Peter Duel had worked all day in an exceptionally cheerful mood. He was finishing up shooting the final segment of the season for Alias Smith and Jones and this in itself was enough to put him in a good frame of mind. He didn't like being in a television series, even a successful one, but as an actor under contract to Universal Studios he's had little choice. [CJC's Note: It was, of course, not the latest episode of the season, but it was the last episode being shot in the calendar year, which was about to end.]
There was always hope something would happen and the network would decide to drop them next season--he teased his co-star Ben Murphy with this possibility. Ben, who enjoys the series, kidded in return, "Maybe we can keep the show and replace you with a sexy broad," and so it went, back and forth in a lighthearted atmosphere on the last day of Peter Duel's life.
Late that night (actually early the next morning as it was all after midnight) the successful young actor with enormous talent and seemingly everything to live for put a 38-caliber revolver to his right temple and pulled the trigger. He was dead by the time his girlfriend Diana Ray, who had been half-asleep in the next room, heard the shot. She rushed to the door to see his nude body sprawled on the floor, a bizarre caption for the Christmas tree he lay beneath.
What problems could a 31-year-old successful man possibly have that were so intolerable he couldn't face another day of life?
"You first have to understand that although Pete was successful in the eyes of others, he was not a success in his own eyes," explains an associate through Alias Smith and Jones.
"I've worked with him since the beginning of the series and he was a man driven by talent--he was incredibly talented--but he lived in a constant state of frustration because he felt the series--any series--limited him as a performer. It went further than that--he felt it was destroying him."
Less than three weeks before his death, Peter told Los Angeles Times TV editor, Cecil Smith, "That series, this series, 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. And you stay tired all the time...It isn't the work that tires you, it's that it's all such a dreadful bore that it makes you weary, weary..."
But the real problem, the problem that added seemingly insurmountable hurdles to Pete, was the fact that when he got bored, or weary, he turned to drinking as an escape. And his drinking problem had become so alarming during the past year-and-a-half that he had gone into therapy and joined Alcoholics Anonymous.
"Peter hated himself for drinking," says Diane, who had been seeing the troubled actor for more than a year. "He considered it a contemptable weakness and he despised the person he became when he'd had too much to drink. He'd go through different phases, from silly to loud and rowdy, but he'd always end up despondent.
"The thing that shook him up the most was when he was arrested for drunk driving last fall. It had been his second arrest for that in four years but this time he'd gotten into an accident and almost killed two people. He couldn't seem to get it out of his mind. Pete really cared about people and the idea that his drunkenness had injured someone, and could have killed them, was abhorent to him."
Diane's words are substantiated by a letter Peter wrote to Judge Bernard S. Selber who subsequently granted him two years probation on the condition that he stop drinking and stay out of bars and liquor stores.
Photo Caption: A grieving family must wonder how they could have prevented Peter from his fatal course. His sister, mother, and close friends are still too stunned to realize that his torture was something he couldn't share.
Peter spent two days writing the letter and according to his brother, actor Geoffrey Deuel, "pored his soul into it."
It said, in part: "In recalling my feeling on that night (i.e. the night of the accident) shame and terror literally filled my mind. Sitting her eight months later it is very difficult to recreate the events of the accident, or even try to find justification for my conduct, but I do want Your Honor to know that I am a person basically interested in other people and I would not knowingly do harm to anyone.
"But knowing that this resulted from my drinking I have sought professional help and am seeing a psychologist and I have started going to Alcoholics Anonymous. I am not drinking anymore.
"I am trying to find out the cause of my drinking which led me to this incident. I am searching hard for a meaningful life outside of my work and I feel that I can prove to Your Honor that I will not be involved any further with the law, particularly with regard to drinking and driving.
"I truthfully realize the seriousness of the situation and I am humbly grateful for the court's consideration in this matter."
Peter then went on to offer to surrender his driver's license "in the interest of innocent people" and the judge was so impressed by his sincerity he let him keep it. [CJC's Note: He did lose his license in June 1971.]
The fact that this man had placed faith and trust in Peter which he had not been able to live up to was another thing that was eating away at him. He had told the judge he wouldn't drink and he had gone right on drinking. The question he most sought the answer to in his therapy was 'Why?' Over and over he'd ask, 'Why do I drink? I don't want to drink. I hate myself when I drink, so why do I drink?'
Peter confessed to a friend that being told a million other alcoholics had asked themselves the same questions a million times each was of little comfort.
