by Lois Kane; Silver Screen, July 1975
Why would a man like Pete Duel — rich, handsome, successful — want to die? Pete Duel left more than his shattered body behind when he made his violent exit from the stage of life. He also left us with the mystery of why he chose to kill himself.
The handsome 31-year-old star of Alias Smith and Jones was in a position that any other young man would envy. He was an actor on the way up, with money in the bank and his clean-cut cowboy image in just about every young girl’s heart.
Lucky, successful Pete Duel rose up from the bed he shared with his girlfriend on the night of December 31, 1971, walked naked into the front room of his house, and shot [himself].
For a man who was so anxious to abandon his life, he had accomplished a great deal in the few years he lived.
Pete was born Peter Deuel. His father was a doctor in Rochester, NY, and his childhood was very happy — the roots of his mad act simply are not visible.
After a two-year stint at St. Lawrence University, Pete studied acting at the American Theater Wing School in New York. He had natural talent, and learned very fast.
He did a little work off-Broadway, then made the inevitable trek to Hollywood in the spring of 1963. “He started going out,” confides brother Geoffrey Deuel, “trying to land guest roles on various TV series. Eventually, he got a co-starring role in a comedy series, Gidget.”
His next role was in a comedy series too, Love on a Roof Top, and it was obvious that a new comic star had been launched. Stardom didn’t really affect Pete Duel. He wore his celebrity well.
“He never owned a suit or tie,” reminisces Charlie Parker, a TV writer. “He was always just the same as when he first arrived — a nice young guy in denim shirt and faded jeans.”
Pete signed a seven-year contract with Universal in July 1967, and many trace his suicide to that moment. Although Pete quickly outgrew the contract, Universal refused to recognize that he was capable of meatier roles than the endless TV stereotypes he played.
“Yes, he got tied up,” rues brother Geoffrey. “A contract means you get paid every week, not per show. It means also that the studio will give you any kind of work because they want to build you up.”
Pete had turned down two other series when he accepted Alias Smith and Jones in October 1970. He wasn’t enthusiastic about the series, but he was forced by his 1967 contract to keep busy within the Universal set-up.
His dissatisfaction with the vehicle that launched him to fame was obvious later the same month, when he cracked up his car after a drunken binge. He almost killed two people and barely escaped with his own life.
“Yes,” admits Geoffrey, “he had a drink problem. Drink can very often intensify happy moods, and can, very easily, magnify depressing moods. To Peter, drink was an on and off thing. He could go for a year without a drink, but when he did, things he often did them to the extreme.
“Often the problem with a romantic and an idealist is that he is too hard on himself.”
One of the good things about Alias Smith and Jones was Pete’s stand-in, Harold Frizzell. The two quickly became the best of friends [though, not according to Geoffrey].
“We were thicker than buddies,” says Harold, “more like brothers. He was one of the greatest guys you could meet. He was a hard person for people to understand, but I could read him.
“The simple things in life are what Pete loved, so simple that most other people would not like them. ‘Let’s take a walk in the woods,’ he would say, and we would sit all day beside a lake and fish. He was just about the best-liked person who ever worked at Universal Studios.
“He was crazy about ecology,” recalls Frizzell, “and hated pollution. He would not use plastic cups on the set, only glass ones. He would not use anything that would not dissolve and go back into the earth.”
Pete was definitely not crazy about Alias Smith and Jones, however. The star once described the show as “Junk, and I hope it gets scrapped.” But the series remained popular, and its star remained trapped in a role he detested.
Others who knew him at that time remember a much wilder creature than the nature lover described by Harold Frizzell.
One of his directors, Egbert Swackhamer, says “he had a self-destructive urge, that young man. I have seen it before in actors with a real, natural, in-born talent.
“He was an instinctive actor. Pure gold! Yet he was self-destructive and self-indulgent. He was into everything — drugs, booze, you name it. He did not spare himself in self-abuse.”
Pete’s problems were mounting. He gave a moving plea at his hearing for drunken driving and won his freedom because of it.
“In recalling my feelings on that night,” he wrote, “shame and terror were in my mind. Sitting here eight months later, it is very difficult to recreate the events of the accident or even try to find justification for my conduct.
“But I do want Your Honor to know that I am a person basically interested in other people and I would not knowingly harm anyone.”
The presiding judge recognized the honesty behind the plea, and Pete Duel got off with a $100 fine. The only person that he would harm would be himself.
His final months were spent bemoaning his series. “This series, any series, is a big fat drag to an actor who has any interest in his work,” he told an interviewer three weeks before his suicide. “It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive.”
On December 30, 1971, Pete finished his final episode of Alias Smith and Jones [actually, he finished working that day, but the episode wasn’t completed by him]. He picked up girlfriend Dianne Ray on his way home, and they settled down to an evening of TV.
Pete watched part of his own show, announced that it was trash, and switched over to the basketball game. His girlfriend went to bed, and he began to drink — heavily.
At 1:25 a.m., he entered the bedroom, naked, took his gun from the box, and said “I’ll see you later.”
[There are actually now three different stories about how that night transpired.]
Dianne Ray heard the shot a few minutes later, and rushed into the front room to discover Pete lying on the floor, covered in his own blood. As the police later termed it, he died of “cerebral destruction.”
Ironically, he did not die alone. He brought down the series he loathed with his despairing act. Despite the hasty substitution of Roger Davis for Pete, Alias Smith and Jones was canned halfway through its third season.
Pete Duel could not survive as its star — and the show could not go on without him.
Photo Caption: He was rich, handsome, and successful, yet Pete Duel could find nothing to live for.
Photo Caption: Pete Duel was a great success in Alias Smith and Jones. He hated the show.