Pete Duel (1940-1971) would have been 82 today, which seems unthinkable, for like so many who would be so old now (James Dean, JFK) he left this world when he was in the prime of life. In old photos he is never older than 37, and that’s the way he will always be.
If you’ve never heard of him, I don’t blame you. He was co-starring on a hit show at the time of his death, but his decease ended that show prematurely, and it was put in mothballs. Have you ever seen Alias Smith and Jones (1971-73)? That’s a rhetorical question. Some of you have; I don’t need to know if you’re among them. Though I was alive (about five years old) at the time it debuted and we were a western watching family, my first encounter with any mention of the show was a paperback novelization at a yard sale. I never saw it on television at the time. My first experience of Duel on screen came when I was a teenager and Nickelodeon or somebody screened Gidget reruns. Duel played Gidget’s brother-in-law John, a college student, on the series. He was a good looking guy, sort of like a slightly younger Gary Lockwood, with dimples and what my mother used to call “black eyes” (dark, dark brown eyes where it’s hard to tell the iris from the pupil). Anyway Gidget originally ran 1965-66 and Duel immediately went on to co-star on his most forgotten series of all, Love on a Rooftop (1966-67), which was loosely based on Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. His co-star, playing his newlywed wife, was a pre-Laugh-In Judy Carne. Since the show transplanted the setting to San Francisco, and this was the age of the counter-culture, the sitcom also seems to foreshadow Simon’s later The Star-Spangled Girl, which premiered on Broadway just a few months later.
Love on a Rooftop only lasted on season, but Duel kept working constantly on television, guesting on popular series, and starring in tv movies. Then, in 1971, what ought to have been magic. Like Love on a Rooftop, Alias Smith and Jones was loosely based on and inspired by an existing hit property, the 1969 movie Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. It paired Duel with Ben Murphy, whom many felt strongly resembled Paul Newman. They played two exceptionally good looking and cheeky young outlaws who are looking to go straight but are constantly compelled by circumstances to keep pulling jobs. In the wake of Bonnie and Clyde and a thousand other things, young rebels were all the rage in movies and television at the time (in fact ABC even had another series that was literally titled The Young Rebels). So Alias Smith and Jones had an audience, even in a time when the television western, once supreme in the ratings, was dying a rapid death. And if the two stars weren’t too well known, the show had top of the line guest stars, some of them recurring, people like Burl Ives, Slim Pickens, Keenan Wynn, Walter Brennan, Cesar Romero, Jackie Coogan, Sam Jaffe, and Paul Fix. And scores of others. Gidget herself, Sally Field came on the show twice.
The future of the show seemed rosy. There were two seasons in the can and the show was renewed for a third. Then, early on New Year’s Eve 1971 (going into 1972), Pete Duel took his own life with a handgun. The cause seems to have been despondency over a drinking problem. It was no small thing — he’d actually injured some people in a vehicular accident earlier in the year. His judgment was no doubt distorted by drink when he pulled the trigger.
By any measure, this event was a tragedy. Yet within hours, the producers of the show recast Duel’s part with Roger Davis, who’d been the show’s narrator, and went back into production as though nothing had happened. The show ran a third season, but the public had turned against it, and that was all she wrote.
But, believe it or not, it is possible for me to conclude this post on a positive note. Duel’s final screen credit proved to be something incredible, a treasure chest of lost gold. It’s a TV movie called The Scarecrow, based on a 1908 Percy Mackaye play, itself based on a Nathaniel Hawthorne story called “Feathertop”. Oooh, boy, is this my cup of tea. It’s set during the Salem Witch Trials and concerns an old witch woman (Nina Foch) who brings a scarecrow to life in order to get revenge against a judge who did her wrong. The judge is played by Norman Lloyd, in such extreme melodramatic make-up and manner he seems like a Klingon from Star Trek. There is a bewigged aristocrat played by — wait for it — Gene Wilder, at the height of his wonderful weirdness. And it also has Blythe Danner (whom I’ve always been in love with), Will Geer, Elisha Cook Jr, and Duel of course, in his final role. If only the old witch could have muttered a spell over Duel and brought him back to life! At any rate, this movie, and the events that surround it, have just turned 50 years old. It seems a suitable promontory for a peek backwards. Best of all, this movie is currently available on Youtube! I watched a bit this morning and was enthralled!
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