Pete Duel: Actor, Activist, a Beautiful but Tortured Soul
The rewards of being a successful, famous actor can be big but the chances of reaching that goal are very small. Think about all the preparation involved, the expectations and the inevitable disappointments. And the ever present elements of luck, talent and timing that can make the difference between getting a part or being rejected. And once you’ve gotten the role, is it in a worthwhile vehicle or something that can stall your ambitions even before they start? And then if you catch the public’s eye and imagination you are suddenly under a microscope. Your private life can become a public one and get in the way of your career and your personal happiness. The line between personal and professional starts to blur. People think they know you but they have no idea of who you really are beyond your own actions and words. Often it can be the observations of others who know you well, who can sometimes see you more clearly than you could ever see yourself.
I am never quite certain when I read about a famous person if I am reading the truth or just something embellished by the author. And often, the more sources you find, the more varied the story sometimes becomes. But if you read enough you can start to read between the lines to get a true picture of what might be real and even more importantly, why. What really happened on the night of December 31, 1971, in that small, rustic house at 2552 Glen Green in Los Angeles that motivated actor Peter Duel, just at the beginning of a promising life and career, to become so blindly drunk that he accidentally ended his own life with a loaded gun? It’s a question that stills haunts family, friends, co-workers and fans even forty four years later.
When reading about Peter, or Pete as he preferred to be called, almost every article has some account of the night of his death. I have read that after a long and exhausting day at the studio working on Alias Smith & Jones, he was asked at the last minute to stay late in order to loop some dialogue. He had planned to go out to a movie with co-star and pal Dennis Fimple. He instead finished looping and went home only to watch one of his completed Alias Smith & Jones episodes airing that night. He made no secret in interviews of the fact that he thought the western series was dull and a waste of his time and talent. He wanted to do more relevant, important work in feature films that might have some positive effect on the personal causes he cared so deeply about: his anti-Vietnam stance, his concern for the environment, and the rights of the American Indian whose land he felt had been squandered; the plight of mistreated animals and his ecology activism. He was professionally ambitus yes, but his conscience and heart always lead him to take on the world’s problems as if they were his own.
He had also recently learned that Smith & Jones was going to be renewed for another season. It was flying high in the TV ratings primarily due to his popularity. And he also reportedly received a call from ex-girlfriend Kim Darby and had an argument with current one Dianne Ray.
Some of the circumstances of that night I have read before but only recently the part about the argument with Ray and receiving a call from Darby asking if they could rekindle their lost relationship. This after she had dropped him like a hot potato for another man she had just met and then impulsively married. Pam, Peter’s sister had described Peter as ‘besotted’ with Darby. But she suddenly developed doubts about their relationship. Peter was crushed by her actions. And now she was on the telephone asking for a second chance after he was already involved with Ray. To round out the sad sequence of events was the fact that it was also New Year’s Eve when many people who are unhappy with the direction their lives have taken, feel lost and depressed thinking ‘oh God, not another year like the last one’.
Peter’s house was gaily adorned for Christmas with bright lights outside and a Christmas tree within that he, himself had decorated. There were gifts already wrapped and waiting under the tree for the arrival of his parents flying in from Penfield the next morning. But anger and depression are often so insidious that such trimmings in my opinion tend to exacerbate rather than alleviate the pain of presumed disappointments.
There were other contributing factors to Peter’s depression but I tend to focus on the two women I find easy to blame. The fragile, boyish and sweet Darby who did not know her own mind and the stronger and more affirmative Ray who wasn’t afraid, even physically, to stand up to Peter. So why, as they had become very close did she do nothing when she knew he kept a loaded gun in his house? This in addition to the fact that he had shot a hole in the living room wall a week or two before in a moment of rage at a telegram of rejection he received for a position with the Screen Actors Guild. He wanted to be able to actively do something about some of the negative treatment he felt actors were often subjected to.
Hindsight is, well you know. But it is so heartbreaking to look at the reality of Peter’s life as it turned out. I want to lay blame on someone or something while not blaming him. I can make assumptions all day but they are actually baseless because I was not there. I could not know how things really were and even if I myself could deal with his depression, impatience and anger and give him my unwavering support. Being in love with an image is never the same as truly knowing a person well. But being on the outside looking in, I simplistically view it this way. You are dealing with a human being, far from perfect but with so many positive sides that to me far outweighed the negatives.
Peter Deuel was a young man from a good family in the small, picturesque, upstate New York town of Penfield in Monroe County. He was smart though impetuous; decent but reckless in many of his adolescent behaviors. He had a natural talent for performing but was unsure of himself and the path he wanted to take in life. His father was Penfield’s town doctor, his mother, the town doctor’s nurse. And the family had high hopes that Peter also would become a physician. Aesthetically he was handsome with a smile that could win anyone over. And the more I learned about him, I soon felt that so much of his warmth and charm was coming from within. He had a protective side for the people he loved, especially his younger sister. He made friends easily. He got involved in many student activities and was very popular both in and out of school. He could have done much better scholastically had he applied himself. But Peter liked to have fun, play pranks and when he was old enough to drive did so much to fast and sometimes recklessly.
His heart became more and more open to the world’s problems; and the causes for ecology and preservation of the land and sea and a strong conscience toward the treatment of animals became growing concerns. He often poured his feelings out through poetry. His foray later on into the political campaign of a Presidential candidate (Eugene McCarthy) left him soured and disillusioned when the infamous events in Chicago in 1968, which he experienced himself, found him at the point of a policeman’s gun. In his twenties he characterized himself as ‘the patron saint of lost causes’ because he already felt he could not personally do enough to make things better everywhere he saw the need. Nixon’s triumph in that election traumatized Peter.
