To commemorate the passing of Peter Duel on December 31, 1971, 50 years ago, here is a column from 2018.
I watched a lot of television as a kid, which is ironic because I don’t watch any now. Today I know nothing, as in zero, about Game of Thrones or This is Us or others that are talked about. I’m more interested in living my own life than watching imaginary people, usually troubled people, live theirs.
My favorite show in 1971 was Alias Smith and Jones, a Western following the formula of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which my dad and I had just seen. Whereas the latter featured two big stars who knew they were big stars and played their parts with smug self-satisfaction, Alias Smith and Jones starred two hungry young actors, Peter Duel and Ben Murphy. A more likable pair you could not find, and their chemistry was terrific playing train-robber outlaws who had decided to go straight. There was a lot of humor, minimal killing, and a revisionist edge that combined a little flirtation with the counterculture, and it all set this series apart from creaky old Western claptrap like Gunsmoke. (Here’s 46 seconds that sums up Alias Smith and Jones pretty well.)
By the second season, Pete Duel had become my hero, this charming “latter-day Robin Hood” who as outlaw Hannibal Hayes (alias Joshua Smith) always had a plan and something witty to say, and always seemed happy even when his plans backfired in grand fashion. Innocent little-old me wanted to grow up to be Pete Duel.
Then at the holidays 1971, innocent little-old me heard on the news that Pete Duel had killed himself. I couldn’t comprehend this news. Heroes didn’t do such a thing. I knew precious little about death and it had only invaded my family once in my lifetime, but the newspaper said my personal hero had shot himself in the head beside his Christmas tree. Oh, the pain of this knowledge. I remember it not as rational hurt, but as, really, my first experience with unexpected grief. I remember roaming my neighborhood in the night, just aimlessly wandering around by myself in the dark Pennsylvania cold trying to cope with this strange occurrence.
Flash forward to last week—what is it, 46+ years later. Alias Smith and Jones was on Cozi TV, one of those nostalgia channels for Baby Boomers. And there was my hero, charming as ever, very much alive and rollicking his way through the Old West once more. And here I am all these decades later, someone who tries to figure out past people and events. I decided it was time to unlock the door to that long-sealed-off pocket of grief in my head and understand the death of Peter Duel.
It turns out Pete had left Broadway and given himself five years in Hollywood to make it big, at which point he would return to the Great White Way. He had started out as a recurring player in the teen surfer series Gidget, and and then landed a starring gig in a 1966 series called Love on a Rooftop, which was a takeoff of Barefoot in the Park that lasted only one season. In 1968 he had some lines in a Universal feature, Hell Is for Heroes.
Then after more guest-starring spots came Alias Smith and Jones in the spring of 1970, year five of his five-year plan, which is when I—and I assume a legion of other ‘tweeners—first saw him. I learned last week that Duel, then 30, didn’t appreciate his hit show and thought he was better than series television. Whereas today’s stars are interchangeable from the big to the small screens and back again, in 1970 television was looked-down upon and reserved for has-beens and never-wases. I learned Duel was a passionate McGovern Democrat, avid environmentalist, and poet, but also a recovering alcoholic and probably bipolar. I learned he was a perfectionist on the set and considered by everyone to be “difficult to work with.” He was aptly named Duel because it seems there was a running battle going on inside him. He’d be up one day and down the next, but consistently dismissive of the quality of the entertainment that, by Universal Pictures contract, he was forced to aid in putting before cameras. (Never mind that the show holds up today better than most series TV of its time.) By the beginning of season two, co-star Ben Murphy feared Duel was going to walk away from the series at any moment because he had reached year six of his five-year plan.
Shortly before his death, Duel ran for an elected position in the Screen Actors Guild—and lost. In a grim prelude to his suicide, he framed the letter he received about the matter, hung on it on the wall, and shot it with a handgun he kept in the house.
According to his girlfriend, on the night of the dirty deed, Pete watched himself in the latest episode of Alias Smith and Jones. He had gotten his blood alcohol level up to .31, and his anger renewed at the “crap” he was participating in. At such a point, I guess, the options for a TV star in a hit series and idol of millions are: kill yourself or pass out and sleep it off. He picked the wrong one.
Judge not lest ye be judged. I don’t know and can’t imagine what the demons were in his head. How sick was this guy who was pretending not to be? Co-star Ben Murphy said he was shocked when he heard the news, “but not exactly surprised.” He said he’s had an imaginary conversation with Duel over and over. In it he says, “Petey, what were you thinking?” And Duel always shrugs and smiles his impish smile and says, “I goofed up.” And then Murphy adds what Duel always adds at the end of this mythical conversation: “And I’m not so sure I wouldn’t do it again.”
There’s a tragic figure for you. I came away from my adult’s investigation of this man and this event frustrated and sadder still. I am able to sit back and enjoy the exploits of Hannibal Hayes and remember what it was like with Pete Duel as my hero. He had magic about him and could portray a happy person without being one. That’s talent for you. But there’s always hurt seeing him too and there always will be, I think.
I can understand his hypercritical nature—the feeling that you always could be doing better in your career. There’s no success I’ve had yet that I’m completely happy with. But he was a TV star! He had his youth and his health! Maybe the show’s writers weren’t George S. Kauman, and no, Pete wasn’t starring in features and therefore hadn’t met his own five-year marker. Suddenly these things represented to this man at these holidays a death sentence. I don’t get it. I guess this is where insanity enters the picture, and a .31 blood-alcohol level. Then all bets are off. Then 1 + 1 = pull the trigger.
In recent times Sally Field, star of Gidget and later an Academy Award winner, was interviewed and the subject of Pete Duel came up. “I loved Pete,” she said, and after extolling his virtues she got to the point, a point you could see was still difficult for her: “Bless him, and God damn him because, you know, he isn’t alive, and he,” pause, pain visible, “you know—killed himself. I’m sure I’m not the only one in the world who wished he hadn’t done that.” No, Sally, you are not.