Ken Curtis stayed just as dirty as his character on Gunsmoke

Ken Curtis didn't mind being dirty... it's just what the role called for.

Image credit: The Everett Collection

Ken Curtis had a unique, long-running role on Gunsmoke, where he played Festus for over 300 episodes. Curtis was sprinting towards success while on the series, but he was also running from something else: A bath.

The only thing clean about Festus was his conscience, but we aren't sure even then.

"He's pretty wild," Curtis said in a 1963 interview with Fort Lauderdale News. "You might say he's a mangy character."

Although Festus might not have been the most clean cowboy around, he was a fan-favorite deputy who joined the show after he took over for Roger Ewing (Thad Greenwood). Curtis said that despite being dirty, Festus had one solid quality about him: Honesty.

"He's unpredictable," Curtis said. "But he's a man of his word – if he shakes hands on it."

With the sweat-stained beard and worn-out clothing down to his spurs, Curtis often took his Gunsmoke character on the road to promote the show and meet fans. 

He said he always wore his usual Festus get-up, including a dirty old cowboy hat, faded blue shirt and well-worn jeans.

"The wardrobe people supply me with the clothes," Curtis said in a 1971 interview with El Paso Herald-Post. "But the vests are the hardest to find. The hat is a replica of the one I wear on Gunsmoke. The original one is so fragile I have to be careful not to poke a hole in it."

According to the interview, Curtis would take a pair of dull scissors with him on the road to trim his beard when he couldn't stand wearing it anymore. He said: "I think the reason I got the part of Festus in the first place is because I have the mangiest beard West of the Mississippi."

Curtis kept his Festus beard intact and at the same length for both the TV series and while on the road performing at rodeos. And, of course, fans could recognize him... or smell him coming from a mile away.

"I don't mind people stopping me, though," Curtis said. "If it weren't for them, I wouldn't be where I am today. I'm delighted to get to talk to people."

According to the article, Curtis had the type of personality where many already considered him as an old friend, even if they'd never met before. Curtis said he escaped the "Hollywood syndrome," which takes hometown heroes and "pumps them full of big ego."

However, we think it was Festus who kept him humbled. 

The success of Gunsmoke came as a surprise to many people. The series has good morals, a leading man who doesn't get the girl and the language was so clean it probably could have been repeated at school.

"The great warmth that exists between the actors carries over to the screen," Curtis said. "I think people today want to know there are loyal friends who will stand by you no matter what, like the ones on Gunsmoke."

"I don't have any Shakespearean ambitions," Curtis said. "As long as they'll have me, I'll stay on with Gunsmoke. I'll be happy to do Festus until I retire."

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15 Comments

ElderX 10 months ago
I used to watch Gunsmoke with my Dad may he Rip and at 68 years old I still watch it Matt Dillion character was a law man that was firm but fair and did not kill a man unless he had no choice (today’s lawmen need to take notes).
Robertp 10 months ago
I met Mr Curtis at the Heart of Texas Colosseum. He was there with the Fair and Rodeo. I don’t recall the year but must have been around 1969 or 70. He wore the whole costume and rode Ruth. He shook hands with everyone he could as he rode by. He was my favorite Gunsmoke character. Not pretentious, or fancy, just pure gold in his heart.
phritzg 11 months ago
I remember him in the 1959 movie The Killer Shrews, mostly because his character was getting drunk and chain smoking.
tootsieg 11 months ago
Ken Curtis was in the movie “The Searchers.” I did not recognize him. Getting married, dressed in a nice suit, singing and playing his guitar. Quite the dude. Like so many people, I only knew him as “Festus”. Well rounded actor.
cripplious tootsieg 11 months ago
he was a founding member of the Sons of the Pioneers
NEliberal1 tootsieg 11 months ago
First saw him in "Mister Roberts," as Dolan.
https://www.nndb.com/people/052/000091776/
Coldnorth tootsieg 11 months ago
I wonder if he showered for that show.
Xsquid cripplious 8 months ago
That’s ridiculous. They were formed in 1933, he was with them 1949-1952.
Lee_F_Roy 11 months ago
I once met an incognito Ken Curtis at the New York State Fair. I was attending an outdoor performance by the Sons of the Pioneers, when I realized that the clean-shaven and well-dressed man standing beside me was that alter-ego of Gunsmoke's beloved deputy. Some contract dispute or salary dispute kept him from performing with the group and he seemed to enjoy going unrecognized by most of the crowd who were too young to remember his handsome face from the Sons' movies. We chatted quietly between songs and shook hands when the show was through.
Kaydee 11 months ago
Ken Curtis was a mangy dirty looking character on Gunsmoke that is certainly a fact. I often cringed watching Festus on the show because he was such a physical eyesore to me. However Ken Curtis always performed very well as Festus Hagen and should've won a few Emmy's for his talents. RIP Mr. Curtis "Don't cha see!"
Coldnorth Kaydee 11 months ago
He certainly played his role, in all aspects. He dresses and looks like what I would think a real cowboy in that time period would be. I thought this eyes in Gunsmoke were perfect. They either looked thoughtful, or untrusting or angry, but to me they projected what he was thinking with the same expression
KawiVulc 11 months ago
"could have been repeated", sure, back then... these days some of the language ("gun") will get ya a perp walk.
LoveMETV22 11 months ago

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Kidding aside, Ken Curtis was great in his role as Festus.
KJExpress LoveMETV22 11 months ago
Hee hee. 🤣 🧔
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