When the police arrived, according to first reports, there was talk of a “slaying.” As the facts became clearer, the reports “probably suicide” or the kinder “accidental death.” Pete’s brother Geoffrey insisted that he couldn’t have taken his own life.
There are still questions about what Pete was thinking that tragic night, and there always will be. There are questions, too, about what might have become of his career, and possibilities that long-awaited break might have come.
But Peter Duel didn’t wait for the answers. The failure and frustration that had been with him for so long finally won out, and a loaded gun took Pete’s life.