Monday, June 1, 2020

The Life and Tragic Death of Pete Duel


"Peter Ellstrom Duel died the same way he had acted - with passion and precision and in the shadow of his grim, stubborn judgment.  He turned his back on a life that he'd found inadequate as an alternative to death.  It was fitting - tragically fitting - that he'd gained fame as the star of a television series called Alias Smith and Jones because Peter Duel was an alias in real life too.  Changing his name from Deuel to Duel hadn't helped much."

- Richard Moorris, Motion Picture, April 1972


"l am searching for a meaningful life outside my work."

- Pete Duel
From his letter to a judge, June 1971

Pete Duel died in 1971, almost 50 years ago.  His acting career was cut short by his tragic death and he left us at far too young an age.  Nevertheless, Pete's life and legacy continue to attract interest nearly five decades after his tragic passing.  He was a talented yet tormented human being, an urbane man of high intellect, consumed with passion for his profession.

Peter Ellstrom Deuel was born on February 24, 1940 in Rochester, New York.  Pete was the eldest of the three surviving children of Dr. Ellsworth Shaut "Bob ' Deuel and his wife Lillian Marcella Deuel (née Ellstrom), a Swedish American from Altoona, Pennsylvania.  Pete had a younger brother, Geoffrey Jacob (born 1943) and a sister named Pamela,(born 1944).  A fourth child, a baby girl named Jennifer, was born on September 12,1952, but died the next morning. 

Dr. Deuel was a physician in the small town of Penfield, New York, just outside of Rochester.  His medical office was located in the family's Penfield home and he was assisted by his wife, Lillian, who was a nurse.  The Deuel family certainly had a background in medicine.  Pete's father, grandfather, great-grandfather and two cousins were all doctors.  There was good reason for Pete to follow the family tradition, but he was pulled in another direction and ultimately chose a different career path.

Peter Deuel attended Penfield High School, where he graduated in 1957.  As a teenager, Pete aspired to be a pilot.  His originally planned was to join the United States Air Force as soon as he was old enough.  When he reached the age of 17, he went to the Air Force Recruitment Office to enlist for pilot training but was promptly rejected due to his eyesight.  He had 20/30 vision.  He later wore  reading glasses while not acting.

In the fall of 1957, Pete entered St, Lawrence University in Canton, New York, majoring in Liberal Arts.  In December, he returned to Penfield for the Christmas break.  One night, near the end of vacation, Pete and a friend drove in a snowstorm.  They were involved in a head-on collusion and Pete was thrown through the passenger side of the windshield.  He suffered head injuries, facial cuts and almost severed his tongue.  His wounds were so severe that he spent a month in the hospital, followed by a period of recovery on crutches at the home of his parents.

While attending St. Lawrence University, Pete became involved in college theatrical productions such as Tennessee Williams' The Rose Tattoo, in which he played the lead.  Pete's parents witnessed his Rose Tattoo performance and Dr. Deuel agreed that his son should to go to New York City to pursue an acting career.  In 1966, Pete expressed his feelings about the acting profession to TV Photo Story.  He said, "I love acting.  But to me, it'a a profession, not a game.  If that cuts into the glamorous part of the profession, it's okay with me.  The show comes first."

In 1960, Pete moved to the Big Apple, where he lived humbly in a YMCA, cleaning hallways and bathrooms to pay his rent.  He was accepted into a two-year program at the American Theatre Wing, which he completed in 1962.  At the American Theatre Wing, Pete studied many aspects of stage acting, including Shakespearean drama, speech, elocution, dancing and fencing.  He performed in summer theatre and in an off-Broadway production of Electra at the Player's Theatre in Greenwich Village.  He also made an appearance on the highly respected CBS television show, The Armstrong Circle Theatre.

In the summer of 1963, Pete moved to West Hollywood, California, after touring with the National Road Company's production of the 1961 Broadway comedy Take Her, She's Mine.  That same year, he made his acting debut on a television series as Josh Drake in an episode of the college drama Channing.  He followed that with guest appearances on such series as Combat! (1964), Gomer Pyle, USMC (1964), The Fugitive (1965) and 12 O'Clock High (1964, 1965).

