Ben Murphy and Pete Duel of Alias Smith and Jones
Pete Duel, Ben Murphy, Roger Davis
Roger Davis and Pete Duel in The Young Country
Roger Davis [left] guest stars as gunslinger Danny Bilson alongside series leads Pete Duel and Ben Murphy in “Smiler with a Gun,” the only episode of Alias Smith and Jones in which all three actors appear together
Roger Davis and Ben Murphy in Alias Smith and Jones
In the history of television westerns, Alias Smith and Jones stands out from the pack.
The small screen answer to the 1969 Paul Newman/Robert Redford feature film, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Alias Smith and Jones combined a seriocomic premise and tone, entertaining stories, witty dialogue, ground-breaking cinematography, and likable performances.
The one-hour series presented a new form of TV western which was generated by the 1970 ABC TV-movie The Young Country produced by Universal Studios.
Produced, written, and directed by Roy Huggins of Maverick, The Fugitive, Renegade, and Run For Your Life fame, The Young Country was a backdoor series pilot starring Walter Brennan and Joan Hackett. The film also starred Roger Davis and Pete Duel in dynamic roles that were not too distant from Hannibal Heyes, the same character they both eventually played on Alias Smith and Jones.
But network TV was not yet ready for something as innovative as The Young Country, which, even then, was too contemporary in its presentation. According to Davis, "ABC wanted a more traditional Western starring Clint Walker," which eventually materialized one year later as Yuma, an Aaron Spelling production that also did not make it to series.
With both Yuma and The Young Country out of the picture, Huggins switched gears to executive producer and episodic scribe for a similar Western concept that was ultimately rebooted by producer Glen A. Larson as Alias Smith and Jones.
Larson's reconceived edition premiered January 5, 1971, on ABC as a 90-minute, mid-season replacement special just a few years before he would go on to oversee other popular shows, such as NBC's McCloud, and ABC's Battlestar Galactica. Larson's additional hit list includes NBC's Quincy, M.E., B.J. and the Bear, and Knight Rider, CBS's original Magnum P.I. series starring Tom Selleck (who was an early consideration for Alias Smith and Jones).
The show's original cast featured Duel as Heyes, a.k.a. Joshua Smith, and Murphy as Jedediah 'Kid' Curry, a.k.a. Thaddeus Jones, with Davis, formerly of Dark Shadows, and a successful voiceover artist, serving as narrator over the show's opening credits.
Had Huggins remained as core showrunner on series, the producer would have retained the original Young Country pairing of Davis and Duel. But as Davis notes today, "Roy was no longer in control. This was Larson's show now."
Duel, under contract with Universal, was already on board. As he told Los Angeles Times entertainment journalist Cecil Smith in late December 1971, "I was lucky. I had nearly three years doing various things before they found a series for me."
Duel's younger siblings, actor Geoffrey Deuel and actress/singer Pamela Deuel, have retained the original spelling of their family's surname. As Geoffrey recalls, Pete Duel had a "good working relationship" with Murphy.
Murphy, like Duel, was also contracted with Universal, and was subsequently called in to audition for Smith and Jones. Upon his initial read of the script, Murphy immediately tasted the flavor of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.
"I loved that movie," he says. "And I sensed that the 'powers-that-be' saw me in the quiet Redford-like role and that Peter was going to play the Newman part. In working off that premise, I looked at Peter, as we rehearsed our scene, and he was just so charming and naturally loquacious."
As such, Murphy juxtaposed himself to that and made the creative decision to temper his pace with a more reserved performance opposite Duel. "And all of that happened on a Friday," he recalls. "By Sunday, I knew I got the part. From there, everyone was anxious to get going, and we just leaped right into it."
Once filming began, Murphy says he and Duel "never had a discussion about acting or how we were going to play a certain scene. Ours was an effortless chemistry, a natural progression. It was like one of those marriages that goes on, and neither party has to talk about it. We just did it."
An immediate hit, Alias Smith and Jones soared past the honeymoon stage and became one of TV's top favorites for ABC, running for 50 episodes over three seasons which ended on January 13, 1973. Bearing little resemblance to the more traditional, dying-breed westerns of the day, Alias Smith and Jones took a fresh approach to the genre and, in the process, reinvented it.
