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.

A scary October: TCM’s schedule of classic horror films

The annual month-long Halloween horror film celebration hosted by Turner Classic Movies has returned with a packed schedule from Karloff to Kong, mad scientists to Satanists, and plenty of films starring guys named Lee, Cushing and Price. Multiple days have themes including the poetic horror of Jacques Tourneur and Val Lewton (Oct. 4), Hammer films (Oct. 21) and killer animals (Oct. 26).

Here is the schedule of horror films airing on TCM in October 2021 with descriptions.

Friday, Oct. 1

6 a.m.: “King Kong” (1933). The original beauty and beast story.

8 a.m. “The Most Dangerous Game” (1932). Joel McCrea, Fay Wray and Robert Armstrong are targeted by a big-game hunter who preys on humans. Directed by Ernest B. Schoedsack.

9:15 a.m. “The Vampire Bat” (1933). A village is terrorized with thoughts of vampires when bodies show up drained of blood in this film with frequent co-stars Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill.

12:45 p.m. “White Zombie” (1932). Bela Lugosi is a witch doctor who menaces a newlywed in what is considered the first zombie film.

The two faces of Frederic March in his Oscar-winning role(s) as “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.”

2 p.m. “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” (1932). Fredric March won an Oscar for playing the dual roles in Rouben Mamoulian’s version of the Robert Louis Stevenson tale.

3:45 p.m. “Mystery of the Wax Museum” (1933). Michael Curtiz directs Fay Wray and Lionel Atwill in one of his three horror films.

Fay Wray and Lionell Atwill star in “Doctor X,” one of their multiple films being shown on Turner Classic Movies.

5:15 p.m. “Doctor X” (1932). Curtiz-Wray-Atwill team up again in this story of murders at a medical college. Curtiz made the film compellingly tense, yet it has a comic flair thanks to Lee Tracy as the journalist on the case.

6:45 p.m. “Freaks” (1932). Tod Browning’s landmark 1932 film starring real people with disabilities resonates today with its statement about the idea of physical perfection.

Sunday Oct. 3

2:45 p.m. “The Picture of Dorian Gray” (1945). Hurd Hatfield makes a deal with the devil to stay young. Co-starring George Sanders, Donna Reed and Angela Lansbury.

8 p.m. “The Birds” (1963). Birds attack for no apparent reason in this taut Alfred Hitchcock horror thriller starring Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor.

10:15 p.m. “Little Shop of Horrors” (1986). Musical remake of the film about a carnivorous plant named Audrey II. With Rick Moranis, Steve Martin.

Monday Oct. 4

8 a.m. “Bedlam” (1946). Boris Karloff commits Anna Lee when she tries to reform the asylum he rules over in this film produced and co-written by Val Lewton.

9:30 a.m. “The Body Snatcher” (1945). Karloff and Lugosi star in this early Robert Wise film about a doctor who buys corpses from a grave robber. Based on a short story by Robert Lewis Stevenson.

11 a.m. “Isle of the Dead” (1945). People are quarantined by a plague on a Greek Island where there also may be a vampiric demon.

12:30 p.m. “The Curse of the Cat People” (1944). This sequel finds the only child of Oliver and Alice from the original film in danger after befriending the ghost of Irena (Simone Simon), her father’s dead first wife.

2 p.m. “The Ghost Ship” (1943). Strange deaths follow a young sailor who joins a new ship. The fifth of Val Lewton’s films for RKO.

3:15 p.m. “I Walked with a Zombie” (1943). When zombie films were poetic – thanks to director Jacques Tourneur.

Kim Hunter, sitting on the floor, discovers a Satanic cult in “The Seventh Victim.”

4:30 p.m. “The Seventh Victim” (1943). A student (Kim Hunter in her film debut) looks for her missing sister and stumbles upon Satanists in this intriguing horror mystery noir.

6 p.m. “Cat People” (1942). Simone Simon as the innocent newlywed haunted by a family curse in this gorgeous film by Jacques Tourneur.

Wednesday, Oct. 6

12:45 p.m. “Forbidden Planet” (1956). More sci-fi than horror, this adaptation of Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” stars Walter Pidgeon, Anne Francis and Leslie Nielsen.

2:30 p.m. “The Invisible Boy” (1957). Robby the Robot makes his second film appearance as he helps a 10-year-old try to save the world from a super computer.

