Up until January 1st, Roger tells me, it was utterly unthinkable that he himself would ever be Hannibal Hayes! True, he'd once been considered for the role, but that was an old story to Davis and Duel. Over the years since they first met--both were then promising, struggling new "contract players" at Screen Gems, and Peter Deuel was still using the full spelling of both names--they had often auditioned for the same part, and Roger had won his fair share.
Like Peter, Roger had been a key figure in previous series, starred in "pilots" for still others that didn't continue, and guested on top shows. The two had a good laugh together, just this past season, when Roger actually appeared in the flesh in one episode of Smith And Jones--as a villain. It was the exact reversal of a made-for-TV movie in which Roger had played the hero and Peter the heavy!
Peter's strong sense of integrity and his ability to laugh at himself are the traits Roger remembers best about his old friend. He was as unprepared for the tragedy as anyone else in Hollywood when Pete Duel committed suicide in the small hours of December 31st, at the age of only 31.
Roger wasn't even in Hollywood that Friday and didn't get the news until more than 24 hours later. He was on a skiing vacation in Colorado when a phone call from Universal caught up with him at the Aspen terminal.
"Roger, Peter has shot himself," said a studio spokesman, sounding matter-of-fact and remote over long-distance--and pausing a few moments to let the idea sink in, before adding with dreadful finality--"and he's dead."
During that brief pause at the other end of the wire--while hope could still surmount fear about his friend's welfare--Roger's mind framed questions he never got to ask. How badly was Peter hurt? Surely, it couldn't be too serious . . . why would the studio call me, if it weren't just to fill in for a few days with some script revisions? Peter will be back in action soon--laughing as always--
That was 10 A.M. Saturday, January 1st. On the plane back to Hollywood, Roger tried to accept the fact that he'd never again see Peter alive... that, from now on, he himself was to be Hannibal Hayes. But first, he had to redo all the scenes Peter had done for the episode he'd been filming when he died. ("The Biggest Game in the West" had to be ready for its scheduled air date just a month away, while four more episodes must be completed before the season's end.)
7 AM. Monday, he was on the set and the painful job of re-shooting
began. It can't have been easy for Roger, repeating the same lines
and the same actions his friend had performed such a short time
before. All eyes were on him, and the air was haunted with both
grief and anxiety. But Roger himself sadly recalls "giving
in" to only two weaknesses.
"I kept calling Ben 'Peter,'" he told me. Off-camera, of course, but it came as a shock to those around him. If they had seen his personal script, they might have been startled even more! An actor usually underlines or circles his character-name preceding each bit of dialogue. Roger had carefully obliterated the name Hayes and penciled in a simple "Roger."
"Hayes still meant Peter to me," he explained to me quietly. "Today, as we sit here, Hayes is still Peter. As we get rolling for the new season, the role will become mine."
Photo Caption: Roger Davis has a smile all his own in Alias Smith And Jones. But it was sheer acting ability that helped him carry on a role he inherited from the longtime friend who died tragically.
Universal should be given credit for concentrating on acting ability rather than trying to create a carbon copy of their dead star. Roger's fair hair and blue eyes aren't a bit like Peter's all brown ones. He's also a year or so older, an inch taller than six feet, much more of an athlete. When he was attending Castle Heights Military Academy in Tennessee, he ran the mile in 4:18 and was cross-country champ!
He has a B.A. in English literature from Columbia, had been accepted at Harvard Law School, but headed West when he was awarded a teaching fellowship to earn his M.A. at U.C.L.A. Actually, his heart had been set on acting almost since he was born (in Louisville, Kentucky). He'd studied with a drama coach while at Columbia, played summer stock on vacations--and had barely started teaching freshman English part-time at U.C.L.A. when Warner Bros. signed him for his first TV series, The Gallant Men.
Roger really didn't need his present sudden stardom to fulfill his dreams. Aside from acting, he's also had a six-figure income from TV commercials--for his voice alone! Meanwhile, his wife's beautiful face has smiled out at us all from the most glamorous cosmetic ads. Her name is Jaclyn Ellen Smith, with no "alias" about it; she's one of the Smiths of Texas.
They've had their dream house for some time now, but aren't living in it just yet. (They're renting it out to Oscar-winning composer John Williams.) "It's too large for us, at present," grinned Roger, showing me a picture of their five-bedroom, five-bath mansion in Beverly Hills. "But someday . . . when we have a family..."
And that's the way the stream of life
flows on--in reality, as well as TV.
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