Ken Curtis' mangy Festus beard was his Hollywood calling card

It helped shape his career as the comedic relief.

CBS Television Distribution

Some actors just aren't cut out to be the leading man. After all, we don't unanimously have chiseled features and square jaws and rugged good looks. Most actors are lucky to be recognized at all. So, when the world hands you a face not cut out for a matinee, how is it you go about a career in the pictures?

Everybody's path is different, but Ken Curtis' was set in motion by a day of fun on the set of John Ford's 1956 movie The Searchers. Curtis' career was already underway, as he'd married the famous director's daughter some years prior. But on the set of The Searchers, the Festus Haggen persona was born from playful banter with costar Jeffrey Hunter.

"One day Hunter and I got to kidding," said Curtis in a 1964 interview with the Akron Beacon Journal. "I started talking in my dry land dialect," referring to the regional accent from Curtis' hometown in Lamar, Colorado.

"Director John Ford overheard me and asked me to talk that way in the movie. As a result, my 'romantic' scene with Vera Miles was burned into a comedy scene."

While this may have been a setback for some, it instead put Ken Curtis' career in motion. In 1964, Dennis Weaver left Gunsmoke, and the creators brought Curtis in as Festus in Chester's absence.

"Sometimes I think I got the role because I've got the mangiest beard in Hollywood. At first, I felt grubby. Now I'm used to it. I don't even think about it when I'm out in public— not until I notice people staring at me."

Curtis was happy to be the comic relief character instead of pursuing lead roles.

"There's too much sameness to a leading man. I can have fun with Festus Haggen, but playing Jim Buckley on Ripcord got to be a drag."

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5 Comments

Avie 4 days ago
"Director John Ford overheard me and asked me to talk that way in the movie. As a result, my 'romantic' scene with Vera Miles was burned into a comedy scene."

That's TURNED into a comedy scene. BUT what's been omitted is that Curtis protested that he didn't want to play his Charlie McCorry character that way, and that that Charlie shouldn't be played that way.

But Ford was adamant, and Curtis's hands were tied, not just because Ford was his director -- just about the oldest and best respected one in the business -- but also, as noted in the article, Curtis's father-in-law.

In restrospect (and it doesn't take much hindsight to see it), Curtis was right and Ford wrong; as great a film as "The Searchers" is (and it's greater and deeper than even its greatest admirers know; there's been no writing or commentary on the film that truly and fully grasps what it is and encompasses), it is hurt and cheapened somewhat by the dumb-galoot characterization that Ford forced on Curtis.
BorisK 5 days ago
In the 1960s we saw him at Disneyland at that saloon show with comic piano player Mickey Finn.
jmworacle 5 days ago
Ken Curtis character in "Have Gun Will Travel" Monk was a classic. In his return I was shocked on what a beautiful voice he had.
CoreyC 6 days ago
Ken Curtis was in Mister Roberts. He played the sailor who delivered Mr Roberts' complaint letters to the Captain played by James Cagney.
WGH CoreyC 5 days ago
It's good to marry a famous director/producer's daughter
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