Murphy likened his good-natured interplay with Duel and Davis to that of Robert Conrad and Ross Martin's cheerful interaction on The Wild Wild West (CBS, 1965–69). "I saw a lot of humor in that show, which I thought was a precursor to Alias Smith and Jones."
Smith and Jones countered Wild Wild West's off-beat sci-fi/western take with a more realistic base, style, and sophisticated look all its own. And the show's engaging scripts percolated with a unique banter between its leading characters that was ahead of its time.
At its core, the series is an upbeat Old West tale focusing on two happy-go-sometimes-lucky bank and train robbers, who were former members of the Devil's Hole Gang.
With a semi-Wild Bunch sensibility, and in another nod to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the Newman/Redford roles in that film were once part of the Hole in the Wall Gang, while they eventually decided to go incognito as characters they named "Smith" and "Jones."
The TV Smith and Jones, meanwhile, never harmed or killed anyone intentionally and were granted amnesty for their previous crimes. But they would have to cease their unlawful activity for one year, and not disclose to anyone the terms of their agreement.
They changed their names to Smith and Jones and melded into the general law-abiding public, while still being pursued by law officials and bounty hunters oblivious to their amnesty deal.
According to Marion Veal, who owns and operates the British-based website BenMurphyFans.com, Alias Smith and Jones was "a good-hearted show with clean-cut boys. Your parents didn't mind you watching it. Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry were equals who knew each other's idiosyncrasies."
So much so, by the show's third season, it made sense to have Davis' Hannibal and Murphy's Kid credibly identified as blood-relations, as both actors were more similar in look than Murphy Curry and Duel's Hannibal. And a revised opening narration now voiced by Ralph Story would subsequently reflect that:
"Hannibal Heyes and Kid Curry, 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 Kansas cousins very popular with everyone but the railroads and the banks."
The Davis/Duel switch had transpired due to a horrific happenstance in the middle of the show's second year, its only full season: According to the book, Remembering Pete Duel, and the Pete Duel Memorial Site, both authored by Laura Moretti, in November 1971, Duel said, "I find it difficult to keep smiling."
The following New Year's Eve, Duel's charismatic wide-winning grin was gone. At just 31 years old, he died of a self-inflicted gunshot.
Only hours later, Huggins contacted Davis and asked him to step into the role of Hannibal.
Davis, not yet aware of Duel's demise, was on Christmas holiday in Houston visiting the family of then-wife Jaclyn Smith, future star of Charlie's Angels. The young couple would soon be on a flight bound for Denver, where they had planned to continue their holiday, skiing. But just as they found their seats, and right before the plane departed, a voice was heard over the loudspeaker:
"Is there a Roger Davis on board? Please come to the front."
Understandably, Davis was startled, responded immediately, and was taken to an emergency security police phone. Roy Huggins was on the other end of the line. According to Davis, Huggins said, "Roger — I have terrible news. Pete has shot himself. I know you're on vacation, but you have to come back and replace him. I need you to do this for me...please."
If merely stunned only moments before, Davis was instantly more than just concerned, and replied, "Roy — hold on a minute here. When is Pete going to be back? And how long am I going to have to do this?"
After a lengthy pause, Huggins said, "Roger — Pete is dead."
Now, Davis was dazed, torn, and confused on several levels. He and Duel were friends, and he was devastated upon learning of his death. Not only had the two actors co-starred on The Young Country, but it was Huggins who had cast Davis in that pilot film, which was his first significant break in prime-time television following the daytime gothic drama of Dark Shadows.
What's more, Davis was the original choice for Love on a Rooftop, ABC's short-lived Barefoot in the Park take-off that aired for only one season in 1966–67. While Barefoot in the Park starred Redford and Jane Fonda, Rooftop eventually teamed Duel with Judy Carne, whom he dated shortly before the actress-comedienne found her best success on NBC's Laugh-In.
The intermingling was mind-boggling, as was Duel's death, and now Huggins was reaching out for help. Through a tragic twist of fate, Davis would have no choice but to be there for one friend, while he grieved for another.
In addition to his voiceover work on Alias Smith and Jones, Davis had previously made a guest appearance on the series, for an episode titled, "Smiler with a Gun," directed by acting legend Fernando Lamas. It was the first and only time that Davis, Duel, and Murphy appeared on screen together.
