Saturday, December 03, 2005

The eventful afterlife of Pete Duel

Jones, Smith and Alias?
Ben Murphy on the left, Pete Duel on the right.
I've been thinking about Pete Duel lately because the Encore Western channel is rerunning his last TV series "Alias Smith and Jones."

The series debuted in 1971 and ran until 1973, around the same time that the "Mary Tyler Moore Show" and "All in the Family" were running. But while those shows are still talked about and honored, the culture at large has forgotten about "Alias Smith and Jones."

But watching it now, I think that it's a pretty good action/adventure/comedy series. It only ran for 50 episodes until it was cancelled, but I think it would have run much longer except that Pete Duel killed himself in December 1971.

The opening credits of the show explained the basic plot:

Narrator: Hannibal Heyes (Pete Duel) and Kid Curry (Ben Murphy), the two most successful outlaws in the history of the west. And in all the trains and banks they robbed, they never shot anyone. This made our two latter-day Robin Hoods very popular with everyone but the railroads and the banks.

Kid Curry: [Posse in hot pursuit] There's one thing we've got to get, Heyes.

Hannibal Heyes: What's that?"

Kid Curry: Out of this business!

Governor's Assistant: The Governor can't come flat out and give you amnesty now. First you've got to prove you deserve it.

Hannibal Heyes: So all we've got to do is stay out of trouble until the Governor figures we deserve amnesty?

Kid Curry: But in the meantime we'll still be wanted?

Governor's Assistant: Well that's true. Til then only you, me and the Governor will know about it. It'll be our secret.

Hannibal Heyes: Hah, that's a good deal?

Kid Curry: [Escaping from a posse] I sure wish the governor would let more people in on our secret.

* * * * * *

Just as Harrison Ford is the key ingredient in the first three Star Wars movies, Pete Duel is the key ingredient in AS&J. His costar Ben Murphy was an incredibly beautiful young man, but when they're together on screen, I find I can't take my eyes off Duel. Duel was also very good-looking, but he has some kind of charisma or intensity or je ne sais quoi that jumps right out of the TV. Photographs don't quite capture it.

Once Duel was gone they replaced him with Roger Davis, and in the Davis episodes you really notice just how good-looking Ben Murphy was with his golden hair, blue eyes and perfect profile, because Duel is no longer there to act as an attention magnet.

Although mainstream culture has forgotten about Duel and AS&J, their cults live on, as you can see here and here and here and here.

Both Ben Murphy and Roger Davis are still alive. Murphy still appears in television shows but reportedly Davis is retired from acting. Nobody has created a web site devoted to either of them, but there are at least three devoted to Pete Duel, who has been dead for almost 34 years: The Pete Duel Forum, The Pete Duel Memorial Site and The Pete Duel Site.

Of course successful people who "have everything" and yet kill themselves are a source of endless fascination. But just as "Alias Smith and Jones" needed Duel, I don't think anybody would remember Duel for his role as Gidget's brother-in-law (Sally Field appeared on AS&J), or his short-lived series "Love on a Rooftop" with Judy Carne (who also appeared on AS&J) in spite of the suicide.

No, the phenomenon is Pete Duel as Hannibal Heyes alias Joshua Smith, and this phenomenon lives on the Internet. No surprise there's even a web site called The Life and Times of Hannibal Heyes, A web site devoted entirely to this pretty good bad man, and it contains no images of Roger Davis as Heyes.

I was ten years old during Duel's reign as Hannibal Heyes . My father watched AS&J all the time. He really seemed to enjoy it, and in any case, my mother wouldn't let him watch "The Flip Wilson Show" or "All in the Family" because of "all the filth." My brothers Brian and Kevin, one and two and a half years younger than I, respectively, used to play "Alias Smith and Jones" with their pal Johnny Thompson. They used to take turns being Smith, Jones and Alias.

My feelings about the show were a little different. Watching it now, I only remember one scene from one episode of the original run. But I do remember taking a keen interest in Smith. A confirmed boy-hater at age ten, there was something about Joshua Smith that I found intriguing, and even then I had to acknowledge it for what it was - a clear betrayal of my lifelong creed that boys were gross.

It turns out I was not exceptional in this regard. Although I didn't buy teen magazines at the time, it seems that Tiger Beat and the like were all over that action. They ran almost as many Duel articles as David Cassidy articles.

There are three media milestones of my pubescence - hearing John Lennon singing the lead on "Twist and Shout," watching Masterpiece Theatre's "Tom Brown's School Days" and watching Pete Duel in "Alias Smith and Jones." But until I saw the reruns of AS&J on Encore, I had forgotten all about Pete Duel. I don't even think I remembered his name. He was just the first guy whose sexual allure registered with me in the extreme early stages of adolescence. I knew nothing about Duel personally until I Googled him last week.

By all accounts Pete Deuel (original spelling of his name) was a singular person. He appears to have been deeply concerned about the environment and campaigned for McCarthy in 1968. He was also a poet, animal lover, and kind and sincere friend. The key to his suicide seems to be depression and alcoholism. You can read more about it on the many web sites, and even hear him recite his poetry and narrate a documentary about the dangers of leaded gasoline.

So I'm glad he's being remembered in 2005, so long after he died - longer than his entire lifespan. I'm certainly glad I've gotten to appreciate Duel all over again, now that I'm fully sexually mature. The feelings aren't much different, actually, except that I no longer feel guilt at giving in to androphilia.

So here's to you, Pete Duel. May you continue to have a full and eventful afterlife on cable television and the Internet.

UPDATE: 10 years later - Pete Duel - how's that afterlife going?