Pete's first big breakthrough on TV was a recurring role on the short-lived comedy series Gidget, starring Sally Field in her first television part.. Pete played John Cooper, Gidget's brother-in-law, a slow-witted but endearing psychology student.  The show only lasted for one season of 32 episodes, from 1965 to 1966.  Pete appeared in 23 of those episodes.

"Pete Deuel is very different from the serious image he projects as the stuffy, psychology-spouting brother-in-law on ABC-TV's Gidget," wrote Brenda Marshall in a May 1966 TV Radio Mirror article.  "He's tall, dark, and handsome.  He has enchanting dimples when he smiles.  He's a carefree, eligible bachelor who enjoys sports, discotheque dancing, beer, exploring the rough countryside in his land cruiser - and going around barefoot!" gushed Marshall.

After just one season, ABC cancelled Gidget due to low ratings.   The show's ratings improved during the summer when teens were out of school, but ABC felt it was too late to renew the series.  The network decided to  developed a new series for Sally Field instead.  That series was The Flying Nun, which ran from 1967 to 1970.  As for her feelings about Pete, in a 2007 interview, Sally described him as a "tremendously gifted actor."  She said that she "never knew how troubled he was" and that he always treated her like a big brother, which she hated.


Pete with Sally Field on Gidget

Below is a photo of Pete Betty Conner who played Gidget's sister, Anne, and the wife of Pete's character, John Cooper.




After Gidget ended, Pete landed a starring role in another sitcom, Love on a Rooftop, opposite Judy Carne.  Love on a Rooftop is set in San Francisco.  It follows the fortunes of newlyweds David and Julie Willis (Duel and Carne), who move into a rooftop apartment.  Impressionist Rich Little portrayed their eccentric neighbour.  This series lasted one season, from 1966 to 1967, and Pete appeared in all 30 episodes.


Pete with Judy Carne in Love on a Rooftop

In July of 1967, Pete signed a seven-year contract with Universal Studios.  He filmed three feature films for Universal, none of which made much impact at the box office.  He also appeared in guest roles in episodes of such series as The F.B.I. (1967), Ironside (1968), The Virginian (1968, 1969), The Interns (1970), The Young Lawyers (1970), The Bold Ones: The Lawyers (1970) , Marcus Welby, M.D. (1969, 1971), The Psychiatrist (1970, 1971) and The Name of the Game (1978, 1971).  He did, however, have starring roles in two TV movies: How to Steal an Airplane (1971), an adventure story, and The Scarecrow (1972).a drama/fantasy.

Pete's performances in two episodes of The Virginian "The Good-Hearted Bad Man" and "The Price of Love" made an impression and demonstrated his suitability for Western roles.  This led to the role for which he is most remembered, the role for which he finally achieved television stardom.  In 1971, Pete was cast as outlaw Hannibal Heyes (alias Joshua Smith) in Alias Smith and Jones, a lighthearted Western with similarities to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  His co-star was Ben Murphy, who played fellow outlaw Jed "Kid" Curry (alias Thaddeus Jones).  The premise of the show is that the two robbers are offered an amnesty by the governor, provided they stay out of trouble with the law for a year and that they don't reveal what they are doing.  Thus, they hide their true identities and become Smith and Jones.

Below  is a 1971 photo of Pete Duel as Heyes in Alias Smith and Jones.



On October 24, 1970, Pete Duel was involved in a serious car crash in Hollywood and two people were injured in the accident.  Pete was arrested on suspicion of driving under influence and hit and run, although the hit and run charge was later dismissed. On June 21, 1971, Pete appeared before the Santa Monica Superior Court and pleaded guilty to drunk driving resulting in an accident.. He received a prison sentence and a $1,000 fine, which was waived.  His driver's licence was suspended  but he avoided going to prison by promising the judge that he would stop drinking.  It was a promise he was unable to keep, as hard as he tried.  Although Pete was in and out of Alcoholics Anonymous, he was unable to maintain his sobriety.

In August of 1971, Pete was overwhelmed by the pressures of work and he collapsed from exhaustion on the set of Alias Smith and Jones.  He was sent home by studio ambulance but returned to work the next morning.  In November of 1971, Pete was greatly disappointed when he received a telegram notifying him that he hadn't been chosen for a seat on the board of directors of the Screen Actors Guild.  He had campaigned for the position because of his desire to improve working conditions for actors.  As if to highlight his sense of failure, he framed the telegram and hung it on the wall.

