Beyond Festus: The career of Ken Curtis

For more than a decade, actor Ken Curtis played Festus Haggen, the loyal sidekick to Marshal Matt Dillion (star James Arness) on the long-running television series “Gunsmoke.”

Curtis fully inhabited the role of the perennially disheveled and unshaven Festus, a man with a unique hillbilly accent who could be curmudgeonly and comical at the same time.

Festus remains a memorable character in TV history today, nearly 50 years after the show ended, to the point that even people who aren’t fans of Westerns – like me – know Festus. The actor behind the character is a different story.

Like many character actors, Ken Curtis is one of those familiar faces whose names may not be well known, but whose presence is an integral part of the fabric of film and television.

That’s why he is my choice for the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” hosted by Kellee of Outspoken & Freckled and @Irishjayhawk66, Paula of Paula’s Cinema Club and @Paula_Guthat, and Aurora of Once Upon a Screen and and @CitizenScreen.

Who was the man behind Festus?

Two years ago, I couldn’t have told you the name of the actor playing Festus. That changed after spending months of Sunday afternoons recently watching “Gunsmoke,” Westerns and John Wayne films in general with my dad.

A clean-shaven and quite handsome Ken Curtis is pictured alongside John Wayne in “The Wings of Eagles,” one of seven movies they appeared in together.

The thin face of Curtis, nearly masked under a heavy layer of whiskers as Festus, was becoming familiar enough to notice in films like “The Searchers,” “The Wings of Eagles” and “Conagher,” leading to the question: “Hey dad, is that Festus?” (That’s a real quote – I said “Festus.”)

“It kinda looks like him, but doesn’t sound like him,” I naively said, believing Ken Curtis really talked with that heavy Southern accent. (He was born in Colorado.)

Sure enough, it was Curtis. Now I’m seeing his familiar face more often, even in unexpected places like the 1959 B-horror movie “The Killer Shrews.”

Ken Curtis was hard to recognize at first in “The Killer Shrews,” a horror film he produced.

There was Curtis as Jerry, a cowardly researcher willing to sacrifice others to save himself from the giant man-eating killer shrews. As Jerry, Curtis was lean, good looking, clean shaven and spoke in a quiet, steady cadence, the opposite of Festus in almost every way.

Intrigued and wanting to know more, I discovered Ken Curtis had a full-bodied career that included appearances in more than 60 movies and television shows with a few surprises along the way. Not only did he act in “The Killer Shrews,” for example, it was one of two horror movies he produced. (The other is “The Giant Gila Monster.”) Add singer and songwriter to his talents as well.

From the beginning

Ken Curtis was born July 2, 1916 as Curtis Wain Gates in 1916 in Colorado. In an interesting twist of fate, he grew up living below a jail in Bent County, Colo. where his father served as sheriff from 1926 to 1931. His mom cooked for the prisoners, one of whom was a harmless guy named Cedar Jack who Curtis later credited for inspiring his vocal portrayal of Festus.

In high school he played football and clarinet. He served in the U.S. Army for two years during World War II and studied pre-med at Colorado College. By 1940, he moved to New York City to start his entertainment career – as a singer.

Ken Curtis, at left, leads a romantic ballad to John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara in “Rio Grande.”

OK, get that nasally Festus voice out of your head – Curtis had a wonderful singing voice. It was smooth, easy on the ears and romantic. If you doubt that, watch “Rio Grande” and pay attention to the tall soldier singing lead on “I’ll Take You Home, Kathleen.” Yes, that is Curtis serenading John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara.

Curtis was with the Tommy Dorsey Band where he followed – are you sitting down? – Frank Sinatra for a short time until Dick Haymes officially took over for Old Blue Eyes. He became a singer and host of the country music program WWVA Jamboree and lead vocalist of the Sons of the Pioneers in 1949, a Western singing group who previously worked with Roy Rogers. With Curtis, the band had such hits as “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky” and “Room Full of Roses.”

His passions for music and acting quickly merged in the movies. He was signed to a contract with Columbia Pictures to perform in a series of musical Westerns, even playing the romantic cowboy lead in such films as “That Texas Jamboree” (1946) where he sang the ballad “Prairie Serenade,” and “Cowboy Blues” (1946) that featured a particularly sweet rendition of “Little Cowgirl” that will melt your heart. Curtis also co-wrote both songs.

In “Call of the Forest” (1949) Curtis is a loving single father and rancher who still finds time for a calming little song. With the Sons of Pioneers, Curtis sang in films like “Everybody’s Dancin’” (1950) and “Fighting Coast Guard” (1951).

