Ken Curtis is best known for his scruffy, backwoods characters, most notably Festus Haggen, Marshal Matt Dillon’s deputy on Gunsmoke. In real life, he was far from the squinty-eyed, unkempt, uneducated Dodge City sidekick with a heart of gold, who was prone to spouting elaborate metaphors, and whose good intentions (and sometimes harebrained schemes) often landed him in a pickle.
The youngest of three boys, Curtis Wain Gates was born on July 2, 1916, in Lamar, Colorado. Though he lived on a ranch until age 10, the family moved to the small city of Las Animas when Curtis’ father became the Bent County Sheriff. Young Curtis adapted to “city” life. He was the quarterback on his high school football team and played clarinet in the school band. He graduated in 1935 and started Colorado College to study medicine, but soon quit to pursue his real passion—music.
By 1940, he was singing at NBC Radio Network in New York. In 1941, he temporarily replaced Frank Sinatra in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra when the soon-to-be-famous crooner left to launch his solo career. It was Dorsey who suggested he change his name from Curtis Gates to Ken Curtis. After his stint with Dorsey ended, he joined the Shep Fields band.
In 1943, Curtis enlisted in the U.S. Army and served during World War II until 1945. After the war, he resumed his music career and took the plunge into film. He signed with Columbia Pictures and made over a dozen Westerns as a singing cowboy in romantic leads. On the music front, he was the featured singer and host on the popular country music radio show, WWVA (Wheeling) Jamboree, and from 1949 to 1953, he was the lead singer with Sons of the Pioneers.
In 1950, Curtis made a film connection that would shift his career. Though still a “singing cowboy” role, he was cast in John Ford’s film Rio Grande starring John Wayne. He sang with his fellow Sons of the Pioneers as a character in a band. It was an uncredited part—but it was a John Ford film! Curtis had another uncredited part in Ford’s The Quiet Man (1952), and that same year, became the renowned director’s son-in-law when he married Barbara Ford (It was Curtis’ second marriage). The couple divorced in 1964.
Ford cast Curtis as Charlie McCorry in The Searchers (1956), followed by roles in The Wings of the Eagles (1957) and The Horse Soldiers (1959) all starring John Wayne. He had an uncredited part in the epic movie How the West Was Won with an all-star ensemble cast including James Stewart, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, John Wayne, Richard Widmark, and Carolyn Jones, among others. Curtis teamed up with John Wayne again in The Alamo (1960), which Wayne directed and starred in, and played supporting roles in John Ford’s Two Rode Together (1961), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964).
Between all this moviemaking, Curtis took roles in television series, too, including Wagon Train, Rawhide, Have Gun – Will Travel, and Gunsmoke—before Festus. We first see Curtis in season 4 (1959) as Brisco in “Change of Heart,” and as Phil Jakes in “Jayhawkers.”
Festus came to life in season 8 (1962) in the episode, “Us Haggens.” Though Festus certainly made an impression, he was still not a permanent Dodge City resident. In season 9 (1963) Curtis played Kyle Kelly in the episode, “Lover Boy.” Curtis joined the cast as Festus in the season 9 episode, (1964) “Prairie Wolfer.” We see both Festus and Chester (Dennis Weaver) in “Prairie Wolfer,” and in “Us Haggens.” When Dennis Weaver left the show, Ken Curtis’ Festus became Matt Dillon’s deputy and sidekick.
Fun fact: Curtis modeled Festus on a man he knew when he was growing up in Las Animas. The man was often drunk and ended up sleeping it off in Curtis’ father’s jail.
Ken Curtis remained with Gunsmoke until it was canceled in 1975, having appeared in 306 episodes. After Gunsmoke, Curtis worked on various TV shows until his death on April 28, 1991, of a heart attack. He was 74.