4:15 p.m. “The Terminal Man” (1974). George Segal undergoes surgery to stop violent seizures – but the implanted microchips have an unexpected side effect. Based on the Michael Critchton novel.

6:15 p.m. “Deadly Friend” (1986). Another film about implanted microchips gone wrong, this time a lovestruck teen tries to bring his pretty neighbor back to life. Wes Craven directs.

Saturday, Oct. 9

4:45 a.m. “Schizoid” (1980). A woman must figure out who is killing fellow members of her therapy group.

6:15 a.m. “Dementia 13” (1963). A scheming widow trying to get the inheritance from her husband’s death is stalked by a killer in this first feature directed by Francis Ford Coppola.

11:30 p.m. “A Look at the World of ‘Soylent Green’ ” (1973). Short 10-minute documentary goes behind the scenes of sci-fi film.

Sunday, Oct. 10

10:15 p.m. “It’s Alive” (1974). Larry Cohen’s cult classic about a murderous infant. Yes, you read that right.

Vincent Price and his beloved Marie Antoinette in “House of Wax.”

Thursday, Oct. 14

4:45 p.m. “Eyes Without a Face” (1959). Influential films about a brilliant doctor who sacrifices others to graft a new face onto his disfigured daughter.

6:30 p.m. “House of Wax” (1953). Vincent Price stars as a gifted sculptor whose hands were burned in a fire. Look for Charles Bronson as lab assistant Igor.

Friday, Oct. 15

6:15 p.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). A woman who survives a car crash is haunted by the dead.

Saturday, Oct. 16

6 a.m. “Ghosts Italian Style” (1969). For something lighter, watch Sophia Loren and Vittorio Gassman as  husband-and-wife caretakers of a haunted castle in this ghostly farce.

Sunday, Oct. 17

8 p.m. “Poltergeist” (1982). A family terrorized by malevolent spirits who kidnap their daughter calls in paranormal experts. One of the best ghost stories on film.

10 p.m. “Burnt Offerings” (1976). Supernatural forces target a family that moves into a countryside mansion. Directed by Dan Curtis with Karen Black, Oliver Reed and Bette Davis.

Christopher Lee makes multiple appearances as Dracula throughout October on TCM.

Thursday, Oct. 21

7:45 a.m. “Dracula – Prince of Darkness” (1966). The second of seven times Christopher Lee played Dracula. This time he doesn’t speak and he’s without Peter Cushing but it’s still very much worth watching. Directed by Terence Fisher for Hammer.

9:30 a.m. “Frankenstein Created Woman” (1967). Baron Frankenstein (Peter Cushing) puts the soul of a murdered man into the body of his lover who then seeks vengeance for his death.

11:15 a.m. “Dracula Has Risen from the Grave” (1969). Dracula may have died in “Dracula: Prince of Darkness,” but he’s accidentally brought back to life here. Directed by Freddie Francis.

1 p.m. “Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed” (1970). Baron Frankenstein (Cushing) blackmails a young couple into a kidnapping to help him perform a brain transplant.

2:45 p.m. “Taste the Blood of Dracula” (1970). Once again Dracula is accidentally resurrected. This time it’s by three businessmen who kill one of his followers and he’s not happy. Christopher Lee returns for the fourth time in the title role.

4:30 p.m. “Crescendo” (1972). Stefanie Powers plays a young music student whose life is in danger when she travels to France to research a dead composer.

6:15 p.m. “Dracula A.D. 1972” (1972). Lee and Cushing together again. In 1972 London, Dracula feeds off a group of devil-worshiping swingers including the granddaughter (Stephanie Beacham) of Dr. Van Helsing (Peter Cushing).

Vincent Price is caught up in murder in “The Bat.”

Friday, Oct. 22

4:45 p.m. “The Bat” (1959). Vincent Price and Agnes Moorehead star in a horror mystery set in a big old house that was once the scene of murders.

6:15 p.m. “House on Haunted Hill” (1958). A millionaire tempts five strangers with a big payday if they stay overnight in a mansion in this William Castle film. Vincent Price and Carol Ohmart are entertaining as the bickering rich couple who set it up.

Saturday, Oct. 23

6 a.m. “The Mummy’s Shroud” (1967). Hammer Studio’s third “Mummy” film finds a team of archaeologists yet again ignoring warnings as they mess with the tomb of a boy pharaoh.

