“I love acting. But to me it is a profession, not a game. I want to be at my best all the time. If that cuts into the glamorous part of the profession it’s okay with me. The show comes first.”—Deuel in the Sun, TV Photo Story, October 1966
Why does Peter Deuel, a television actor whose brief career ended four decades ago, continue to command interest today? Those who recognize his brilliant talent are led to the discovery of an exceptional man. An actor who believed that playing a part meant exposing an inner aspect of oneself, Peter personified charm, intellect, passion, and dedication to causes such as ecology and Native America. He sought acting roles, however, that contradicted his sunny image and called such characters “heavies.”
Generally, Peter Ellstrom Deuel’s life mirrored the tenor of his times. Born February 24, 1940, in Rochester in upstate New York and raised in nearby Penfield, he eventually became a troublesome high school student just as the moody teen rebel appeared in movies. “I thrived on trouble,” he once said. “It always got me out of that boring classroom and into something interesting like the chink in the principal’s armor.” The beginning of his acting career corresponded with the brassy confidence of the early 1960s. As that confidence slid into the darker “counterculture,” Peter’s life became mired in addiction and disappointment. Lifelong themes manifested early. He was self-reliant and independent. He was committed to not allowing others to shape him. Charming and social, his nature also required solitude.
Peter Deuel was the eldest of three surviving children of Dr. Elsworth Shault Deuel and Lillian Marcella Ellstrom (a fourth child was born in September 1952, but the little girl died). For three generations, the Deuel family had practiced as doctors, and the home of Peter Ellstrom, Geoffrey Jacob, and Pamela Jane contained their father’s medical office, where their mother assisted as a nurse. “I come from a very methodical, systematic family,” Peter observed in an interview. “Medicine had been my heritage before I entered the acting profession.”
During Peter’s early childhood amid World War II, pilots were national heroes for their daring service in protecting freedom. Small wonder that a little boy would be attracted to this heroic, glamorous career. By age of five, Peter could identify airplanes by shape, a skill encouraged to develop in the interests of national defense, and he could recite their technical components, early evidence of his intelligence.
Into his teens, Peter tenaciously insisted that he would be a pilot. He stated later that he received some coaxing to become a doctor and continue the family tradition. “Nobody believed me,” he said, “when I always countered with the news that I was going to be a flier.”
In interviews, he expressed jealousy of the work that demanded his father’s evenings as well as days, and observed that dinner was the one time when the family actually saw Dr. Deuel. “I don’t want that kind of relationship with my children,” he said. “I want to be with them, to watch them grow.” Summer vacations were “the one exception,” in Peter’s words, when his father was fully available to the family. These were spent at a lakeside cabin in Canada. There, the Deuels had fun and the children learned to love the natural world.
During the year in Penfield, Peter enjoyed exploring the town’s undeveloped woods. He was a Boy Scout and went to Scout camp, where he eventually became a counselor and instructor. The skills he learned were a source of pleasure throughout his life, and nature grew to mean much more to him than a source of materials for human goals. The reverence he felt made it a great shock when housing developments began to destroy the land around his home town. The movement from city to suburbs had begun and tracts of housing replaced the fields and woods where Peter had roamed alone for hours. “I was very upset at the time,” he said about the development. “I really hated the people who bought the new houses because I thought they were responsible for the builders coming with their bulldozers and tearing up the fields I loved.”
In 1953, and only 13 years old, Peter became a high school freshman. As he progressed through high school, his grades were good, but his behavior was disruptive. “I resented the way the school was ruining my day,” he said, “making me hang around between classes.” Outside of class, he was busy and involved in school life, joining in activities ranging from sports and student government to membership in the prestigious National Thespian Society.
Peter was still committed to being a pilot and planned to join the U.S. Air Force as soon as he was seventeen. His many school and scouting activities suggest he desired a life that was busy and varied, that he enjoyed novelty and surprise, as well as activities that let him play a central role. When he learned to drive, he drove fast and took risks. “Cars and motorcycles are a weakness I watch,” he later confessed. “I just enjoy wheels.” Perhaps he pretended he already was in the cockpit of a jet. But he began to drink early and drove while drunk, though such behavior at the time was part of a rebel persona and not considered to be the problem it is today. Despite that he had been inducted into the National Thespian Society, he was laid back about the process. He later commented about these acting efforts. “I never applied myself. I never learned my lines. I just winged it.” Peter Deuel countered his weaknesses with his winning personality and disarming charisma. He was impulsive, generous, and protective of those whom he took under his wing. Though he was the son of one of the well-off Penfield families, he wasn’t a snob. He was also kind to animals, loved nature, and wanted to help those close to him.
When his 17th birthday arrived, he went to the Air Force recruitment office to enlist for pilot training — and was immediately rejected because he had 20/30 vision. It was a hard lesson in how life shapes itself despite heartfelt plans. All his commitment to his dream, all his study of airplanes, and the insistence that he would be a pilot, were made worthless. Later, he observed with what was perhaps a bitter edge: “It’s probably the best thing that ever happened to me. I’d probably have nosed down in Vietnam with a jet wound around me.”
