Ken Curtis said Festus had more to offer Gunsmoke than Chester Goode
"Chester was always whining along behind Matt," Curtis joked.
Ken Curtis fans will tell you that the Gunsmoke episode "Hard Luck Henry" is one of the funniest ones focused on Festus.
In this 13th-season episode, the audience meets more of Festus' extended family, with the delightful twist being that he's the brains of the whole bunch. It's one of those rare hours in the Gunsmoke run where Marshal Matt Dillon is hardly around. Rarer yet, you hardly miss him. You're laughing too hard at what Festus and his family get into.
When Curtis joined Gunsmoke after Dennis Weaver's exit, he knew he had some big shoes to fill. He told the Daily Advertiser in 1971 that for a long time, he was worried his Festus wouldn't ever truly replace Weaver's character, Chester Goode, and would always be viewed as a lesser substitute.
But episodes like "Hard Luck Henry" proved to Curtis that Festus actually had a wider range and could do more for the show than Chester ever could — because he realized Festus could carry an entire episode if you needed him to.
"He does things on his own, while Chester was always whining along behind Matt," Curtis joked.
To build out this iconic character as he was written into the Gunsmoke universe, the story goes that Curtis actually arrived at his audition with his idea of how to portray the character fully formed from previous work the actor did on Have Gun – Will Travel.
On Have Gun – Will Travel, Curtis played a character named Monk, a pelt scavenger, for a couple of episodes. According to Curtis, "Festus is the same character."
Describing Monk during his interview with the Daily Advertiser, Curtis recalled that in one episode, "Monk inherited half-interest in a bawdy house, but smelled so bad they wouldn’t let him in."
The original inspiration for Monk, and thus also for Festus, goes back even further than Curtis' work on Have Gun – Will Travel, and into his childhood growing up in Las Animas, Colorado.
When Curtis was a boy, he remembered a real character he often encountered who went by the name of Cedar Jack.
Cedar Jack was one of those town locals whose story everyone seemed to know. Curtis explained how he came to know Cedar Jack to The Daily Times-News in 1970:
"A few miles out of Las Animas were cedar brakes and he could cut down cedar trees for fence posts," Curtis said. "He'd stay out a few months and load up his mule-drawn wagon with these cedar posts. Then he'd come into town and that's when us boys would all see him. He'd sell his posts and take the money and get roaring drunk. And he'd spend all his money in a couple of days and then go back out to the cedar brakes again."
Curtis funneled some of Cedar Jack's nature into his portrayal of Festus, creating one of TV Westerns' most iconic characters as a sort of tribute to this hometown legend who always stuck out in his mind.
In 1971, Curtis said he was still wondering what happened to Cedar Jack.