by Margo Anderson; Photoplay, April 1972
On December 31, the young co-star of Alias Smith & Jones was found sprawled under the Christmas tree, blood pouring from his head. After the horror, came the questions…
“I heard a shot and ran into the living room. It was like a nightmare.” Ashen-faced Dianne Louise Ray, on the verge of collapse, forced out the details of her discovery to grim-faced Hollywood police. The body of Pete Duel had just been discovered. Near him lay a snub-nosed .38 caliber revolver.
“That’s Pete’s gun,” said Dianne, barely audible. “He came into the bedroom sometime after 1 a.m., took it from a box and left saying, ‘I’ll see you later.’”
Then, Dianne heard the gun go off and raced into the living room to see the man she loved lying in a pool of blood. The distraught, dark-haired young woman frantically telephoned police headquarters in Hollywood.
Sergeant A. B. Lawson was setting up a special schedule of officer assignments for New Year’s Eve when he received the urgent call for help at 1:20 a.m. Shooting calls traditionally get priority with lawmen and in less than five minutes a city-owned emergency ambulance from the Hollywood Receiving Hospital and a police squad car rolled up to the rustic frame house.
Dianne met them at the door. “She seemed to be deep in shock,” an investigator said. Ambulance attendants wrapped the wounded young man in a red blanket (signaling a dire emergency case). Turning his head they observed a serious wound in the right temple. Swiftly, but tenderly, the attendants lifted the body onto a stretcher. He was given first aid and oxygen as the wailing ambulance sped down meandering Beechwood Drive toward the hospital.
At 1:33 a.m., just 13 minutes after Dianne had summoned aid, he was pronounced D.O.A. (dead on arrival) at the hospital. Doctors said the bullet entered the right temple, struck the brain, and came out on the other side of his head.
Back at Pete’s home, near the top of a wide picture window, police observed a round, shattered hole in the glass. It was about the size of a half-dollar, and authorities said it appeared to be a bullet hole. Detectives, in examining the gun found near the victim’s feet, discovered that two shots appeared to have been fired from it. Ballistic experts were asked to examine the weapon. Officers decided to label the death “possible homicide,” pending additional investigation and questioning.
Grief-stricken, Dianne agreed to accompany officers to the police station and fill in the details. “Pete invited me over to his place to watch his show, Alias Smith & Jones,” she told police.
Dianne, an unemployed secretary and a former beauty queen, knew Pete for some time, although lately it had been rumored they were going their separate ways. Some Hollywood people alleged that Pete’s involvement with another old flame was the cause, but that apparently had been resolved.
Pete and Dianne had lively and devoted interests. Dianne, for example, introduced him to a whole new world of organic health foods. Both did more than talk about the ecology problem: Pete, in his individual way, tried to be of help even if it meant gathering and saving aluminum for recycling, or preserving the water supply in his own home.
He wrote: “I am a person basically interested in other people, and I would not knowingly do harm to anyone.” That was true. But what about himself?
To his friends, Pete was a successful human being, but success, for Pete, was not to be measured by the $6,500 a month he received from his television show, or indeed from the series itself. Just a month before his death, he told an interviewer, “Any series is a big fat drag to an actor who has any interest in his work. It’s the ultimate trap. You slowly lose any artistic thing you may have. It’s utterly destructive. At first you’re on guard against sloughing off the occasional good script, but after a while you simply don’t care.”
Peter Duel cared, perhaps too much. Son of a medical doctor, and a mother who was a nurse before her marriage, Pete grew up in a small Rochester, New York, suburb. Upon graduation from the local high school, he went off to St. Lawrence College in another part of the state. Shortly thereafter he left school to study drama in New York City.
From then on it was a brief but rapid rise to Hollywood recognition. Love on a Rooftop established him as an actor to be watched, and it wasn’t long before other roles came along.
In his private life, there was always romance and apparently always new romances. What wasn’t apparent was the problem at the heart of all that — Pete’s drinking.
