Pete Duel’s Unexpected Suicide: The End of ‘Alias Smith and Jones’

Pete Duel sadly died early on in his career, but he was remembered fondly for his portrayal of Hannibal Heyes on a hit show in the '70s. What was the real reason he went away after his success? 

Pete Duel was born in Rochester, New York to Dr. Ellsworth S. Deuel and Lillian M. Ellstrom. He grew up in a well-to-do home. When he began acting, Duel tried to hide his wealthy background by changing his way of speaking and dressing in lower-end fashion. 

The facade didn't last very long as many learned of his origins. Duel then went about living as himself, acting only as required for his job. It paid off most notably in 1971 on "Alias Smith & Jones." 

Pete Duel's career

There, Duel played Hannibal Heyes alongside "Kid" Curry, two outlaws who were trying to avoid trouble with the law. When he first got the part, Duel was happy to be taking a step up from previous smaller appearances on tv. 

Ultimately, though, he wanted to do more, like be a movie star. The show scratched his itch, but his co-star, Ben Murphy, forced it to resurface. Murphy was not easy to work with, reported one outlet.

The light-hearted show did well at first, but when the scriptwriting quality went down and the ratings dropped with it, Duel's mental health also suffered. 

Dealing with alcoholism

As a long-time alcoholic, he slipped back into his addiction. Thankfully, Dianne Ray came along and helped Duel substantially. The two were together for more than a year before they broke up.

Duel returned to alcohol abuse. This time, things escalated to the point where he was arrested for drunk driving. He received two years probation. Thereafter, things looked up again when Ray and Duel got back together.

Yet life was clearly a roller coaster ride for Duel, whose emotions changed easily based on the show's success or lack of it. He reportedly took the low ratings much harder than the other actors. 

Pete Duel from the television series "Alias Smith and Jones" on August 16, 1971 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pete Duel from the television series "Alias Smith and Jones" on August 16, 1971 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

At the same time, Duel wanted more for himself and he wasn't getting it. An attempt to take the starring role in "The Scarecrow" was a success, while several of his other movies flopped.

It seemed like the nail in the coffin came when Duel lost in the running for the Screen Actors Guild elections. The actor took the loss so hard that he framed the telegram informing him of the news then shot it. 

Duel quickly sank further into despair, seeing his coming season of the show as a cage that he should never have locked himself into. A few days later on December 30, he had a conversation with one of his few friends, Belinda Montgomery. 

Pete Duel's death

The next day would be his last. Duel came home and decided to have a drink. He called over his girlfriend Ray to join him on the couch. The two watched TV together, including an airing on "Alias Smith & Jones."

At one point when Ray left the room, she heard a shot and came running, but was already too late. Duel lay lifeless near the Christmas tree as Ray called the authorities. 

At first, police discussed murder as a possibility. However, soon enough the case was deemed a "probable suicide," or more modestly, an "accidental death." 

Photo of Peter Duel from the short-lived television show "Gidget" circa 1966 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Photo of Peter Duel from the short-lived television show "Gidget" circa 1966 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Duel was 31 when he died in the early hours of December 31. When his death went public, a prior interview revealed that Duel said he "never wanted to do" television series.

Of course, little can truly answer the question of why Duel did what he did that night. He was a famous actor who inspired many and more than did justice to his role in their eyes. 

One such person who felt so was Robert Matzen, who spoke of his favorite show and the hero he found in Duel. After learning the sad news, a young Matzen struggled to cope, taking a night to wander around his home. 

Pete Duel, Judy Carne, Edith Atwater, and Herbert Voland from "Love on a Rooftop" in 1966 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

Pete Duel, Judy Carne, Edith Atwater, and Herbert Voland from "Love on a Rooftop" in 1966 | Source: Wikimedia Commons

The long-time fan only learned the truth of Duel's bizarre goal-planning later on. He claimed the actor gave himself five years to make it big and described him as a "perfectionist." 

It's impossible to know what Duel was thinking that night, and just how much the alcohol affected his mental state at the time. Regardless of how he left us, Duel did make his mark in the world. 

Another actor in his 30s who took his life was Carlos Lopez Jr. At 35, the "Operation Repo" star committed the act in June 2018. No reason was given, however. His former co-star Paco Aguilar encouraged people to check up on their friends in hopes that such horrible acts can be prevented.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “help” to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.

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