At the time though, this rejection was the harsh ending of his dream. In a 1967 interview, Peter described a period of severe unhappiness during his high school years. It seems probable that this was his junior and senior years. Not only had his career plan been dashed, but he had fallen in love for the first time and felt the subsequent breakup keenly. As college approached, he feared it would further diminish him. “I’d be educated like every other guy whoever went to college,” he said. “I’d be given little chance to become Peter Deuel.”
Perhaps believing that circumstances were shaping his future, he considered suicide. “I thought about it a long time,” he recalled in an interview.
“I felt useless. I was ambitious for nothing. I kept feeling I was on the wrong track and would never get off.” The decision was the result of deliberate analysis; after examining his life, he concluded that killing himself was “. . . the only sensible thing to do.” Fortunately, he didn’t follow through, but it wasn’t because his outlook brightened. His self-disparaging observation about remaining alive was simply that he “discovered there was one thing I didn’t have: The guts to take my own life.”
So, in the autumn of 1957, Peter entered St. Lawrence University as a Liberal Arts major. Fears that he would be stripped of his individuality went unfulfilled. College instead became an extension of high school, and most of his classes bored him. He joined the college dramatics club. A tight-knit circle of new friends formed around him, and he continued to challenge authority and indulge in making trouble. He observed, “I majored in drinking and girls.”
He returned to Penfield for Christmas vacation. One night toward its end, he and a friend drove into a nighttime snowstorm. Speeding along, they were hit in a head-on collision. Peter was in the passenger’s seat and the impact threw him through the windshield. He suffered facial cuts and nearly severed his tongue with his teeth. The crash also broke his pelvis, the sort of impact injury that can lead to fatal internal bleeding, but he survived the immediate risks to his life. Four weeks of hospitalization were then followed by months of recovery on crutches at his parents’ home.
Peter’s tongue healed with no impairment to his speech and the scars on his face faded. As he gained strength in the muscles that had been damaged by the pelvic fracture, it appeared he would make a complete recovery. Photos taken after Peter was up and about show him lean and fit, posing with cocky confidence. He had had a close call and was very lucky.
In autumn of 1958, Peter returned to St. Lawrence University, where he resumed the role of rebel and continued making trouble for authorities. “I went to college and turned out to be one of the wild ones,” he said. “There was no real excuse. I knew better.” The climax of the confrontations came when he accidentally punched a college Dean who tried to break up a scuffle.
Spring semester ended and Peter invited his parents to watch him perform in a college production of Tennessee Williams’ The Rose Tattoo. It would be interesting to know what Dr. and Mrs. Deuel thought as they sat in the audience and watched their firstborn on stage. Judged by his behavior upon returning to school, the car crash had failed to rein in his reckless dissatisfaction with life. Moreover, two years at St. Lawrence had yielded little in terms of his parents’ ambitions. Peter himself admitted, “My two years there were a disaster, except for the plays I was in.”
When The Rose Tattoo play ended that night, Dr. Deuel went backstage and gave Peter his blessings to leave St. Lawrence and pursue an acting career.
Though he had many talents, acting was Peter’s vocation. In his words, “I just sort of fell into something I love — the only thing I ever really liked doing.” He moved to New York City in 1960 to live modestly in a YMCA, cleaning its bathrooms and hallways to pay his rent. Launching at last on a path he had chosen for himself, Peter became serious about studying. He was accepted into the two-year program at the American Theatre Wing, but a result of the car wreck threatened his ambitions. His YMCA roommate telephoned Peter’s parents to report that Peter had had a seizure. The impact of hitting the windshield caused bleeding in his brain, which created scar tissue that disrupted brain function. His body had begun “resetting” itself to normal through convulsions. He suffered both “absence seizures,” during which he would stare into space, and the more critical “tonic-clonic” seizures that caused his entire body to convulse and left him fatigued, disoriented, and depressed.
Epilepsy placed Peter on a tricky path. He took the best medications available in the 1960s: Phenobarbital and Dilantin, but both were only partially effective. He did not like their side-effects and took them irregularly, thereby subjecting himself to debilitating withdrawal symptoms. His alcohol use continued at varying rates over the years, although it was known that alcohol affected the medications’ effectiveness. Mixing drink and epilepsy was a particularly bad idea. Phenobarbital and alcohol are both depressants and interact in such a way that the latter burns from the body at a slower rate.
Thus, when Peter drank, he became more drunk much faster. The alcohol, as it washed from his system, would then cause a seizure within 12 to 24 hours after his final drink. One or two drinks a day is considered acceptable for epileptics; this was not the pattern Peter had enjoyed since he was a teen and had integrated into his lifestyle. He seems to have been the type of alcohol-addicted person who avoids alcohol for long periods, but once drinking begins cannot stop.