At around seventeen, his first thoughts of suicide surfaced and he began to think his life held no promise. He was uncertain and somewhat lost about the future and smoking and drinking entered the picture. Then the idea of becoming an actor became more a reality as he participated in school plays and found satisfaction in his performing ability. His obvious talents were apparent to his family and friends, even at an early age. Acting gave him a base, a goal to aim for and his negative feelings started to pass.
It was later on in his life when he found it impossible to forgive himself for the things he felt helpless to change from within and without. His heavy drinking, his smoking, his love of fast cars and motorcycles caused injury mentally and physically to both himself and others. During the production of AS&J, he was involved in a DWI which injured two people in another car. He was personally devastated by the hurt he had caused and stated in a letter to the judge in his case that was not the kind of person he really was at all. Earlier in his life he had been involved in another auto accident which resulted in a severe head injury which later, no doubt, contributed to his development of epilepsy. His seizures were few and far between if he watched his health but he was extremely secretive about his condition, fearing it would hinder both his life as well as his career.
Career wise, he inadvertently painted himself into a corner when he signed a seven year contact with Universal Studios. It started out as a good time when he was offered an eclectic choice of roles to play – a young husband and teacher with a brain injury on Marcus Welby, MD and later a native American man forced to become a doctor for his tribe in the same series; a Czech revolutionary trying to find justice in his native country and an unscrupulous documentary film maker creating his own controversy for a more interesting subject on The Name of the Game; two satisfying turns as a guest on The Virginian, playing widely different characters; a young married man literally sentenced to death on The Interns because he could not afford kidney dialysis; a recovering drug addict trying to find his way in the world in The Psychiatrist, this becoming one of his most personally valued performances, and there were more. Along with the variety of working for a powerful studio like Universal in television, he wanted the opportunity to breakout in feature films but had the chance in his brief career to do only three movies that were ultimately not financially well received. There was however something else that came with his Universal contract. He had an obligation at the studios behest to do a television series. And a TV series was the very last thing Peter wanted to do. He had already tried and failed with two earlier comedic series, Gidget and Love on a Rooftop, both lasting but one season each. As an actor he felt more suited to drama rather than comedy and preferred portraying different characters to showcase his abilities. A series for him, meant long, exhausting hours playing one character with limitations that could not show off his emotional range. He was well aware that he had already turned down two previous series offers from the studio when Alias Smith & Jones came along. The pilot for this show was a combination of the highly successful feature film, Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid as well as another Movie of the Week pilot he had done for Universal entitled The Young Country. He had to accept this series offer or face suspension with the studio. But he also considered the fact that this show would be a mid-season replacement and might have a slim chance of succeeding. And he enjoyed working outdoors as he had with previous westerns he had made before. He was already an experienced horseman having ridden often as a child.
In fact it was Peter’s very charisma and charm as an actor portraying the extremely likeable character of Hannibal Heyes that helped make AS&J so popular. Proof of that was immediate when he was no longer there to do it and the show continued for only a brief time with his replacement, Roger Davis. Davis unfortunately became the fall guy for much of the angst Peter’s fan felt by his loss. But Roger was implored by the desperate S&J producers as a quite capable and familiar young actor, to try to do the impossible, replace someone else already so well established and loved in the role.
Over the years I have felt badly for Mr. Davis who nevertheless went on to financial successes with commercial voiceovers and privately in real estate. Contributing to the devastating scenario of losing the star of a popular TV series right in the middle of production, was the callousness that Universal Studios showed in replacing one actor with another immediately. Like a questionable pet owner who might simply get another animal to replace a deceased one and give it the same name. By all accounts, they couldn’t put Davis in the role fast enough. Roger himself was uncomfortable with the process. Roy Huggins, the producer of the show as well as a lot of Peter’s friends in the cast and crew also admonished the studio. Pete Duel was after all, considered one of the best liked people who ever worked at Universal. The guilty finger has always been pointed at the ABC network for the pressure they put on the series producers not to default on their promise to deliver the series on time. But where money is concerned, who really knows where to lay the blame?
Of course everything I’ve written is my own viewpoint from my limited perspective of what has been written and from the sources I read. But I’m also speaking as someone who never had the chance to personally pick and choose the man of her dreams. All I ever wanted was someone with a beautiful smile; someone who would make me melt every time I looked at him; a man with a strong conscience and a sense of goodness and decency; someone I could walk into a room with and feel proud of; a man who looked at a beautiful mountain range with the same enthusiasm that I have always had; someone strong enough to stand up for what he believed in, yet gentle enough to feel compassion and take home an ailing wild bird. Someone I could reinforce throughout our lives and likewise could depend on. Someone to stand by and defend and maybe even protect so that my own life could have more meaning by sharing it with him.
I once had a concept of who the perfect man for me could be and the person I’ve just written about comes close. But he was after all, only human. He made mistakes. He demanded too much too soon and he never could see himself as others who loved and liked him saw him. He took on personally the world's injustices. He made mountains out of molehills. He choose to follow a career in which there are no guarantees and often is filled with disappointments. And building a successful acting career takes perseverance and patience that he apparently did not have although he certainly had the talent to succeed. There were so many, many others who loved and tried to understand him who have never truly recovered from his tragic loss. And all these years later he is still loved and so very fondly remembered.
I once also thought that a man like that could never truly exist. That was until I learned as much as I could about the brief, gifted and important life of Peter Ellstrom Deuel.