Noon, “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1941). Victor Fleming directs Spencer Tracy, Ingrid Berman and Lana Turner in this remake of the 1931 film adaptation.

Sunday, Oct. 24

8 p.m. “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” (1962). The only film pairing of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford works off their off-screen rivalry. An actress torments her wheelchair-bound sister in this acclaimed film that is part thriller, part black comedy from Robert Aldrich.

10:30 p.m. “Strait-Jacket” (1964). Joan Crawford is released from a mental hospital for committing a double murder, only to be the prime suspect in a series of axe murders. William Castle ramps us the suspense.

Monday, Oct. 25

12:15 a.m. “The Monster” (1925). Silent horror comedy about a meek amateur detective who investigates strange happenings in a mental asylum run by Lon Chaney.

Giant ants attack in the first of the big-bug movies “Them!”

Tuesday, Oct. 26

6:30 a.m. “Razorback” (1984). A giant wild boar is killing people, including a child, in the Australian Outback.

8:30 a.m. “The Swarm” (1978). Disaster king Irwin Allen turned his sights on nature for this killer bee film. Another great cast including Michael Caine, Richard Chamberlain, Olivia de Havilland, Katharine Ross and Patty Duke.

11:15 a.m. “The Pack” (1977). Packs of dogs abandoned on a vacation island terrorize visitors.

1 p.m. “Rattlers” (1976). Rattlesnakes go on a killing spree in the Mojave Desert.

Giant killer bunnies go on the attack in “Night of the Lepus.”

2:45 p.m. “Night of the Lepus” (1972). The greatest film ever about killer rabbits must be seen to be believed.

4:30 p.m. “Killer Shrews” (1959). Giant rat-like creatures attack a group of people stranded on an island during a hurricane.

6:15 p.m. “Them!” (1954). The first – and still best – of the big-bug movies stars James Arness and James Whitmore who track giant killer ants.

Wednesday, Oct. 27

8 p.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). Documentary about the film pioneer who not only founded Universal Studios and brought us the Universal Monsters, but also helped save 300 families from Nazi Germany.

9:45 p.m. “Dracula” (1931). Bela Lugosi in his most famous role.

Thursday, Oct. 28

1:45 a.m. Carl Laemmle (2019). See Oct. 27.

3:30 a.m. “The Phantom of the Opera” (1925). Universal’s silent version with Lon Chaney features the greatest unmasking in film.

5 a.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). Colin Clive is the title character – Dr. Frankenstein – and Boris Karloff is his unholy creation.

Friday, Oct. 29

8 p.m. “The Abominable Dr. Phibes” (1971). Vincent Price is wonderful in this glorious mashup of horror genres.

10 p.m. “Night of the Living Dead” (1968). If you love zombie movies, thank George A. Romero for the original classic zombie thriller.

Saturday, Oct. 30

Midnight, “Invasion of the Body Snatchers” (1978). Director Philip Kaufman’s remake of the alien invaders taking over human bodies stars Donald Sutherland and Brooke Adams.

2 a.m. “Hell Night” (1981). Slasher film about four college pledges who spend the night in a mansion where a family was massacred years earlier.

3:45 a.m. “Exorcist II: The Heretic” (1977). John Boorman directs this sequel to one of the most terrifying films ever made. Linda Blair reprises her role, Richard Burton co-stars.

5:45 a.m. “Creature from the Haunted Sea” (1961). A criminal bumps off his cohorts and blames it on a legendary sea creature – that may really exist. Roger Corman directs.

6:45 a.m. “The Hypnotic Eye” (1960). Authorities try to figure out why beautiful young women are disfiguring themselves. A chance to see Allison Hayes in something other than “Attack of the 50 Foot Woman.”

8:15 a.m. “Chamber of Horrors” (1966). A killer seek vengeance after he cuts off his hand to escape hanging.

Lon Chaney Jr., right, looks out for three siblings in “Spider Baby.”

10 a.m. “Spider Baby” (1964). Lon Chaney Jr. takes care of three siblings who suffer from a family curse.

11:30 a.m. “The Devil’s Own” (1966). Joan Fontaine stars in this Hammer film about teacher traumatized by a witch doctor who moves to a small English village.

1:15 p.m. “The Curse of Frankenstein” (1957). Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee star in the first of seven Frankenstein films from Hammer.

2:45 p.m. “The Haunting” (1963). My vote for the most terrifying “strangers spend the night in a haunted mansion” film.

