Remembering Pete Duel

Pete Duel was an actor who you might remember from the 1960’s and early 1970’s. His death on New Years Eve, 1971, was called a suicide. He was just 31 years old.

Sunday mornings you can catch episodes of Duel’s performances in Alias Smith and Jones on Cozi TV, and sometimes his first show, Gidget, appears on the channel as well.

Duel took up acting in college while studying English and decided to pursue it full-time. He moved to New York City where he got some stage work.  Soon after, his parents encouraged him to move to Los Angeles to pursue his career.

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Pete Duel, Betty Conner and Sally Field in Gidget.

Duel got his first credits in 1963, as he worked his way up through minor television and film roles and he soon became a member of the cast of Gidget, which aired for one season. He played the brother-in-law, a psychology grad student, who usually tried to over analyze Gidget’s behavior.

In that role, he had a mild mannered presence, usually adding to the chaos he tried to study. He had an easygoing charm that worked well in the role.

After that series was cancelled he was offered the role of a young married apprentice architect in a comedy called Love on a Rooftop, costarring Judy Carne.  The premise of the show was that he doesn’t make much money, she comes from money, and her father interferes a lot.  The struggles of a young married couple.  They live in a converted storeroom as an apartment, that leads to the rooftop and a wonderful view of San Francisco. The series aired for just one year.

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Judy Carne and Pete Duel

Duel then had a few film appearances and guested in several television series.

In  January 1971, Alias Smith and Jones aired. It had started as a Movie if the Week but wasn’t picked up as a series. It was retooled, with Duel as Hannibal Hayes (Smith) and Ben Murphy as Kid Curry (Jones). Yes, the series was tailored on the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid Movie.

Duel was plugged into the Newman role as the planner and charmer of the duo. He could shoot when needed to, but tended to leave the heavy work to Kid Curry.

The show had a light comedy flavor although it was pitched as a Western drama, the violence was downplayed and the duo tended to think their way out of most dangerous situations. The concept of the show was for them to not commit any crimes so they could be pardoned by the Governor. They had to prove they had changed their ways, but trouble often found them.

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Pete Duel and Ben Murphy, Alias Smith and Jones

Duel was quite good in this role, a balance between his “good guy” charm and his desire to play a character of substance.

The show survived the first season and was renewed for a second season. Duel died during the second season, after appearing in a total of 30 episodes.  His character was quickly recast and continued on days after Duel’s death.  Ratings dropped and the show was cancelled.

Why did Duel take his own life? Interviews with people around him point to alcohol issues, including a DUI that cost him his license and resulted in a vehicular accident that landed him in legal problems. Online stories refer to him being depressed and unhappy with his career and the show. Maybe he saw himself as stuck in television, in his early 30’s, in his third series, although renewed, not a ratings hit. According to people from the show he was a loner and difficult to get to know. His blood alcohol content the night he died was reportedly several times the legal limit, so apparently alcohol was still something he grappled with.  Whether he meant to shoot himself, a young life tragically ended.

I never saw Pete Duel in anything bad, nor did I see him in a wasted performance. He was funny, always seemed to convey an upbeat character and his charm was undeniable.

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On screen, Duel conveyed confident, outgoing characters who were usually in control. That might not have been the man when the filming stopped.

He might not have been Paul Newman, but who was?

 


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