On the surface, Pete didn't have much reason to be depressed.  He was a handsome, talented actor who starred in a popular television series.  He also had a 29-year-old girlfriend named Dianne Ray.  Pete had met Dianne while appearing in an episode of The Psychiatrist, starring Roy Thinnes,   She had been a production assistant for The Psychiatrist, a segment of the NBC series, Four in One.

Pete Duel with Dianne Ray

Below the surface, however, Pete was a deeply troubled person and he struggled with demons that caused him great agony, one of them being his drinking problem.  In fact, an autopsy showed that Pete had consumed a large amount of alcohol prior to his death on December 31, 1971.  In the early morning hours of that final day of the year, Pete Duel was found dead in his home in the Hollywood Hills from a seemingly self-inflicted gunshot to his head."

It has not been unequivocally proven that the shot was self-inflicted. However, the crime lab report revealed that the gun muzzle had been less than an inch (2.54 centimetres) from Pete's ear when the shot was fired.  Los Angeles Police Detective Sergeant Paul Estrada, who was assigned to case, stated the following: "It's doubtful that somebody else could get that close to him while he was standing there with a gun to his head." .

On the evening of December 30, 1971, according to the official report from the L.A. Police Department, Pete was driven home from the set of Alias Smith and Jones by Harold Frizzell, his stand-in and "man Friday."(Pete's driver's licence had suspended indefinitely due to his drunk driving charge).  The two men entered Pete's house and they were joined by Dianne who had arrived earlier.

The trio watched an episode of Alas Smith and Jones on Pete's portable television until Frizzell left.. Frizzell later said that Pete did not like the episode and called it "trash."  In Paul Green's book, Pete Duel: A Biography, however, Frizzell is quoted as saying that Dianne was in the bedroom while he and Pete watched Alias Smith and Jones together.  He recalled that Dianne was still in the bedroom when he left.  According Green's account, Dianne contradicted Frizzell's version of the sequence of events.  She claimed that she never saw Frizzell that fateful night and that she was the one who watched Alias Smith and Jones with Pete.  She is quoted as saying, "Peter was fidgety and nervous and obnoxious, but you wouldn't call him in a bad mood.  Peter was in the other mind alcoholics get when they drink too much."

Dianne told Sergeant Estrada and his colleagues that after Frizzell's departure, Pete drank heavily.  He changed channels to a Los Angeles Lakers basketball game and a tired Dianne eventually went to to sleep in the only bedroom in the small home.  Meanwhile, Pete stayed up and watched the game alone for a while.  Sometime after midnight, he entered the bedroom naked and casually retrieved a package with the gun from a dresser (Dianne may have thought it was a forgotten Christmas present).  She caught a glimpse of him while she stood in the hallway of an adjacent room.  He was carrying a revolver in his hand and he told her "I'll see you later." as he went into the living room.

Minutes later, Dianne heard the sound of a gunshot and discovered Pete Duel's body in the living room near the Christmas tree, a .38 revolver by his side.  The bullet had torn through Pete's head and had shattered window at the front of the house.  A frantic Diane called Hollywood police.  Sergeant Estrada confirmed that she was given a lie detector test and that her statements "proved valid."  There was some initial speculation that foul play may have been involved, but Pete's death was officially ruled a suicide.

Pete Duel was only 31 years old at the time of his passing.  Police stated that according Pete's friends and family, the actor was distraught about his drinking problem.  They also revealed that they had found a second bullet when searching Pete's home, a bullet that was about a week old.  The gun that Pete had used to kill himself had also been used to shoot a hole in the framed telegram he had received about not being elected to the board of the Screen Actors Guild

At the time of his suicide, Pete Deuel had been worried about the future of Alias Smith and Jones.  The daily grind of filming a weekly television series was difficult for him.  He hadn't been  satisfied with the show's scripts and his relationship with co-star Ben Murphy had soured.  Pete was replaced on the series by Roger Davis who had served as its narrator.  Alias Smith and Jones, however, was unable to survive the loss of Pete and it was cancelled by ABC in 1973.