4:45 p.m. “The Tomb of Ligeia” (1965). Vincent Price mourns his dead wife in Roger Corman’s take on the Edgar Allan Poe story.

6:15 p.m. “The Fly” (1958). Things go terribly wrong for a well-meaning scientist. With Al Hedison, Vincent Price.

8 p.m. “Frankenstein” (1931). See Oct. 28

9:30 p.m. “Young Frankenstein” (1974). Mel Brooks honors the spirit of the original Universal films with this genius comedic homage.

11:30 p.m. “Who’s Superstitious?” (1943). Short film on superstitions.

11:45 p.m. “Black Cats and Broomsticks” (1955). Short documentary (8 minutes) examines 20th century superstitions.

The lovely Simone Simon is haunted by a family secret in “Cat People.”

Sunday, Oct. 31

Midnight: “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.

1:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943). Bodies are discovered around a town after a black leopard escapes. From Tourneur and Lewton.

2:45 a.m. “Let’s Scare Jessica to Death” (1971). Strange occurrences happen when a former mental patient moves into a farmhouse that may be haunted.

4:30 a.m. “Carnival of Souls” (1962). See Oct. 15.

6 a.m. “Phantom of the Rue Morgue” (1954). Paris police are baffled in a search for a serial killer in adaptation of another Edgar Allan Poe short story.

7:30 a.m. “Macabre” (1958). A doctor has only hours to find his daughter who has been kidnapped and buried alive in this film produced by William Castle.

8:45 a.m. “White Zombie” (1932). See Oct. 1.

10 a.m. “Cat People” (1942). See Oct. 4.

11:30 a.m. “The Leopard Man” (1943).

12:45 p.m. “Mad Love” (1935). Peter Lorre plays a surgeon whose demented obsession with an actress leads to him to replace her husband’s mangled hands with those of a killer.

2 p.m. “Horror of Dracula (1958). The one that started it all for Hammer Film, Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing and director Terence Fisher.

One of the chilling scenes in “The Pit and the Pendulum” with Vincent Price.

3:30 p.m. “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961). Richard Matheson wrote the screenplay for this film loosely based on Edgar Allan Poe’s short story. Starring Vincent Price, Barbara Steele, John Kerr.

5 p.m. “Curse of the Demon” (1958). An American professor (Dana Andrews) visiting London investigates a devil worshipping cult. Directed by Jacques Tourneur.

6:30 p.m. “Horror Hotel” (1960). A college student studying witchcraft is lured to a New England town where witchcraft isn’t relegated to history books. With Christopher Lee, Venetia Stevenson.

8 p.m. “Psycho” (1960). A secretary on the run for embezzling money makes an ill-fated stop at a roadside motel in one of Alfred Hitchcock’s greatest films.

Review: ‘Giant from the Unknown’ gets a home video makeover

B-movie fans are an accepting bunch. By their very definition, these films aren’t generally well-made, but we watch because we love the idea of them.

Plus, as I was reminded recently while watching “Giant from the Unknown,” we never know when we’ll be surprised.

Showcased in a new home video release from The Film Detective, “Giant from the Unknown” is one of four films made in 1958 by director Richard E. Cunha (the others are “She Demons,” “Missile to the Moon” and “Frankenstein’s Daughter”) that get lumped together as bad B-movies. But that’s being harsh when it comes to “Giant.” It’s an easy to watch jaunt through B-movie horror territory and Cunha shows a nice touch with imagery to keep his low-budget film interesting. That this film looks great (it is “resurrected” from the original camera negative in a new 4K transfer) is a bonus.

The plot is straight from the B-movie handbook. Something is killing the livestock and people of a small mountainside town in California called Pine Ridge. There are mutilated cows, missing chickens, talk of curses, legends surrounding an ancient Indian burial ground and reanimation. Throw in a scientist, a handsome young guy, a beautiful woman, a mysterious creature and an officer of the law and there’s your film.

Note that the film’s first image is of lightning – that will come in handy later. The movie opens with news of another death – “a brutal beating” of a rancher who was “torn apart like the animals we found.” The panicked townsfolk have gathered, talking in the type of monster movie jargon we love.

“No human being could do that,” one guy says.

“It’s supernatural, that’s what we think,” adds another.

“If you lived here as long as all of us, you would have heard the legend of the curse.”