Ken Curtis wore suits offscreen to escape his character's image on Gunsmoke

For as much work as he put into developing his character, he had to work even harder to strip the image of 'Festus' away.

After being associated with such a smelly, dirty character for 20 years, it's good to try something new — even if it's just doing a little more laundry from time to time.

This was the case for Ken Curtis, who played the role of Festus in Gunsmoke (1955). With that much time as one very distinctive character, Curtis found himself looking for ways to lose his character's image.

Although he loved his role in the hit series, he was growing tired of the assumptions about his personality, hygiene, and accent while in public.

He wanted to refine the way people saw him in real life; one suit at a time. Festus was the great unwashed slob of the Old West, but Curtis had a bit more class. 

"I have to wear my best clothes offstage," Curtis said in a 1965 interview with the Wisconsin State Journal. "Otherwise, I'd be rousted by the police for being a bum. It's necessary for me to have a few days' growth of beard for the show, so I have to counterbalance my appearance as much as possible."

According to the interview, Curtis was born in Colorado and was raised on a ranch. He even knew a thing or two about riding horses, which helped prepare him for his role on Gunsmoke.

Although he grew up riding horses, in the interview, he admitted that he didn't like the horse Festus had to ride in the series. He added: "It doesn't have any reins or anything, and I have to get it going with hees and haws."

Festus fit Curtis well because of his upbringing. He related to and understood where Festus was coming from. But for as much work as he put into developing the character on Gunsmoke, he had to put in double the work to strip the image of 'Festus' away. 

"When the script calls for me to look even worse than usual I wear my sincere black suit offstage," Curtis said. "But I'd rather just run around in sports shirts, sweaters, and slacks. Even then, I have to be clean as a pin and neatly pressed so I won't be mistaken for one of the local beatniks."

Despite being one of the dirtiest men in the Old West, Curtis grew attached to his character and grew to love him. 

"He has a lot of dimensions," Curtis said. "Festus may look like the world's biggest mess, but underneath it all lies a heart of pure gold brick."

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24 Comments

FestusFan2312 18 days ago
Ken Curtis is so overlooked. The guy replaced Frank Sinatra with the Dorsey band, was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, and was a great actor. Though the role of Festus is a fan favorite, Curtis was so much more.
slim115W 20 days ago
Ken Curtis was a very talented guy. He had a fantastic singing voice and his character acting was fantastic. I guess he played the happy go lucky buffon Festus too well!
DeannaT 20 days ago
I love watching all the westerns on Saturdays. I'm so glad MeTv added Wild Wild West. I used to watch in the middle 70s & have yet to remember any one that I've already watched. Love me some Festus ❤️ Thanks MeTv for all the westerns I love watching them all!
bjr1959 20 days ago
Love the western on METV. Love Gunsmoke, Wagon Train with the great Ward Bond and Rawhide. THANK YOU so much for showing all of the show. I hate it that other stations dad don't let the credits roll at the end. I love to see them. If I think I remember an actor, I can watch the show go off and see. Especially Rawhide. The show is not over til Gill Favor says "head em up, move em out". And then the rest of the wonderful song that I always sing to. Again Thank you so much for showing ALL of the show.
PierreKhoury 20 days ago
Tune in the Gunsmoke episode called, "Lover Boy" you'll see him cleaned up and he played a good
love'em & leave'em character!
HectorV 20 days ago
Festus and Doc were the comedy duo of Gunsmoke. And in the show the occasional spats and arguments with each other were in the heat of the moment ( so to speak) but the love and respect they had for each other was sincere.
JH21 20 days ago
You talk about Ken wearing suits but don't show any.
Suzanneishere 20 days ago
Festus is Festus regardless of the wardrobe. Whenever I see Ken Curtis I think "Festus". That simply means he did an excellent job of making his character memorable.
jimwills2010 20 days ago
A couple of things... Festus was not on Gunsmoke for 20 years. 10-12 tops.
And the "horse" he rode was a mule, so...
clovergirl 20 days ago
Festus for the rest of us. I just had to post this.
HoneyBee456 20 days ago
Gunsmoke was a really good show. I try to watch it as often as I can
daDoctah 21 days ago
Wouldn't have had that problem if "Ripcord" had just stayed on the air.
Andybandit 22 days ago
I like Festus, I like him better then Chester. I am probably the only one who thinks so.
cyh5270 Andybandit 20 days ago
I LOVE me some Festus. I always thought he was handsome and he was in one of John Wayne's movies, maybe two that I can recall. I can't remember the name of the movies right off but Ken Curtis was much younger and boy could that man sing. He had such a beautiful voice and he was so handsome. Young or older Ken Curtis (Festus), I always thought he was handsome. Like the saying goes "beauty is in the eye of the beholder." As far as Chester, I really didn't care too much for him because he always seem like an idiot to me.
Cowgirl cyh5270 20 days ago
He was the lead singer on The Sons of the Pioneers and they sang in Rio Grande. He was John Ford's son-in-law and was in Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles (1957), The Horse Soldiers (1959), The Alamo (1960), and How the West Was Won (1962).
CarolKelley Cowgirl 20 days ago
His role in The Searchers was hilarious! The wedding-that-wasn't between Laurie and Charlie McCorry is one of my favorite film weddings although we only see the preliminaries because Martin Pawley returns after hunting for Debbie for years. The two men start fighting. If you haven't seen this scene, you need to watch it. I also loved Ken Curtis as Dolan in Mister Roberts.
tnphil CarolKelley 18 days ago
It was a hoot. A gentleman's fight.

Tidbit: Hunter who played Martin Pawley on The Searchers played Jesus on in King of Kings.
FestusFan2312 cyh5270 18 days ago
I think most serious Gunsmoke fans love Festus. Chester wasn’t much more than a one dimensional character, a typical sidekick. Festus displayed a comical side, of course, but he was serious, sensitive, and embraced a self-confidence not often displayed by Chester. Festus was a character an entire episode could be built around, not needing Matt to make more than a cameo appearance.
hickskat84 22 days ago
He was only on the show for about 10 years, not 20, and he rode a mule named Ruth, not a horse.
cyh5270 hickskat84 20 days ago
You're right. It was not a horse but a mule.
Cowgirl hickskat84 20 days ago
He was on Gunsmoke from 1963 to 1975 when the show ended. I also preferred Festus to Chester and although Ken Curtis guest starred in several episodes, I wish that he had been on the show from the beginning. I do remember him singing in one episode. I think it was with Buddy Ebsen.
Runeshaper 22 days ago
More important than the threads, was the "heart of pure gold brick".
tnphil Runeshaper 18 days ago
I remember many years ago when I heard Ken sing for my first time....He sang Tumbling Tumbleweeds....I just sat there with my jaw dropped. Much like the first time I heard Gomer (Jim Nabors) sing.
Runeshaper tnphil 18 days ago
So cool! Thanks for sharing (-:
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