Pete had also been depressed about the death of his maternal grandmother, with whom he was very close.  He had threatened to quit Alias Smith and Jones in the summer of 1971 because he was refused a few days leave to visit her.  He was finally allowed to take a leave from the show.  Pete's sister Pamela stated that "Pete had bought my grandmother and grandfather a large screen television so they could watch him on TV.  Sadly grandmother Ellstrom was very ill and passed away in Altoona (Pennsylvania) of heart failure that summer.  Peter went back to see her and paid for all her oxygen before she died."

Although we will never fully know what went on in Pete Duel's head, the title of a September 1971 article about the actor in Motion Picture, probably best summed up Pete's state of mind.  It was published before Pete's death and it reads "He Carries The World On His Shoulders." That might as  well have been Pete's epitaph.

END NOTES

* Pete Duel had epilepsy, which was brought on by the head injuries he sustained in that late 1950s car accident in which he was thrown through the passenger side of a windshield.  Pete took the medications that were available back in the 1960s, namely Phenobarbital and Dilantin.   Both were only partly effective.  He found it difficult to tolerate their side effects, so he did not take them regularly, which caused him to suffer from debilitating withdrawal symptoms.  Dilantin, in particular, may have contributed to Pete's depression and suicide.

* According to Everett Aaker, author of Television Western Players, 1960-1975: A Biographical Dictionary, Pete altered the spelling of his name and became professionally known as "Pete Duel" in May of 1969, while shooting the film Generation.  Pete's agent had apparently asked him to change it to something simpler.  Here's how Pete explained his name change according to a 1971 quote on IMDb:  "It all came to a change about a year and a half ago.  I'm not conventional in my habits.  I had personal problems that made me feel it was time to try something new.  Then there was the matter of simplicity.  People were always saying 'Peter Who?' or Peter O'Toole.  There were too many questions.  I first took the 'e' out of  Deuel and then said to myself, 'Why not take the 'r' out of Peter and make that a four-letter word, too, to balance the other."

Universal Studios' official explanation for Pete's name change was that "it's easier."  However, according to a 1972 article by Stephen Lewis in Movie World, "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."  It is interesting to note that Pete did mention balancing his first and last names with four letters each.  All of the other members of Pete's family, including his brother Geoffrey, an actor, continued to call themselves "Deuel."

* Pete, a Democrat, opposed the Vietnam War.  During the 1968 U.S. presidential election, he campaigned for Senator Eugene McCarthy, an anti-war candidate for the Democratic nomination.  He attended the Democratic National Convention in Chicago that year and witnessed the riots and the brutal clashes between protesters and police.  According to  Pete, witnessing those events proved traumatic and his mental health was adversely affected.

* Pete was an ardent environmentalist and ecologist.  He was very disturbed about pollution.

* On Janauary 2, 1972, a memorial service was held for Pete Duel at the Hindu--Christian Self-Realization Temple in Pacific Palisades, Los Angeles, California, where Pete's manager was a member.  An estimated 1,000 friends and fans were in attendance and Dianne read a poem written by Pete titled "Love.."  Pete's body was then flown to Penfield, New York where a funeral service was held at Penfield Baptist Church prior to burial.

Pete was survived by both his parents.  His mother, Lillian, died in Arizona in March of 1986 at the age of 70 or 71.  His father, Dr. Ellswoth "Bob" Deuel passed away in Florida on Dec. 11, 2013 at the age of 99.  Pete and his parents are buried at Oakwood Cemetery in Penfield, along with baby Jennifer Deuel.


SOURCES TV Radio Mirror, "Gidget's Brotherly Brother-in-Law," by Brenda Marshall, May 1966; Nostalgia Central (www.nostalgiacentral.com), "The Pete Duel Story;" Television Western Players, 1960-1975: A Biographical Dictionary, Everett Aaker, McFarland & Company, 2007;  Motion Picture, "Exclusive! The True Story Behind Pete Duel's Death," by Richard Morris, April 1972; TV Photo Story, "Duel in the Sun," October 1966; Pageant, "Why Pete Duel Blew His Brains Out," by Fenton Bresler, January 1975, Pete Duel: A Biography, by Paul Green, McFarland & Company, 2015; Wikipedia; Internet Movie Database (IMDb.com)


- Joanne

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