Peter Ellstrom Duel was born on the 24th February, 1940, in Penfield, New York, the oldest of three children born to Dr. and Mrs. Ellsworth Deuel. Always creative, Peter had no interest in becoming a doctor himself. Instead, he gravitated toward the arts. He graduated from the American Theatre Wing in New York City in 1961 and toured with the national company in the comedy ‘Take Her, She’s Mine’. By 1964 Peter was in Hollywood, an occasional guest on TV shows. In the autumn of 1965, he became a series regular in Sally Field’s sitcom ‘Gidget’, cast as her brother-in-law. He did well in the series and was hired for his second sitcom, ‘Love On A Rooftop’ (1966-67) opposite Judy Carne. Although both the TV show and Peter earned solid reviews, it was cancelled in the ratings wars.
With his good professional track record, Peter signed a seven year contract with Universal Pictures. Peter then appeared in studio-produced TV series, including ‘The Virginian’, ‘Ironside’, and ‘The Name Of The Game’. He also began to get good roles in made-for-TV movies, such as ‘Marcus Welby, M.D.: A Matter Of Humanity’ (1969), and feature films like ‘A Cannon For Cordoba’ (1970) all of which were shot on the Universal lot. While making ‘Generation’ (1969), he had a romance with costar Kim Darby, as well as officially changing his professional name to Pete Duel. Next, he was hired for his third TV series, ‘Alias Smith And Jones’, a western adventure about two affable ex-outlaws, played by Duel and Ben Murphy, attempting to go straight in the old West. The comedy/buddy show debuted in January, 1971 to good notices. It returned that autumn for a second season, with Sally Field now added in several episodes to give the show additional appeal.
Everything seemed to be going well. Here was someone who had not “gone Hollywood”, a rising star who remained unaffected by success. But the situation was not as it appeared. When Peter first came to the West Coast, he had set a timetable for himself. He wanted to be making feature films full-time within five years. A year before he died, he said “After two or three interviews, talking about pictures and how they’re made and what I do in them and what I’m going to do next, there’s nothing more to say.” Branching out, Peter became very concerned about ecology and environmental pollution long before it became fashionable to do so.
As a perfectionist performer, Duel was not particularly happy about making ‘Alias Smith And Jones’, but Universal offered him a salary increase and he accepted reluctantly. For the serious minded Peter, doing a weekly show was a tedious bore. He also insisted that – thanks to the series – his private life had fallen apart, and he was trying to “patch it together.”
In August, 1971, the pressures of work finally overcame him. Peter collapsed on the set with pneumonia and was sent home by ambulance. In November, 1971 the activist actor lost his bid for a seat on the board of the Screen Actors Guild. Sources reported that he shot a bullet through the telegram that brought him the defeat notice, though other friends said he immediately began planning for the next election.
That December, Peter volunteered to work two weekends at out-of-state Toys for Tots telethons. A photograph taken of Peter at one of the charity events showed him holding a toy pistol to his head. It was a stunt he pulled occasionally while sitting in the makeup chair at the studio, holding his prop gun to his temple and saying, “Click … Click… click.”
On Thursday night, 30th December, 1971, Peter planned to join some friends to see the movie ‘A Clockwork Orange’ after finishing work on the ‘Alias Smith And Jones’ set. But he was called back to re-record some dialogue. When his friends left, he said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.” Peter and his friend Harold (Hal) Rizzell returned to his Hollywood Hills home on Glen Green Drive in time to watch the start of his 8:00 p.m. TV series (that night’s episode of ‘Alias Smith And Jones’ – ‘Miracle at Santa Marta’ – dissatisfied him). Then he switched channels to a Lakers basketball game. During the evening, Peter drank heavily, leading to an argument with his live-in girlfriend, Diane Ray, a secretary. After their argument, she retired for the night, while Duel stayed up to watch more television.
At about 1:25 a.m. on the 31st December, 1971 Peter came into the bedroom and removed his revolver from a table drawer. Diane awakened at the sound. He said “I’ll see you later,” and left the room. A few minutes went by, and then she heard a single shot. When she hurried into the living room, she found Peter dead, nude, beneath the Christmas tree. The shot had entered Peter’s right temple and exited the left side of his head. It had then travelled through the front window of Duel’s home, leaving a small hole. Police investigation revealed that another spent shot in the gun chamber had been discharged a week or so earlier. Various theories have been advanced as to why he should have wanted to end his own life. He suffered deeply from depression, and his sister Pamela said that he had no sense of proportion, especially after he had been drinking. The general consensus is that his suicide was accidental, and that he would never have shot himself if he had not been drunk.
A memorial service was held for Peter in Los Angeles at the Self-Realization Fellowship Lake Shrine in Pacific Palisades, California. Peter was not a member, but his manager was. The non-denominational service was conducted by Brother Dharmandandra, who eulogised that the late actor’s spirit “is now free from the body and has risen and rests in the bosom of God.” Peter’s remains were flown back to his home town, Penfield, New York, where after a service at the Baptist Church on 5th January, 1972, Peter was buried in the Penfield Cemetery. Peter’s mother, Lillian Deuel, who died in 1986, now lies buried next to him.
Wanting to keep ‘Alias Smith And Jones’ going, Universal replaced Peter in his role with actor Roger Davis, but the show folded in early 1973. Ironically, some of the acting work of which Peter was most proud – playing Squire Talbot in ‘The Scarecrow’ – was telecast on ‘Hollywood TV Theatre’ on 10th January, 1972, just under a fortnight after Peter’s death.