My first suicide

Peter Duel

Do you ever finally reach a point of knowing?
Or do you just wake up one day and say “I’m going”?
- Cowboy Junkies, “Good Friday”

If you begin reading about Hollywood and its stars at a tender age then at some point very early on you learn about suicide. I’m pretty sure my first suicide was Pete Duel, an agreeable young actor who had enjoyed important roles in such unimportant movies as THE HELL WITH HEROES (1968) with Rod Taylor and GENERATION (1969) with David Janssen but experienced greater success on the small screen. The Rochester, New York native (born Peter Ellstrom Deuel in 1940) had parlayed a recurring role as Sally Field’s brother-in-law on GIDGET (1965-1966) into a lead on the equally short-lived Screen Gems/ABC sitcom LOVE ON A ROOFTOP (1966-1967) before Universal offered him a long-term contract. His big break was being cast as Old West outlaw Hannibal Hayes on the weekly BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID (1969) cash-in ALIAS SMITH AND JONES (1971-1973). My sister Cheri was a big fan of Duel, who got a lot of play in the teen magazines of the day, and she was horrified and dispirited when the news came in over the transom that on New Year’s Eve 1971 he put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger. That’s a tough way to lose a crush. I can’t recall what my specific reaction was, at the age of ten, but I’m sure it was along the lines of “People do that?”

Chester Morris

At some point I began to dive into Hollywood history, fueled by my purchase of Leonard Matlin’s 1975 TV Movie Guide and my membership in a movie book club. I also began to purchase John Willis’ Screen World annual, each volume of which concluded with the year’s necrology: the cancers, the heart attacks, the accidents, the olds, and the suicides. That’s where I found out about Chester Morris (pictured at right, in happier and healthier times), George Sanders, Barry Brown, Stanley Adams (Cyrano Jones!), Jean Seberg, Jon Hall, Don “Red” Barry, French actor Patrick Dewaere, and Walter Slezak, all of whom took their own lives. At some point in there, CHICO AND THE MAN star Freddie Prinze blew his brains out and I picked up Kenneth Anger’s dreadful and dubious one-two punch of Hollywood Babylon and Hollywood Babylon 2, which taught me about other Tinseltown suicides (Carole Landis, Lupe Velez, and Peg Entwistle, whose fatal leap off of the Hollywood sign in September 1932 is all any of us remember she ever did). I don’t remember now where I learned that Marilyn Monroe killed herself (conspiracy theorists abandon ship!); the fact is just hardwired, as if I always knew, as if the manner of her death were enmeshed in her being, inextricable and inevitable, like Christ’s death on Calvary and Davy Crockett’s at the Alamo. I remember being psyched when character actor Albert Salmi, whom I knew from THE AMBUSHERS (1967) and THE DESERTER (1971) and ESCAPE FROM THE PLANET OF THE APES (1971), started popping up in feature films after 1980, appearing in both CADDYSHACK (1980) and BRUBAKER (1980) in the same year. “I love that guy!” I remember thinking. “How great to see him working again!” And then he was in DRAGONSLAYER (1981) and LOVE CHILD (1984) and BREAKING IN (1989) and then he was dead by his own hand, a murder-suicide, his body discovered alongside that of his wife. Friends spoke of his depression.

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All of which brings us, of course to Robin Williams, the (depending on your taste and patience) brilliant or annoying stand-up comedian turned TV actor turned Academy Award-winning movie star who killed himself this week at the age of 63, having suffered from depression for most of if not all of his life and recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. Williams’ death feels to me like a burglary, in the immediate aftermath of which you don’t notice anything much missing but then you keep reaching for things that aren’t there anymore. When I first heard that he had killed himself, my mind went to stuff like MRS. DOUBTFIRE (1993) and PATCH ADAMS (1998) — star vehicles bespoke for the motor-mouthed prankster, both of which I avoided like a burning Ford Pinto (a kneejerk reaction that says more about me than it does about him). It was only hours later that I remembered Williams’ wry cameo in DEAD AGAIN (1991) and his less kinetic leading roles in MOSCOW ON THE HUDSON (1984), DEAD POETS SOCIETY (1989) and the sublimely creepy ONE HOUR PHOTO (2002), and then the loss hit me. Late in the day I remembered that he had played Teddy Roosevelt in one of my kids’ favorites, A NIGHT AT THE MUSEUM (2006), which reminded me that Brian Keith, who had played Roosevelt in THE WIND AND THE LION (1975), also died by his own hand.

