by Elizabeth Laurence; Photoplay (UK), 1972
Pete Duel, popular for his work in the hit television series Alias Smith and Jones, died on New Year’s Eve. [Editor’s Note: Peter died the morning of New Year’s Eve Day, not New Year’s Eve night.] The young American actor found that life at the top wasn’t worth the effort. [That isn’t necessarily Peter’s reasons for ending his life; new evidence suggests that his anti-convulsion medication for his epilepsy may have played a role, as did a number of other demoralizing issues during his life at that time.] He shot himself. It was a bitter end to a bitter year. While his stunned friends wondered whether they could have stopped him, the fans grieved.
As many stars before him, and doubtless many more in the future, Pete Duel found that a long-running television series to which he was bound by a seemingly cast-iron contract was not the secure answer in an insecure profession, but a yoke around his neck which cramped him artistically.
It was well known that he wanted to leave the series; his greatest fear was that the show would be renewed and he would have to go through with it for another year. His attempts to get into television movies failed recently. Pinned to the wall of his lounge [his apartment] was a telegram informing him that he would not be required for a part for which he recently auditioned. [Actually, the letter informed him that he had been rejected to serve on the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors.] His friends spoke of his ‘despondency’ in recent months and the telegram obviously arrived when he was too depressed to rise above it.
It was a tragic end for the 31-year-old actor who arrived in Hollywood with such high hopes — and realized them, but not in the way he would have chosen.
Born in New York, the son of a doctor and his Swedish-American wife, Pete Duel’s early ambitions were firstly to be a pilot and later to follow in his father’s footsteps. [Actually, Peter never had plans to follow in his father’s footsteps to become a doctor.] Two years at St. Lawrence University convinced him that he had found the great love of his life: acting. He auditioned for the American Theatre Wing in New York and spent two years perfecting his craft. Early success in off-Broadway shows led to a national tour of Take Her, She’s Mine with Joanna Pettet and Tom Ewell, and [Pete] seriously weighed Broadway against Hollywood. Hollywood won, but it could be argued that Pete Duel lost.
Over the years, Pete Duel appeared in practically every television series in production: He landed a recurring role as the brother-in-law in Gidget [Pete was actually a co-star in Gidget, not just a ‘recurring role’] and later a starring role in Love On A Rooftop opposite Judy Carne.
After he signed a long-term contract with Universal following his performance in The Hell With Heroes [with Rod Taylor], Pete was kept busy on all the studio’s series. He was loaned to Avco-Embassy for Generation with Kim Darby and David Janssen, and he later made Cannon for Cordoba in Spain with George Peppard. But it was the continuing Alias Smith and Jones which upset him. He felt he had to work too hard on it. He told his girlfriend, Dianne Ray, that the company [was] treating [its] actors like horses.
Although he hated the series, it was the catalyst which precipitated him to stardom. All over the world, audiences watched the exploits of Smith (Pete Duel) and Jones (Ben Murphy) who were closely modeled on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. [Peter’s] face on posters stares from the walls of a million rooms.
The old line about ‘the show must go on’ instantly achieved credence because, within hours of Pete Duel’s death becoming known, Universal [was] scouring Hollywood for a replacement for the part of Smith. Newcomer Roger Davis, with an American daytime series, Dark Shadows, to his credit, was pitchforked into the role four days later. It’s always an unenviable task replacing a popular star in a series, more so in tragic circumstances. “It’s the sort of role any young actor dreams of landing,” Davis said. “I just wish it could have happened in a different way. There are many people who will not be able to help comparing me with Pete. I hope I can do as good a job as he did.”
But it’s little comfort for the man who found stardom too confining and paid the most bitter price.