Pete Duel was the coolest man on Earth in 1971. I don’t remember a single kid in my elementary school who didn’t know Pete Duel in 1971 courtesy of his starring role in the tragically short-lived TV show Alias Smith and Jones. That comedy-drama was the last great western TV show before the genre died forever the day after Star Wars was released into theaters. Alias Smith and Jones would have died quickly as the Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid ripoff it would have been had it not for the presence Pete Duel. Proof of that is its mercifully short second season when Pete Duel was replaced following his suicide the actor who’d been providing the voice-over narration. Amazingly, ABC did not even acknowledge Duel’s tragic death when the next first-run episode aired just a week later.
Of course, one may well argue that Pete Duel could not actually have been the coolest guy on Earth in 1971 because the coolest guy on Earth would never have put a bullet through his head. The story of the final days of Pete Duel remain something of a mystery, with conflicting opinions about his state of mind, the state of his alcoholism, and whether or not he really hated being on Alias Smith and Jones . One thing that is often overlooked as a contributing factor to the reason that Pete Duel took his life is that he may have done so for a reason that could still qualify as cool. Pete Duel may have been a victim of the march rightward of America after the hippies and Yippies almost did liberalism in back in ’68.
Pete Duel was very much a product of the social upheaval of the 1960s. Heck, Pete Duel was not only an environmentalist before it was cool, he was an environmentalist before Al Gore found out it was cool. If you’ve got a Pete Duel autograph, you likely can read the words “Peace and Ecology Now” next to his name . Pete’s liberalism spread to his chosen profession and he could see the writing on the wall long before others. What most of those who misunderstand that Hollywood is actually a deeply conservative business don’t realize is that the Screen Actors Guild was one of the rarest of all creatures: a labor union that embraced conservatism. The President of the Screen Actors Guild at the time that Pete Duel was starring in “Alias Smith and Jones” was Charlton Heston and he was following hard upon the tradition established by former President of SAG, Ronald Reagan. All this was during that strange transition period when Heston was giving up all pretense of his formerly humanitarian bent and diving headlong into the insane waters of far right paranoia.
Pete Duel was a very humanitarian person and acting was his life. It may have been that he simply wasn’t receiving much challenge from his role as Hannibal Heyes and the drudgery of weekly TV was sucking the love of acting out of him. Perhaps he was looking to rejuvenate his love of acting by acting on his liberal humanist purpose of leaving the world a better place than it was when he entered it. Although hardly of the distinction and stardom of Charlton “Pry This Gun From My Dead Cold Hands” Heston, he made the effort to get elected to the Screen Actors Guild Board of Directors. From this position, Duel hoped to stop the rightward progression of Heston’s distinctly anti-union bent. A strange thing for a union president, especially in 1971, but that should tell you just how far from being a hotbed of socialism Hollywood was. (It should also give you a clue as to just why Hollywood went after Ed Asner’s quite open and antagonistic liberalism with such vitriol and collective hatred.)
Pete Duel put a bullet through his head on New Year’s Eve 1971. He would not get the chance to become the coolest guy in the world in 1972. When police investigated his home they found that Pete had apparently pulled the trigger on that gun sometime earlier than week. There posted on the wall of Pete Duel’s house was a piece of paper pinned to the wall with a bullet hole through it. The piece of paper was a letter from the Screen Actor’s Guild informing Pete that he had not won his election to the Board of Directors.
It is impossible to ever know for sure what drives a man to kill himself, but with the enormous success of Alias Smith and Jones and what has been described as a concerted effort to control his drinking, that bullet hole through the SAG letter certainly does open the potential for questioning whether Pete Duel was yet another victim of the right wing witch hunt against progressive pods amongst them ready snatch the body politic from the hands of those who seek to derail the forward momentum of historical change. What is sad, of of course, is that progressive liberalism has always won out in the end and will continue to do so.