Spalding Gray

The movies mean forever and suicide means never again. I got used to that dichotomy early in life, long before I lost actual friends to suicide or just people I knew from around town when I lived in New York, like Spalding Gray (pictured right), whom I used to go see live, and MIDNIGHT EXPRESS star Brad Davis, whom I passed on Fifth Avenue one day – he was walking at a furious clip and grinning from ear to ear, though this was after his very public diagnosis of HIV+. The list of dream-makers, of artists, singers, musicians, writers, actors, and artisans who left this life on their own initiative is staggering. Staggering. In preparation for this little essay I only just learned that one of my favorite Hollywood character actors, Paul Hurst, killed himself in 1953 after having been diagnosed with terminal cancer. The same reasoning brought about the untimely deaths of many performers close to my heart: Arthur Edmund Carewe from PHANTOM OF THE OPERA (1925) and MYSTERY OF THE WAX MUSEUM (1933), the mighty mighty Chester Morris, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE‘s Pedro Armendáriz, stuntman turned actor Richard Farnsworth, and Wyatt Knight from PORKY’S (1982) and its sequels. An aging Gig Young killed his fifth wife and himself in 1978; I remember being stunned by the news, as he had been so great, so wise and cuddly, in the Gene Roddenberry TV pilot SPECTRE the year before.

Inger Stevens

Depression has taken so many of the bright and beautiful, gobbled them up, Saturn-like : Maggie McNamara. Alan Ladd. The wonderful 70s film actor Steven Keats. Ed Flanders. The great Rachel Roberts. Elizabeth Hartman, the voice of Mrs. Brisby in THE SECRET OF NIMH (1982), jumped to her death from the balcony of a Pittsburgh high rise. David Arkin from Robert Altman’s films. The Psychotronic suicides are equally sobering: Patricia Cutts from THE TINGLER (1959), Carolyn Craig from THE HOUSE ON HAUNTED HILL (1959), Laurie Bird from TWO LANE BLACKTOP, Michael Gothard from SCREAM AND SCREAM AGAIN (1971), frequent spaghetti western and giallo actor Luigi Pistilli, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS star Todd Armstrong, THE TIME BANDITS‘ David Rappaport, THE CAT CREEPS’ Helen Twelvetrees, ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST‘s Frank Wolff, Hong Kong film star Leslie Cheung, and international beauty Capucine (THE PINK PANTHER), whose estate went to three cats. The IMDb page for cowboy actor Art Acord records the date (January 3, 1931) and place (Chihuahua, Mexico) and manner (cyanide) of his suicide and that nearly all of his films are lost; so much for immortality. Before she took her own life in 1970, actress Inger Stevens (pictured above left) said “A career, no matter how successful, can’t put its arms around you. You end up being like Grand Central Station with people just coming and going. And there you are–left all alone.”

