Ken Curtis’ Festus Haggen first appeared on Gunsmoke in 1962, an episode titled “Us Haggens” avenging the death of his twin brother. The character was showcased full-time from 1964 until 1975. His simple vocabulary and appearance made him a “lovable” character to viewers. Throughout the history of the series, his character was the only one that became an official deputy on the show.
Seen often in the Long Branch bantering with Doc Adams served as a constant comedic relief throughout the series. There is little to no history regarding Festus Haggen’s background, except that he served in the Confederate army and he could not read.
Ken was such a great actor that some folks could not have imagined that he was actually an extremely polished, well educated and highly intelligent man. He could not have been further from Festus if he tried! In my own opinion, one of Ken’s most outstanding features was his gorgeous smile! That smile probably melted the hearts of many a fair maiden!
He was raised in Las Animas, the seat of Bent County, west of Lamar in southeastern Colorado. His father, Dan Gates was a sheriff and the family lived above the jail. His mother, Nellie Sneed Gates cooked for the prisoners. The jail is located in an historical area of Bent County.
Ken had a long and amazing career long before playing Festus on Gunsmoke. He was a singer before moving into acting and managed to combined the two upon entering films. He performed with the popular Sons of the Pioneers from 1949 to 1953 as well as performing with the Tommy Dorsey band. He replaced Frank Sinatra as a vocalist with the Dorsey band, little else is known about his relationship with the band.
He signed with Columbia Pictures in 1945 and starred in a series of musical westerns with The Hoosier Hot Shots, playing a singing cowboy and romantic lead. He spent most of 1948 as a featured singer and host of the long-running country music radio program WWVA Jamboree.
Through his first marriage to Barbara Ford (1952 – 1964), he was the son-in-law of famed director John Ford. He teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Quite Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo and How the West was Won.
Note: Ford originally wanted Fess Parker, of Davy Crockett fame, in the Jeffrey Hunter role in the Searchers. Unfortunately, Walt Disney would not allow Parker to take on the role as he was under contract with Disney. According to a videotaped interview (for the Archive of American Television) with Fess Parker, Parker stated that this was by far his single worst career reversal.
Ken also joined Ford along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell and Jack Lemmon in the classic Mister Roberts.
Ken tried his hand at producing with two very low budget monster films: The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. He also appeared on an episode of Perry Mason.
In the 50′s he was featured in the three films produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney. The Searchers (1956), The Missouri Traveler (1958) and The Young Land (1959).
He is probably best known for his role as the cantankerous Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke. Although Marshal Matt Dillion had a total of five helpers over the two decades of the show’s run, Festus was the longest run of eleven years and 239 episodes and was the only helper deputized.
Ken said that his character of Festus was patterned after “Cedar Jack”, a man from Curtis’ Las Animas childhood days. Cedar Jack lived about 40 miles out of town and made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis said he’d see Jack many times in Las Animas, where he was usually drunk and in jail.
He also traveled around the country performing a western-themed stage show at fairs, rodeos and other venues when Gunsmoke was not in production and after the show was canceled.
Ken was induced into the Western Performers Hall of Fame and the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. His last acting role was as an aging cattle rancher “Seaborn Tay” in the television production of Conagher (1991), by author Louis L’Amour and starring Sam Elliott.
A statue of Ken Curtis as Festus in Clovis, Califonia in front of the entrance of the Fresno Educational Employees Credit Union in Fresno, CA. Ken lived in Fresno until his death in 1991.