Question: Question: I caught Alias Smith and Jones on the Western Channel and once more enjoyed a great show. Was it ever determined why Pete Deuel committed suicide? Barbara, Oklahoma City
Televisionary: If there were any concrete reasons and it often isn't just one issue in such cases I'm not aware of them, Barbara. However, from what I've read, it's pretty clear that Duel (who for professional reasons changed the spelling of his name from the version you supply) was a pretty intense guy who was, to say the least, dubious about the television game and fame in general.
During a TV Guide interview in 1971, after his series launched on ABC in January of that year, Duel readily admitted he wasn't comfortable with doing press. "This is a part of the business I find amusing and also frightening," he said. "There's a kind of reality to all this press-personality myth, but fame in show business is not in proportion to actual achievement."
Duel never got into the game for the glitz; he got into it for the craft. A native of small town Penfield, N.Y., he started acting as a child but didn't consider it as a vocation, at first. He originally intended instead to go to Annapolis to become a Navy pilot before deciding against that. "It's probably the best thing that ever happened to me," he said of the shift. "I'd probably have nosed down in Vietnam with a jet wound around me."
A poor student at St. Lawrence University, Duel took to the stage. When his father saw him in The Rose Tattoo, he said, "If you want to go to school, why don't you go to drama school instead of wasting my money here?"
That was all it took. He enrolled in New York's American Theater Wing school and honed his skills in plays, which got him in a touring production that took him to L.A., where he thought he'd try his luck in TV and then go back to Broadway. "It worked out well, except that at the end of the five years, I got [ABC romantic comedy] Love on a Rooftop. It was a fine series. It was sentimental without being maudlin, although every once in a while it got a little sticky," he said of the show. However, it's what Duel said next that I find telling: "I don't usually like to watch gooey sentimentality myself, but sometimes it's a release. It allows you to sit and cry, and you may be crying for a lot of other things. Many people go through a period when all they want is reality, the blacker the better. But oh, that's a heavy burden to carry."
The actor landed Smith and Jones, which teamed him with Ben Murphy as a couple of old-West train robbers who were promised amnesty by the governor if they could stay clean for one year. Early on, he established himself as a force on the set, bugging the director when he wasn't happy with the writing or didn't see enough character motivation. "I like the challenge of being his agent," his representative said at the time. "He is terribly headstrong and willing to take a suspension at the drop of a hat if the property is not up to par. He's not afraid to fight with the biggest people, but he's honest and a beautiful friend. When I was in the hospital, he offered to finance my three children's education in private school."
Duel stood up for other things he believed in, too. He was involved in Eugene McCarthy's presidential campaign, ran for a SAG position and was said to be very disappointed when he didn't win. But I think a larger picture of Duel's demons can be drawn from another thing he said in an interview when discussing why he thought the best work he did was portraying a junkie. "I wanted to show that addicts are not that different," he said. "They are people who are addicted, and they're not from another planet." The actor knew whereof he spoke; he had his own struggles with alcohol.
Sadly, Duel lost whatever battle he was fighting and shot himself in his Hollywood Hills home in December 1971.
As for the show, many people think that it was Duel's death which did the series in (Roger Davis, who'd been handling the show's narration duties, was tossed into the role in the second season). But the truth is, it wasn't that well received by the critics TV Guide's Cleveland Amory said that despite a terrific premise, it "doesn't promise very much, and it certainly doesn't deliver a whole lot" and was beat by tough competition, including The Flip Wilson Show, All in the Family and Emergency!.