He was aware of some of the anxieties that made him drink: boredom in a series; the fear that somehow his talent would dissipate if not pushed to capacity at all times; self-disgust at not feeling he was his own man when it came to decisions regarding his career.
Peter felt he had prostituted himself by signing a contract and he was so against the "system" that buys an actor like a hunk of beef he had told his brother Geoffrey, "the best thing I can wish [for] you is that your series is a flop," when the latter signed to do a series for next fall called Movin On.
"Peter was obsessed with success on his terms, " says another friend who's known him since he first came to Hollywood. "It wouldn't mean a thing to him to be the number one star in the country, if he wasn't proud of the quality of his work. He cared more about acclaim from his peers than he did about popularity with the public. Respect and honor were enormously important in Peter's family and I think that's where he thought he'd failed. That's why not being elected to the board of governors of the Screen Actors Guild hurt him so. In his mind they were saying 'You're not worthy. We don't respect you enough to give you a position like that.'"
Police found the telegram from the Guild notifying Peter he had not been elected when they searched his house. It was pinned to his wall with a bullet hole in it. Diane explained that he was so upset when he received the telegram (a few weeks before his death) he brooded and brooded over it. Then one night when he was drinking he tacked it to the wall, loaded his pistol and shot it.
"We all should have known then how disturbed he was," she sobbed remembering the incident.
The key to Pete's torment, about his work and his drinking, lies in his family background.
When TV RADIO SHOW visited him on the set of Alias Smith and Jones last summer he talked about himself in relation to his family, and especially his father. He admitted that the only thing he'd ever done as a actor which he was really proud for his father to see was the role of the young junkie who was trying so hard to get off drugs in The Psychiatrist.
"My Dad's a doctor, you know," he had said not without pride. "And my mother was a nurse. In my family, if you weren't in medicine, you were sick!" He had grimaced at his own pun. "My grandfather, great-grandfather, all my cousins and two uncles are and were physicians. It's a tradition around our part of the country, that's all." Peter was from Penfield, N.Y., a suburb of Rochester.
"It took me until I was a senior in high school to get up the nerve to tell my Dad I didn't want to be a doctor. I was still afraid to tell him I wanted to be an actor, so I said I wanted to get a liberal arts degree when in reality I didn't want to go to college at all. I wanted to get right into drama school. I was burning to act. By my second year in college he was getting the idea of my goals and that spring he visited me at St. Lawrence. When he saw me in The Rose Tattoo, he said 'Look, you aren't going to prove anything by staying here and getting a liberal arts degree. You're wasting your time and my money. If acting is what you want, follow your goals, not mine.'
"I could have cried, I was so happy and so proud to have him for a father. In fact I did cry. I left as soon as the semester was over and headed for the American Theater Wing in New York and I studied my butt off. I was terrified of failing, of letting my father down,"Peter had paused then and was quiet for a moment. When he spoke again, it was very softly. "I still am," he had said simply.
"You see," pointed out one of Pete's closest admirers, "in a family like that, they just don't have people with drinking problems. Oh, they would have understood. But Peter couldn't. He couldn't accept it in himself. He used to say that what he wanted most out of life was to have the kind of respect from his peers that his father has always had in medicine. And imagine how horrible it was for him--wanting that--and not even being able to respect himself as a man. He felt that if you let a problem like drinking or drugs get the best of you, you didn't have any self-respect to begin with. He tore himself apart inside when he had just as many reasons to pat himself on the back."
That last day, at work, several of the guys began talking about New Year's resolutions. At first Peter made some jokes about making them just to have the pleasure of breaking them, but suddenly he became serious and said, "I'm going to give up booze in 1972. Hear ye! Hear ye!" The crew laughed and the comment was forgotten.
That night Pete got drunk. Before he became totally despondent, he told Diane, whom he'd invited over to watch Alias Smith and Jones with him, that he couldn't live with himself the way he was any longer and that drinking was "killing" him. "I've got to stop," he kept saying, "I've got to stop." Diane assumed he meant he was determined to change. He had often before said similar things.
A basketball game came on television then and he continued to drink was he watched. She went into the bedroom to lie down because she didn't care to see the game and she cared less to watch Peter drink and make himself even more despondent.
By the time he came into the room a few hours later to get his pistol he was drunk. Rousing her while fumbling to find the gun, all he said was, "I'll see you later."
A few moments later he was dead by his own hand.
His brother Geoffrey thinks maybe Peter was just "fooling around" with the gun and didn't really mean to kill himself. "I think he just wanted to stop drinking," he says sadly.
Perhaps he did. Perhaps it was just an
accident that it turned out to be his dying wish.
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