Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) was an American singer and actor best known for his role as Festus Haggen on the long-running CBS western television series Gunsmoke.
Though born as Curtis Wain Gates in Lamar in Prowers County in southeastern Colorado, Curtis was reared west of there in Las Animas, the seat of Bent County. His father, Dan Gates, was the Bent County sheriff. The family lived above the jail and his mother, Nellie Sneed Gates, cooked for the prisoners. The jail is now located for historical preservation purposes on the grounds of the Bent County courthouse in Las Animas.
Curtis played quarterback for his high school football team.
Curtis was a singer before moving into acting and combined both careers once he entered films, performing with the popular Sons of the Pioneers from 1949 to 1953 as well as singing with the Tommy Dorsey band. Curtis replaced Frank Sinatra as vocalist for the Dorsey band. He was with the Dorsey band in 1941, prior to Sinatra's departure, and may have served simply as insurance against Sinatra's likely defection. Dick Haymes contractually replaced Sinatra, in 1942. Curtis then joined Shep Fields and His New Music, an all-reeds band that dispensed with a brass section.
Columbia Pictures signed Curtis to a contract in 1945. He starred in a series of musical westerns with The Hoosier Hot Shots, playing singing-cowboy romantic leads. For much of 1948, Curtis was a featured singer and host of the long-running country music radio program WWVA Jamboree.
Through his first marriage, Curtis was a son-in-law of director John Ford. Curtis teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo and How The West Was Won. Curtis also joined Ford, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon in the comedy Navy classic Mister Roberts. In the 1950s, Curtis tried his hand at producing two extremely low-budget monster films, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. Curtis also guest starred on an episode of Perry Mason — as a circus clown. In the late 50s, Curtis was featured in all three of the only films produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney's C. V. Whitney Pictures; the first was The Searchers in 1956 with John Wayne, the second was The Missouri Traveler in 1958 with Brandon deWilde and Lee Marvin and the third was The Young Land in 1959 with Patrick Wayne and Dennis Hopper. Ken Curtis guest starred on the TV Series Western Have Gun Will Travel as a character named Monk. The episode was called "Love's Young Dream", Air Date 9/17/1960.
Curtis also co-starred with Larry Pennell in the 1961-1963 syndicated television series Ripcord, a half-hour drama about a skydiving service company. Curtis played the role of "Jim Buckley" and Pennell was "Ted McKeever." The series helped generate interest in the sport of parachuting.
Curtis remains best known for his role as Festus, the scruffy, cantankerous, illiterate office and jail custodian in Gunsmoke. While Marshal Matt Dillon had a total of five helpers over two decades, Festus held the role the longest (11 years), in 239 episodes, and was the most colorful. Festus was patterned after "Cedar Jack", a man from Curtis' Las Animas childhood. Cedar Jack, who lived about forty miles out of town, made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis observed the many times Jack would come to Las Animas, where he would usually end up drunk and in jail. Festus' character was known, in part, for his nasally, twangy, rural accent which Curtis developed for the role, but which did not reflect Curtis' actual voice. Besides engaging in the usual personal appearances most television stars undertake to promote their program, Curtis also traveled around the country performing a western-themed stage show at fairs, rodeos and other venues when Gunsmoke wasn't in production, and even for some years after the show was canceled. In two episodes of Gunsmoke, Carroll O'Connor was a guest-star; years later Curtis guest-starred as a retired police detective on O'Connor's NBC program In the Heat of the Night. He voiced Nutsy the vulture in Disney's 1973 animated film Robin Hood. In 1983 he returned to television in the short-lived western series The Yellow Rose.
In 1981, Curtis was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
Curtis' last acting role was as the aging cattle rancher "Seaborn Tay" in the television production Conagher (1991), by western author Louis L'Amour. Sam Elliott starred in the lead role, and Curtis' Gunsmoke costar Buck Taylor (Newly O'Brien) played a bad man in the same film. Buck Taylor's father, Dub Taylor, had a minor role in the film. Taylor joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1967, superseding the previous deputy, Thaddeus "Thad" Greenwood, played by Roger Ewing.
A statue of Ken Curtis as Festus can be found at 430 Pollasky Avenue in Clovis, California in Fresno County in front of the Educational Employees Credit Union. In his later years, Curtis resided in Clovis.
Curtis died in his sleep of natural causes in Fresno, California. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.
I'm really proud of "Gunsmoke" (1955). We put on a good show every week, one that families could all watch together without offending anyone.
- Ken Curtis
Before acting career, Ken Curtis sang with Tommy Dorsey's band and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Curtis Wain Gates
2 July 1916, Lamar, Colorado
28 April 1991, Fresno, California
Grew up in Las Animas, Colorado, where his father, Dan Gates, was sheriff. As was the custom at the time, they lived above the jail and his mother, Nellie (Sneed) Gates, cooked for the prisoners. He once said he patterned "Festus" after a local character known as Cedar Jack, who lived about 40 miles out in the cedar hills and made a living cutting cedar fence posts for farmers and ranchers. When he came to Las Animas, he usually ended up drunk and in jail. This gave Curtis plenty of opportunity to observe him.
Introduced the western standard "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" to movie audiences.
Son-in-law of director John Ford.
Inducted (as a cast member of "Gunsmoke" (1955)) into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1981.
Early in his career, he sang with Shep Fields' Orchestra.
Although his character, Festus Haggen, was introduced to "Gunsmoke" (1955) in an episode called "Us Haggens," in which he arrived in Dodge City to avenge the death of his twin brother, the fact that Festus had a twin was never again mentioned on the show. On "Gunsmoke" (1955) as Festus Haggen, he always drew and fired a pistol with his right hand -- but whenever he had to use a rifle, he would bring it up to his left shoulder and pull the trigger with his left hand (sighting with his left eye and squinting with his right). Often, Festus would squint with the right eye partially closed as well. This was never explained unless the actor or character had lost vision in his right eye. Refused an offer to appear as Festus Haggen in the movie Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge (1987) (TV), which reunited James Arness, Amanda Blake, Buck Taylor and Fran Ryan from the original series. Money was the issue. Producer John Mantley, interviewed for TV Guide when the movie aired, said Curtis had demanded double what Blake got; other sources say Mantley was at fault in offering Curtis an insultingly low salary (not specified in either account).
The Sons of the Pioneers, of which Curtis was once a member, were awarded a Star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame for Recording at 6843 Hollywood Boulevard in Hollywood, California.
Dick Haymes replaced Frank Sinatra as male vocalist with the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Sinatra himself in his final appearance with Dorsey introduced his replacement during a September 2, 1942, broadcast.
Appeared with the Sons of the Pioneers at Carnegie Hall.
Came from a musical family -- his father played the fiddle, his mother the pump organ, brother Chester the banjo, and another brother Carl sang.
Went in 1935 to a college in Colorado Springs to study medicine. While there his love for singing grew and he involved himself in various college musical events.
His stage name was changed to the easier-sounding "Ken Curtis" when he temporarily replaced Frank Sinatra in Tommy Dorsey's band in 1941.
He met singer Jo Stafford while appearing with Johnny Mercer on a radio program. Mercer invited him to make a guest appearance and, in acknowledgment of Jo's latest recording, Ken sang "Tumbling Tumbleweeds". As a result of this appearance, Columbia Pictures signed him up for a series of musical westerns.