A Star is Born

As far as taboos go, suicide is right up there with incest and cannibalism, which is pretty harsh given that it’s the only one of these offenses that you can commit alone. I get our culture’s abhorrence of self-slaughter and its fallout on the loved ones of the departed, yet I think we need to be realistic about our ability to control it, which is to say that we need to face the reality that we never will. We may yet find a cure for cancer and AIDS, and cause the common cold to retreat to the rarity of polio, the Black Death, and ague, but suicide will endure, it will always be for someone, somewhere, at some time, an option… and we need to learn to live with that. However we like to believe that there is in each of us a standard issue reverence for life, baseline at birth, and that anyone who falls short of that ideal by expressing or acting upon a desire to put their back to it is weak or sick or unworthy, that certainty comes from the man behind the curtain and not the man upstairs. (The faithful among you will object but the Bible is strangely elliptical on the subject of suicide, though I suppose Corinthians makes the best case for stayin’ alive, stayin’ alive, if you believe in that sort of thing.) The received wisdom in these times of zero tolerance for suicide is that we have to be rigid in our semantic reference to it, we have to cultivate a language that is prohibitive and custodial. (“You do not romanticize, you must not inspire. Above all, you prioritize the feelings of those who are left behind.”) Years ago when a public service announcement suggested that “Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem,” dissenting voices declared “Suicide is not a solution!” (The furor was revived this week in a response to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences tribute to Williams, which took issue with the inference that his suicide was a welcome release.) I get the point of zero tolerance and I sympathize with the desire to slap the pistol or the pills out of the hands of the suicidal. I believe some, perhaps most, lives can be saved, I think medications can be adjusted to good effect, and I know that the suicide spike among gay, transgendered, and bullied teens can be reversed if we can all get on the same page… but at some point we have to make peace with the reality that people will do what they will do and that we can’t always love them out of it. We’ve been working this problem out for centuries, with William Shakespeare wondering five hundred years ago “whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer/The Slings and Arrows of outrageous Fortune/Or to take Arms against a Sea of troubles/And by opposing end them?” That question cannot always be answered by the promise “it gets better,” though I wish it were otherwise. And so in the wake of this most recent Hollywood suicide (which is really just a suicide, of course – in death we are all off the red carpet), my inclination is not to judge or condemn Robin Williams, to analyse or angelicize him, or even to make of his death a teachable moment. If it’s all the same to you, I’ll just say “I get it” and let him go.

Richard Harland Smith is the author of “Ten Horror Movies That Suggest Life is Unlivable,” The Book of Lists: Horror (Harper Perennial, 2008)

17 Responses My first suicide
Posted By Bob Gutowski : August 15, 2014 5:16 pm

Ay, me! A sad compendium and commentary indeed, nicely presented.

Posted By MedusaMorlock : August 15, 2014 7:05 pm

Well said, fascinating and compassionate. Tremendous post.

Posted By Suzanne Smith : August 15, 2014 7:30 pm

Your post reminded me that Peter Duel was my first suicide, too, and that I was deeply affected by Freddie Prinze’s death. It’s certainly true that this is nothing new, either in Hollywood or off the red carpet, as you put it; a fellow teacher of my mom’s committed suicide while I was in high school. It’s a terrible thing, most of the time, but with rare exceptions, it’s not something that can be loved away, or transcended through the pulling up of bootstraps.

Posted By swac44 : August 15, 2014 7:55 pm

How weird that my personal favourite Robin Williams film is titled The Survivors (a dark comedy with Walter Matthau). We cannot presume to know the weight of another’s emotional pain, we can merely guess, although poised at a point between a successful past and a future of succumbing to a debilitating illness, with a history of depression, the truth of Williams’ situation feels somewhat more tangible.

When the news broke, there was a feeling of disappointment, and the thought that there was still potential for brilliant work from him (I’d just re-watched his memorable turn as a murder suspect in the Alaska-set remake of Insomnia), but knowing what we now know, all we can do is hope he can rest in peace.

Posted By Doug : August 15, 2014 8:36 pm

“I get it”

Posted By amy : August 15, 2014 9:55 pm

Freddie Prinze was my first. The night his suicide broke, an episode of “Chico and the Man” was on and I couldn’t understand how I could see him on television if he were dead. Started a life long obsession with dead celebrities. Robin Williams, however, was my private crush and I have seen all of his films. This has hit me as hard as the loss of John Lennon. I understand the WHY behind it, but wish it wasn’t so.

Some people are just too special for this world.

Posted By Jenni : August 16, 2014 12:08 am

Looking at it from a believer’s viewpoint, I find it so incredibly sad that someone would choose suicide as the only solution to their pain, whether that pain stems from mental issues or physical ones. A good friend of my husband’s committed suicide during Thanksgiving break years ago. We were devastated. The whys are still unanswered. I also recall feeling anger towards this person for what they put their surviving family through-they were hit by this hard and never really recovered from it.

Robin Williams was such a talented man-quick wittedness, improv skills,acting whether in comedies or dramas. So, so sad that he couldn’t see beyond his despair to better solutions.

Posted By george : August 16, 2014 2:35 am

The first Hollywood suicide I heard about was George Reeves, although I didn’t hear about it until years later. It happened a few months before I was born. I do remember when Freddie Prinze died.