Duel was reportedly suffering from depression and had been drinking heavily that fateful New Year's Eve. According to Douglas Snauffer's book, The Show Must Go On: How The Deaths of Lead Actors Have Affected Television Series, when the actor shot himself, executive producer Jo Swerling, Jr. sought to halt production of Alias Smith and Jones. But ABC refused to do that and was very clear on their position.
"No way!" Swerling recalled the network saying. "You have a contract to deliver this show to us, and you will continue to deliver the show as best you can on schedule or we will sue you."
Swerling said, "Universal didn't hesitate for a second to instruct us to stay in production. We were already a little bit behind the eight-ball on airdates. So, we contacted everybody, including Ben, and told them to come back in. The entire company was reassembled and back in production by one o'clock that day shooting scenes that did not involve Peter — only 12 hours after his death."
At which point, Murphy "basically went into shock."
"It was an impossible situation," he says. "But I have always had a strong work ethic that was instilled in me since I was a child...to work hard and do the best job I could, no matter what." So, he went "...right back into work," along with all of those associated with the show. "But it wasn't easy."
The last five episodes of the show's second season now starred Murphy and Davis, whose all too distinctive and recognizable voice would subsequently be replaced by Story's different timbre for the opening credits sequence.
Amidst tears, disbelief, and grief, Alias Smith and Jones and everyone connected with the series and its unique situation could do nothing but continue on, and it all transpired seamlessly on screen.
While peers, friends, and fans dearly missed Duel's presence on the show, the comradery that he and Murphy shared so perfectly well was reintegrated with a similar, if slightly different, rapport between Murphy and Davis.
Into the mix, was Larson's top-notch production skills and Huggins' words that transferred from page to screen with a sophisticated twist and turn of colloquial terms and phrases. The show also happened to be funny but, as Davis says, "Not in a silly, yuk-yuk kind of way."
Instead, Davis explains, "Roy had the ability to know when to stop short and not tell a joke, but let the audience feel the humor. That was one of his great gifts."
That was also one of the reasons why the series was so fully embraced and appreciated abroad, in places like England. "Historically, from the 18th Century forward," observes Davis, who once taught English and literature at UCLA, "...the British always understood that the essence of wit is what makes for great humor."
But still, as with any winning television series, or feature film or play for that matter, the main key to the success of Alias Smith and Jones was the crowd-pleasing viability of its leading actors. Raymond Burr, star of TV's Perry Mason, once said, "It's all about the casting." And in the leading man department, Alias Smith and Jones struck gold and lightning...thrice.
There was an equally impressive list of high-caliber guest-star and semi-regular appearances by those such as Susan St. James, Ida Lupino, Rudy Vallee, Cesar Romero, Buddy Ebsen, Juliet Mills, Adam West, Alan Hale, Jr., and Michele Lee. Even The Young Country hold-overs Walter Brennan and Wally Cox joined in on the fun, as did other classic character actors like Burl Ives and J.D. Cannon, each of whom made five appearances.
Ives, beloved by many as the voice of the Sam the Snowman from the 1964 TV classic, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer, portrayed wealthy art collector Patrick 'Big Mac' McCreedy (once in voiceover) who frequently calls upon Heyes and Curry for capers.
Cannon, best-known as Chief Peter B. Clifford on Glen Larson's McCloud series, played Harry Briscoe, the mastermind of the BDI Detective Agency, who was always in hot pursuit of Hannibal and Curry.
Smith and Jones was granted an additional visual sheen by the guest starring role by Sally Field as Clementine Hale, a role that Joan Hackett originated in The Young Country.
With yet another cog on the wheel of seven-degrees-from-separation, Field had been a close friend to Duel, who had co-starred as her fictional brother-in-law in Gidget, that aired on ABC from 1965–66.
Alias Smith and Jones was a hit across the board because hit a chord that sparked and captured the audience.
"Likeability...that's the key to its success," says Davis.
Ultimately, the show ended by no fault of the actors or the ratings. According to what Davis recalls Roy Huggins telling him, "The show never failed in the ratings, but when it switched time-slots from Tuesday to Saturday nights against All in the Family, Roy said we became a sacrificial lamb."
