6 festive facts about Ken Curtis of Gunsmoke

From a childhood in a jailhouse to filling the shoes of Frank Sinatra.

Image: The Everett Collection

With his perpetual five-o'clock shadow, tattered hat and reedy voice, Festus Haggen is one of the most colorful characters in television history. We certainly spent a lot of time with the hillbilly-turned-deputy. Introduced on Gunsmoke in 1962, Festus appeared in 300 or so episodes all the way through 1975. 

Ken Curtis, the talented man behind the scruff, was just as charming but far different from his character. A former high school quarterback, Curtis left behind his academic pursuit of medicine to sing. His early showbiz career flourished behind a microphone. His crooning skills landed him on the big screen. From cowboy pictures, he made the leap to TV Westerns.

Here are six surprising facts you might not have known about this legend.

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1. He grew up in a jail.

 

No wonder he was so comfortable upholding the law in Dodge City alongside Marshal Matt Dillon. Curtis' dad was the sheriff of Bent County, in Southeastern Colorado (about 190 miles due west of Dodge City). The jail was located on the second floor of a brick building in Las Animas, seen here. The Curtis family lived on the first floor!

Image: Google Maps

2. He based Festus on a real man named "Cedar Jack."

 

As Curtis was growing up, he became familiar with a local feller named Cedar Jack. Living outside of town, Cedar Jack was sort of the Ernest T. Bass meets Otis Campbell of Las Animas, often ending up in dad's jail cell. Ol' Cedar Jack made an impression on young Curtis, who later appropriated Jack's nasally, twangy voice and mannerisms for Festus.

Image: The Everett Collection

3. He replaced Frank Sinatra in a big band.

 

In the early 1940s, Curtis landed a plum gig as a singer for the Tommy Dorsey Band. A titan of big band jazz, Dorsey had previously employed a skyrocketing New Jersey crooner named Frank Sinatra. Perhaps you've heard of him.

Image: The Everett Collection

4. He filled the shoes of Roy Rogers in a band, too.

 

Following his time with Tommy Dorsey, Curtis transitioned into cowboy music. In 1949, he joined the trailblazing country band Sons of the Pioneers. Curtis, seen here at the top of the pyramid on the cover of the 1950 album A Garden of Roses, served as the lead singer for a few years. Again, he was filling big shoes… er, boots. The Pioneers had previously been the launching pad of the ultimate singing cowboy, Roy Rogers! Curtis sang on hits such as "Room Full of Roses."

Image: RCA Victor Records

5. He was the son-in-law of John Ford.

 

John Ford remains the king of the American Western film, having helmed classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. He was just as skilled in directing war movies and literary adaptations, like 1940's The Grapes of Wrath, which earned him one of his Oscars. John Wayne is the actor most associated with Ford, but there's another face in plenty of his flicks — Ken Curtis. Curtis, who was married to Barbara Ford from 1952–64, had roles in Mr. Roberts, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, The Last Hurrah, Two Rode Together and other Ford films.

Image: The Everett Collection

6. There is a statue of him outside a credit union in Central California.

 

If you ever find yourself in Clovis, California, pop over to the Educational Employees Credit Union and pull into the parking lot. There you'll find a statue of Festus Haggen inside a short black fence. Curtis lived in Clovis, in Fresno County, late in his life.

