I am never quite certain when I read something about a famous person whether I am reading the truth or something embellished by the author. And the more sources you find, the more varied the stories sometimes become. But if you do read enough you begin to formulate your own picture of what might be the truth and 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 made actor Peter Duel get so blindly drunk that he accidentally ended his own life? It’s a question that still haunts family, friends, co-workers and fans.
Almost every article you find about him has some account of the night of his death. I have read that after a long and exhausting day, he was required to stay late at the studio to loop dialogue. He then came home only to watch one of his completed Smith & Jones episodes, feeling that it, like the entire series was a waste of time and his talent. In that same time frame he had learned that it was going to be renewed for another season. He 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 had read before but only recently the part about having an argument with Miss Ray and getting a call from Kim Darby asking if they could rekindle their relationship. This after she had dropped him like a hot potato for another man she barely just met and impulsively married. And also I neglected to remember the feeling that allot of people get around New Years Eve. That ‘oh God not another year’ pessimistic feeling that comes to people who feel unfulfilled or unloved. I understand that feeling all too well.
The house was gaily decorated for Christmas with bright lights outside, a Christmas tree within that Peter had decorated himself and gifts wrapped and waiting for the arrival of Peter’s family flying in from Penfield, New York the next morning. But anger and depression are so insidious that such trimmings in my opinion tend to exacerbate instead of alleviate the hurting.
Although there were many contributing factors to Peter’s death I always seem to focus in on the two women I blame the most. 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 then why did she do nothing when she knew he had a loaded gun in the house, even after he had shot a hole in the wall the week before in a moment of rage? Hindsight is, well you know. While I can so easily lay blame on both of them, I know I’m talking out of my ear when I make these assumptions because you have to really know someone to know if you can excuse their weaknesses and forgive them enough to offer your unwavering support and understanding to them.
But being on the outside looking in, I simplistically look at it this way. You are dealing with a human being, far from perfect but with so many positive sides to me they far outweighed the negative. Peter was a young man from a good family from the small, picturesque, upstate New York town of Penfield in Monroe County. He was smart though impetuous, decent but reckless in many of his behaviors, talented though unsure of himself or the path in life he wanted to take. His father was the town doctor and his mother, his nurse. And the family had hopes that Peter too would become a physician. Aesthetically he was beautiful and it was not until I learned allot more about him that I realized that much of that warmth was coming from within. He had a protective side for the people he loved and seemed to make friends easily.
His heart was open to the world’s problems; and the causes for ecology and preservation of the land and a conscience toward the treatment of animals became his growing concerns. His foray into the political campaign of a Presidential candidate he believed in (Eugene McCarthy) left him soured and disillusioned when the events in Chicago in 1968 took place as he was there and experienced it himself. In his twenties he even began to call himself, ‘the patron saint of lost causes’ because he felt he could not do enough to make things better everywhere he saw the need.
At around seventeen, his first thoughts of suicide surfaced and he started to think that his life held nothing for him. He was uncertain about his future. But then he found his place with acting and that negative feeling passed.
But later on in his life he found it impossible to forgive himself for the things he wanted to change but felt he could not. His drinking, his smoking, his love of fast cars and motorcycles caused injury mentally and physically to both himself as well as others. He never forgave himself for causing a DWI that injured two people. And his freedom was taken away when he lost the privilege to drive for two years after that. An earlier accident resulting in a head injury no doubt contributed to his development of epilepsy, something he was very secretive about for fear it would hinder his life and his career.
Career wise he painted himself into a corner when he signed a Universal Studios contract for seven years. The good time was when he was offered an eclectic choice of roles to play – a young husband with a brain injury on ‘Marcus Welby, MD’ and later an American Indian man forced into becoming a doctor for his tribe on the same series; a Czech revolutionary trying to make his country better and an unscrupulous young filmmaker creating his own controversy for a more interesting documentary on ‘The Name of the Game’; two satisfying turns as a guest on ‘The Virginian’ playing widely different characters; a young man literally sentenced to death because he cannot afford dialysis treatment in ‘The Interns’; a recovering drug addict trying to find his way in the world in ‘The Psychiatrist’, the latter one of his most personally valued performances and there were more. But along with the variety of working for a large studio like Universal, where he primarily wanted to make motion pictures ( but had the chance to do only three films that were ultimately not financially successful ) there came the obligation to also do a television series. And that was the very last thing Peter wanted to do. He had previously done two comedic series, Gidget and Love on a Rooftop, both lasting only one season each. He felt more suited to drama rather than comedy and perfered portraying different characters. A series meant long, exhausting hours portraying one character with limitations that would not show off his emotional range. He had turned down two Universal series offers already while under contract by the time ‘Alias Smith & Jones’ came along. The pilot was a combination of the feature film ‘Butch Cassidy & the Sundance Kid’ as well as another Movie of the Week pilot entitled ‘The Young Country’ that Peter had co-starred in for Universal. It was doing it or risk a suspension and Peter gambled that a mid season replacement had a slim chance of succeeding. And he enjoyed working outdoors as he had in the two or three 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 likeable Hannibal Heyes that helped make ‘Smith & Jones’ so popular. Proof of that came when he was no longer there to do it and the show continued for only a brief time with his replacement Roger Davis. Davis became the fall guy for much of the angst that Peter’s fans felt but he was simply just another capable actor trying to do the impossible – fill in for someone already well established in a role and so well loved. I have often felt badly for Mr. Davis who nevertheless went on to financial success in voiceovers and privately in real estate. But frankly I have no interest in watching those episodes without Peter either. Contributing to this devastating scenario was the callousness that Universal showed in just replacing one actor with another immediately, like a pet owner might get another animal to replace a deceased one and just give them the same name. They couldn’t put Davis in the role fast enough. By all accounts, Mr. Davis himself was uncomfortable with this arrangement. Roy Huggins, the producer of the show and probably a lot of Peter’s friends in the cast and crew also admonished the studio. Peter was after all considered one of the best liked people working at Universal. The finger has always been pointed at the ABC network for the quick change demand to fulfill the series commitment. But where money is concerned, who really knows?
Of course my viewpoint only comes from my own prospective. And that is from someone who never had the chance to pick or choose the man she would have desired. All I wanted was someone with a beautiful smile; someone who made me melt every time I looked at him; who had a conscience, a sense of goodness and decency; someone I could walk into a room with and feel proud of; someone who looked at a mountain range with the same enthusiasm that I have always had. He could be strong enough to stand up for what he believed in, yet gentle enough to feel compassion for a wild bird with a broken wing. Someone I could reinforce so that both our lives would have more meaning.
That was my concept of perfect. He could be the person I’ve just described but be human. He would make mistakes and have regrets as all human beings do. I just wanted someone like that to love but frankly I thought they never really existed except in my dreams. That was until I learned all about the short but important life of Peter Ellstrom Deuel.