Immediately after Smith and Jones was canceled, however, there was a chance that the BBC was going to pick up the series for a fourth season. Recalls Davis: "Roy called me and said he was anticipating a deal being momentarily to start shooting the show in Spain. But that never happened because Universal wouldn't make the deal. It wasn't lucrative enough for the studio."
Instead, Alias Smith and Jones ended its three-year, trailblazing run, and rode off into syndication.
"Doing the show was a very special time in my life," Davis says, "and it was and remains special for those who watched it when it first aired, and for those who still enjoy watching it today. For all the difficulties associated with having to step into circumstances that were extremely tragic, looking back, Alias Smith and Jones was a time that I now consider almost too good to be true."
Davis recalls filming a few of the show's key exterior shots in one of California's most dazzling landscapes. "Racing across Monument Valley, being chased by an enormous posse made up of a dozen experienced horsemen was nothing short of mind-blowing for kids like Ben, Pete and me who grew up watching classic movie westerns like Red River , My Darling Clementine , and She Wore A Yellow Ribbon .
"What could be more thrilling than watching those wonderful movies and its legendary actors like Henry Fonda, John Wayne, and Montgomery Clift?"
In turn, the actors of Alias Smith and Jones have inspired the television generation of western fans, some of whom over the years have had the opportunity to share their appreciation in person with the show's stars.
In the pre-COVID period since the series ended, Davis and Murphy have made periodic personal appearances at celebrity live events.
Murphy has been particularly impressed when approached by "grown men who cry when they talk about it and express just how much the series has meant to them." For such individuals, he says, Smith and Jones "was a show that the whole family would watch together. And how, to a certain extent, watching it now reminds them of that original experience they had growing up."
"I cherish that response from the fans," Murphy intones, "...and I honor them for it."
These days, according to the Roger Davis Online website, owned and operated by Mike Shannon, Davis has forged a success of his own with a prominent career in high-stakes real estate. He's designed and built hotels, high-rises, and six of the most state-of-the-art contemporary homes in the history of the Hollywood Hills.
Murphy has also found remarkable success beyond his original thespian craft, from which he retired 15 years ago. "I love competitive tennis," he says of the sport that takes him all over the world. "I've been doing it for quite some time, and I love it more than I loved acting. It's an art to me like acting was. And I love to train for it, every day."
Five decades after first doing the series, he has only one regret, "... that Peter isn't here with Roger and me to reminisce about the time we all shared and experienced."
In a very real sense, however, Pete Duel is present on the Pete Duel Memorial website, in books like Remembering Pete Duel, and under the loyal gaze of Pamela Deuel, and Geoffrey Deuel, the guardian, and keeper of the family flame.
According to Geoffrey, as noble and dedicated as any brother could be, Duel periodically felt confined by the grind that comes with the territory of working on a weekly series like Smith and Jones. Other times, Geoffrey says, "Peter loved it," especially the episodes with Burl Ives, with whom Duel became close friends.
Geoffrey says Duel "always enjoyed interacting with fans and loved signing autographs. The young fans loved him for many reasons. He had a lovable warmth and a truth about him. He didn't come off as a phony. And that smile and those dimples say it all."
Echoing the sentiments of Davis and Murphy, Geoffrey frequently hears from followers of Smith and Jones as to how much the show "changed their lives in many ways. It helped them get through some of their trials and tribulations as teenagers and even adults."
Of his craft and career, in general, Pete Duel himself once said, "I just sort of fell into something I love — the only thing I really liked doing." He preferred "being in the great outdoors and around horses than playing a lawyer, say in a courtroom."
Another time, Duel directly acknowledged the special connection he posthumously retains with devoted fans of the series with which he's most associated. "The greatest pleasure for me as an actor is to please you," he said. "And when I do a show and can feel that it gives you pleasure, even if for a little while, then I can feel like I've contributed something to your enjoyment."
Assuredly, Duel, Murphy, Davis, Heyes, Curry, and Alias Smith and Jones have done exactly that for 50 years — and counting.
Herbie J Pilato is the host and an executive producer of Then Again with Herbie J Pilato, a classic TV talk show now streaming on Amazon Prime and Amazon Prime UK. Alias Smith and Jones is available on DVD.