I was shocked to learn that Pete Smith was a suicide. He always sounded so upbeat in those short subjects he narrated. Smith reportedly jumped out of a ninth-story hospital window in 1979, after years of declining health.

Also hard to believe that the suave Charles Boyer took his life, just two days after his wife’s death in 1978.

Posted By Tommy Gibbons : August 16, 2014 3:13 am

Richard, this an eloquent response to the past week…thank you. Having lost a friend to a shotgun’s death kiss, my heart is bleeding for all of us to commandeer our empathetic radar and be sensitive to the sudden tune-outs depression generates. Friends are platinum.
Is the jury still out regarding 60′s regular Nick Adam’s drug overdose?

Posted By Doug : August 16, 2014 3:36 am

This isn’t an answer, but I wanted to share this-for those who might not be familiar, a writer named Don Marquis at times would have his typewriter ‘taken over’ by a cockroach named Archy who had once been a human poet before reincarnation dealt him his hand,residence in an insect body. Archy would write his verses, telling of the world as seen by a cockroach, and here we go:
http://www.donmarquis.org/themoth.htm
hint-reading it out loud helps you find the rhythm of the verse-Archy couldn’t do punctuation or upper case, hopping from key to key.

Posted By AL : August 18, 2014 9:18 pm

Norman Maine…

Posted By Robert : August 19, 2014 7:58 pm

Robin Williams – It is hard to believe that we have one more loss within Hollywood. Nevertheless, Robin is a bright star that will be missed among so many. It is sometimes hard to see our Hollywood that we grew up to admire leave us so soon. Robin will leave us all with some great moments in life that we can still fall back on to laugh and to cry, but most of all he was a caring individual that helped so many.

Thank you Robin for being part of our life.

P.S. I hope that TCM will also pay tribute to Robin Williams as they do some of our other Great Stars that we have lost.

Posted By Juana Maria : August 29, 2014 7:16 pm

I don’t remember any Hollywood suicides upsetting me as a child. Mostly because we had only one TV and it was on either PBS or “Star Trek”. Absolute truth. My heart aches as I recall the suicide of the son of my mother’s friend. He was tall, had red hair and very pale skin. I liked him, well the way a little girl does. When I found out he took his life a part of me died too. I have secretly struggled with depression and suicidal feelings since early childhood. Only in the last few years did I finally get some help. The medicine helps so much! No more hari-kari nightmares…or hangman’s noose. The terrible thing is my identical twin also has suffered with this terrible disease all her life too! I mostly have had just bad thoughts and feelings. She on the other hand has attempted to take her life several times. Especially in lieu of a bad, very physically abusive marriage, cheating boyfriends, financial lost to the extreme, rape, and the straw that broke the camel’s back, the succession of miscarriages and premature deaths of 3 babies! Just last year, she tried to hang herself twice. I would love it if she would want to get help. So far she has refused. Please pray for her. I also want to add the first Hollywood suicide that really upset me was in more recent years. Johnathan Brandis; I still have a Burger King magazine with his picture. Sometimes I foolishly wonder what it is worth. If you know, tell me.

Posted By Juana Maria : September 12, 2014 8:16 pm

Happy to report that my sister is in a much better emotional state, as of me writing this. She is remarried and hopefully to a better man than the others.

Posted By Doug : September 12, 2014 9:50 pm

Juana Maria, what you’ve shared, especially that your sister is doing better, may be of great help to readers here. I’ve never been suicidal, and would never claim to “Know how someone feels”, but if we have lived for very long, we’ve all faced some tough times/events.
Best thing I can say is that as we get older, life does get sorted out, our emotions quiet down and we can have more peace. The tougher the times, the more that peace is appreciated.
I wish you and your twin much peace.

Posted By ana teresa fernandes : October 1, 2014 6:16 pm

in 2014 I dont believe, this great actor PETE DUEL did this. Its very sad.

Posted By Juana Maria : October 4, 2014 1:53 am

Dear Doug:
Thanks for your kind words! It’s true saying you know how someone feels does not exist really. We can only guess at best. Of course love and sympathy, along with true friendship help so much!! Thanks again.

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