And yes, he did sing in “Gunsmoke” on a few occasions. It must have been a shock to audiences at the time to hear the Festus twang transformed into such a tender singing voice. In the video clip above, Curtis sings a song he wrote called “Six Shiny Black Horses.” That’s Slim Pickens on harmonica. You’ll see in the video that his plaintive rendition of the song even touches Marshal Dillon.

Curtis was perfect for films that needed a musical moment such as “The Quiet Man” (1952) where, as Dermot Fahy, he played accordion and spoke with a brogue. (Now that is something to hear.)

Ken Curtis, left, with a brogue and accordion in “The Quiet Man.”

“The Quiet Man” was one of 11 films Curtis appeared in directed by the great John Ford including “Mr. Roberts” (1955), “The Searchers” (1956), “The Wings of Eagles” (1957), “The Horse Soldiers” (1959) and “Cheyenne Autumn” (1964). He was also Ford’s son-in-law, married to his daughter, Barbara from 1952 to 1964.

Among his film roles, Curtis played Captain Dickinson who quietly stands by the snobbish Colonel Travis (Laurence Harvey) in “The Alamo” (1960). Look for his comic timing during a “fight” scene with his on-screen brother (played by Harry Carey Jr.) for the affections of Shirley Jones in “Two Rode Together” (1961). It’s chilling to see his dark side as the murderous Joe in “Cheyenne Autumn” who likes to kill Indians for sport.

We’re not used to seeing Ken Curtis, left, playing bad guys as he did in “Cheyenne Autumn.”

During his “Gunsmoke” tenure, he spent his time off performing in fairs and rodeos. In 1981, he was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma.

His television appearances also included episodes of “Wagon Train,” “Perry Mason,” “Death Valley Days,” “In the Heat of the Night,” “The Yellow Rose” and the made-for-TV movie “Conagher” (1991), his final role completed only months before his death.

Curtis and his second wife, Torrie, had retired to Clovis, Calif. (near Fresno) in 1980 where they were active within the community and with the Clovis Rodeo Association. The couple took part in the rodeo’s parade the day before Curtis died in his sleep from natural causes in 1991.

Courtesy visitclovis.com

In 1992, his memory was honored with a life-sized statue of Curtis as Festus. With his cowboy hat, heavy beard and deputy badge, it stands today outside the Educational Employees Credit Union in Clovis. Though he was much more than Festus as an actor, it’s only fitting that this celebration of his life and career immortalizes his most famous and enduring character.

The blogathon

Please be sure to check out all of the wonderful posts about other characters actors during the 10th annual “What a Character Blogathon” via the websites Once Upon a Screen,  Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club.

13 thoughts on “Beyond Festus: The career of Ken Curtis”

  1. Your enthusiasm for Ken Curtis has truly touched this fan’s heart. I have been trying to pinpoint the beginnings of my fandom and it must have been either the TV series Ripcord or multiple viewings of Rio Grande with my family. Ah, but is it Ken’s glorious singing voice or his memorable turn as Festus that cemented him in my heart. It doesn’t matter, does it? He’s stuck good and proper now.

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    1. Thanks, Paddy. This means a lot coming from you because you know your Westerns so well. I am late to the Ken Curtis appreciation society but I’m glad I finally got to know him. Toni

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  2. Great choice! His 2 appearances as Skinner Monk on TV’s HAVE GUN – WILL TRAVEL (’59-’60) seemed to be a proving ground for his Festus character. He had all the elements nailed down. Years ago, when I discovered he had such a smooth singing voice, it was almost shocking.

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    1. Thanks, Kurt. I did not see those two episodes but now I must especially to see how Festus came to be. I didn’t know about his singing voice until I did research for the story – and I was definitely shocked! Thanks for reading.
      Toni

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      1. I would guess he worked on Festus in private but HGWT may be first hint. Monk was a scoundrel and dimwitted so that contrasts with Festus.

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    1. Thanks for reading, Ruth. I also love the What a Character blogathon to learn more about all of these superb “familiar faces” – like the one you did on Charles Lane. Again, I knew his face but not the name. Through your post, I got to know him. Toni

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  3. Thanks for mentioning Ken was the host and singer on the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree back in the day. I’m on the current Board of Directors of the Wheeling Jamboree which is now a non-profit 501 c (3) org. Unfortunately, we don’t have any pictures or clips in our archives from 1948. Nothing at all showing Ken Curtis on our stage.

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    1. Hi Bill,
      Thanks for your note and for reading the story. I’m happy to hear from you and your connection with the WWVA Wheeling Jamboree. I learned quite a bit about Mr. Curtis while researching the story – he has such an interesting life! Sorry you haven’t been able to find anything on him in your archives, but hopefully something will turn up in the future. Thanks again. Toni

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