Image: Google Maps

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25 Comments

SFRYE 17 months ago
When I was about 6 or 7 years old making it 1960 or 1961. I remember my mother and daddy taking my younger brother and me to see Ken Curtis at a school Auditorium in Columbus, Mississippi. I can't remember which one but probably at MSCW at the time. Now the name of the school is MUW. I remember he was dressed like his character Festus on GunSmoke. I think I remember him singing and doing some sort of cowboy show. When the show was over my daddy asked if I wanted to meet Festus so I was holding my daddy's hand and we walked up to him. My daddy and Festus shook hands and talked for a few minutes. I was too shy to talk to Festus but I remember being excited. I don't remember Matt Dillon or any other Gunsmoke cast being there. It was just Festus that came to our town of Columbus, Miss that is about 29 miles from Starkville, Miss, the home of our Mississippi State Bulldogs.
GaryJensen 31 months ago
Prior to his marriage to Barbara Ford, he was married to my mother who had an all-girl orchestra called the Lorraine Page Orchestra (they met when they were both under contract at Universal Pictures). He as actually married to my mom when they flew out to New York to meet with Tommy Dorsey regarding Ken replacing Sinatra. During that time period, Dorsey and Sinatra mended their differences and Ken ended up working with Step Fields after that.
Timbo24901 GaryJensen 21 months ago
Hi, Gary. I'm Tim Nicholas in South Carolina. I grew up in West Virginia. I watched Gunsmoke every week. Festus was always my favorite character, and he still is. What a talented guy! Thank you for this information. It touches me knowing that one of my favorite actors was your stepfather
betabit 37 months ago
I saw him on Perry Mason a while back. Thank goodness for MeTV. The shows are great and the website histories are terrific. I remember Festus (Ken Curtis) singing on Gunsmoke.
Darcsyde 52 months ago
I was watching an episode of Airwolf with Mr. Curtis in it, and I noticed the remnants of a stitched up scar over his right eye.
Does anyone know how he got it?
gtl 53 months ago
I realize several viewers preferred Dennis Weaver over Ken Curtis, but my favorite was Festus Haggen.
RedSamRackham gtl 45 months ago
* Dennis Weaver a great actor who quit Gunsmoke to escape being typecast as Chester. Festus indeed a good replacement. ☺
GaryGoltz 56 months ago
Ken Curtis was the co star of Ripcord the Ziv/UA show about a pair of skydivers for hire. Shug Fisher appeared as their pilot in many later epsiodes. Here is a link to the show's promo film & pilot episode -
Runeshaper 56 months ago
Even in a small town, living below a jail must have been interesting. It was cool that he was able to fill the shoes both Frank Sinatra & Roy Rogers with his singing talents. Having the chance to act with The Duke is AWESOME! Also, it mentions that he was the son-in-law of John Ford. I wouldn't be surprised if Ford helped get him a few roles, but it seems like Ken made it to fame all by himself. My parents & I have watched so many episodes of Gunsmoke, & it was really nice to learn all of these facts about Festus. Thanks for sharing this story!
Jlhoyt 56 months ago
I grew up in Tucson, where a lot of the Gunsmokes were filmed. My mother was an extra in many of them and over the years, she became friendly with the cast, they were all very nice people, but Ken Curtis was by far the nicest..he came to our home a few times for a home cooked meal.. I was about 10 years old at the time and he was super attentive and friendly, I got to ride his mule, he gave me an autographed photo, etc. he could not have been nicer. He also grew up about 30 mile from my dads small hometown in Colorado so they had a lot in common. Ken was far from the hillbilly he played on the show, he was a very articulate and refined man. We were all saddened when he passed.
Runeshaper Jlhoyt 56 months ago
Thanks for sharing that! Such a cool story & so AMAZING that you were able to meet such a GREAT man! Also, props to your mom for being an extra.
daDoctah 56 months ago
Here's Ken singing a love song to someone named Jeff:

cperrynaples daDoctah 56 months ago
That's a Jeff? Didn't know there were transgenders back then...LOL!!
Samuel cperrynaples 47 months ago
There use to be an actress named Jeff Donnell who played a nurse on GENERAL HOSPITAL who looked similar to the girl named Jeff in this picture. I bet it's the same person.
Toltepec cperrynaples 33 months ago
How about proving your ridiculous claim that Jeff Donnell was a transgender.
Joy 56 months ago
I read somewhere that Festus (Ken Curtis) was openly gay during the 60's when It was not "popular" to be "out". Is this true? Cuz if it is true, Festus was "da bomb"!
cperrynaples Joy 56 months ago
Well, after reading daDoctah's post above, I'm beginning to wonder...LOL!!
RedSamRackham Joy 45 months ago
* Whoopsy! It was actor Keene Curtis (not Ken) who was gay.
Joy 56 months ago
I read somewhere that Festus (Ken Curtis) was openly gay during the 60's when It was not "popular" to be "out". Is this true? Cuz if it is true, Festus was "da bomb"!
Dees526 Joy 47 months ago
He was married 3 times all to women so I'm guessing he wasn't gay...
Toltepec Joy 33 months ago
What’s with all of these idiotic claims? No, he was not gay.
harlow1313 56 months ago
"The Killer Shrews" was Ken's high-water mark as an actor.
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