October 24, 1970: a deeply significant day in Pete’s life. He was arrested for drunken driving and leaving the scene of an accident. The victims of the car he struck sustained serious injury, and the officers on the scene testified that Pete was inebriated. Pete, who had always nursed terrible fears about his uncontrolled drinking habits, now faced the supreme agony. He had hurt someone, and with deep remorse he confessed to the court that he was seeking professional help to find the answer to his deep-rooted problem. He promised the court he would not let it destroy him.
He wrote the judge: “I’m not drinking anymore. I’m trying to find the cause and I am searching for a meaningful life outside of my work …”
Peter always found it difficult to control his weaknesses. So thoroughly a perfectionist in everything he did, he couldn’t excuse his behavior. The struggle began in October. He reached out to Alcoholics Anonymous and analysis for help. His drinking had begun long before Hollywood; his fits of depression and moodiness, however, were new to a man who had always been quiet and unassuming. Now, he was quarrelsome and upsetting. Stories spread about constant trouble on the set of Alias Smith & Jones and rumor had it that Pete in no small way was responsible.
Actress Belinda Montgomery lunched with the star at the studio commissary about 12 hours before the shooting. “He appeared to be a little depressed, but not to the point where anyone would believe he would do anything desperate,” she said, then refuted the Alias stories. “Everybody who worked with him liked him — and everyone wept when they heard the news.”
His neighbors felt the same way about Pete. “He was a peach of a person,” said Mrs. Betty Mathison and Mrs. Jean Keply.
Even Dianne claimed Pete “was in a happy mood all night long” on the evening before he died. After watching his own show on that fatal night, he had switched channels to watch a basketball game.
Dianne left to lie down in one of the two bedrooms off the living room during the game, and testified: “At about 1:15 a.m., he came into the room, removed a revolver from a box in a drawer, and left saying, ‘I’ll see you later.’”
Dianne, half-asleep, heard a shot, leaped to her feet and dashed into the semi-dark living room brightened only by the lights of the gaily decorated Christmas tree. Peter was huddled on the floor.
His brother was summoned to the police station as investigators sought to unravel the mystifying shooting: two shots had been fired and Dianne had heard only one.
Stories swiftly circulated throughout the movie colony. In a town where gossip spreads like wildfire, it was whispered that perhaps life had become meaningless for the star after a bitter fight with Kim Darby. Pete had not even seen Kim in months.
Geoffrey and Dianne said Pete did appear to be despondent at times because of his drinking problem. According to Dianne, Pete had been drinking during their final date.
Police theorized the shooting to be “suicide or accidental” based on the bullet’s trajectory and the way the body had fallen.
Ballistic experts said the first of two shots appeared to be fired about a week earlier. Duel reportedly triggered the shot at a telegram he had pinned to a wall of his $350 a month rented house. The telegram informed him that he had lost his bid for election to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors, a position Pete had deeply desired.
In the wake of tragedy there always follows wild speculation and stories, but rumors were laid to rest on January 3rd, when more than 300 persons filed into the Self-Realization Fellowship Temple in Los Angeles. They came from all walks of life — actors, studio technicians, family and friends joined together to say goodbye to Pete Duel. The Hindu-Christian service was conducted by the minister of the non-sectarian temple, Brother Dbarmanada. Tears welled in the eyes of the mourners as Dianne read a poem, “Love,” written by the star. There was no eulogy — none was necessary for those who had known and loved Pete.
Following the memorial, Peter’s family, his business manager, John Napier, and Dianne flew to Penfield, a suburb of Rochester and Peter’s hometown, for private burial services. There the final curtain came down for the man and the star who had died too young and too soon.
Photo Caption: Pete and Dianne in the star’s unpretentious Hollywood home, a few months before the tragedy.
Photo Caption: A bullet hole through the window led police to first suspect the shooting was a possible homicide.
Photo Caption: Tearful Dianne embraces Pete’s brother, Geoffrey, at the funeral.
Photo Caption: Shirley Jones and Jack Cassidy attend non-denominational services in L.A.
Photo Caption: As Dianne stands near, Geoffrey tries to find consolation in the arms of a friend outside the temple.