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

SEE MORE: 8 out-of-this-world facts about James Arness

See Marshal Matt Dillon of 'Gunsmoke' fame like you never have before. READ MORE

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retacili 18 days ago
I had a great experience with
retacili 18 days ago
I had a great experience with
retacili 18 days ago
I had a great experience with
GaryGoltz 21 days 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 23 days 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 23 days 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 23 days 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 23 days ago
Here's Ken singing a love song to someone named Jeff:

cperrynaples daDoctah 21 days ago
That's a Jeff? Didn't know there were transgenders back then...LOL!!
Joy 25 days 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 21 days ago
Well, after reading daDoctah's post above, I'm beginning to wonder...LOL!!
Joy 25 days 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"!
harlow1313 25 days ago
"The Killer Shrews" was Ken's high-water mark as an actor.
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