Ken Curtis: Of Fields, Ford and Festus

I am old enough to remember Ken Curtis (1916-1991) as the kooky comic relief on Gunsmoke, as Matt Dillon’s deputy sidekick Festus. It’s rewarding to learn that he has a rich show biz pedigree, as well as bona fides that practically make him something like western royalty.

Born Curtis Wain Gates, he was the son of a Colorado sheriff. His family lived under the jail; his mother cooked the meals for the prisoners. Curtis was to base the character of Festus on one of the jail’s regular inmates, a local eccentric and town drunk who got into trouble on an almost weekly basis.

Music was Curtis’s entry into show business. His father played fiddle, his mother the pump organ, and his brother the banjo. Curtis himself played clarinet in high school. He studied medicine briefly at Colorado College, but preferred singing and participating in theatricals, so he dropped out and pursued singing as a career.

In 1941 Curtis was Frank Sinatra’s replacement in Tommy Dorsey’s band, until Dickie Haymes came in as the regular front man. He then sang for Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm. This resulted in his first film appearance in a 1941 movie short. From 1943 through 1945 he served in World War Two. Shortly after his discharge he was engaged to sing on Johnny Mercer’s radio program. The appearance made such an impression that he was signed by Columbia Pictures to star in a series of B movie westerns, backed by the Hoosier Hotshots. Funny to picture him as the romantic lead rather than the grizzled sidekick, eh? But he was good looking and sang beautifully, so the gig was his, while B movies were still popular. He starred in nine of these films through 1947. Through 1948 he hosted the radio program WWVA Jamboree. In 1949 he was hired to replace Roy Rogers as lead singer of The Sons of Pioneers, where he crooned such classics as “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky”.

It was his position with the Sons of the Pioneers that brought him into John Ford’s orbit, where he was central for over 15 years. The Sons of the Pioneers were featured in the Ford film Rio Grande (1950). Curtis married Ford’s daughter Barbara in 1952, making him a true part of the inner circle. He went on to appear in the Ford pictures The Quiet Man (1952), The Long Gray Line (1955), Mister Roberts (1955), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles (1957), The Horse Soldiers (1959), Two Rode Together (1961), Ford’s segment of How the West Was Won (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1964), as well as the pseudo-Ford film, John Wayne’s The Alamo (1960).

Outside the Ford universe, Curtis was in such films as The Missouri Traveler (1959), and The Young Land (1959). That same year he also produced the Grade Z horror classics The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster! On TV he did guest shots on Wagon Train, Rawhide, and Have Gun – Will Travel. From 1961 through 1963 he was a regular cast member on Ripcord, a series about skydivers.

Meantime, he began appearing on Gunsmoke on a recurring basis starting in 1959. Festus became a regular character in 1964, following the departure of Burt Reynolds. He was to continue in the role for 11 years, making him the series’ longest-serving sidekick. In ’64, the same year he took the Gunsmoke gig, he divorced Barbara Ford. Speaking of parachutes! John Ford only made one narrative feature after Curtis broke with him, and it had an all-female cast!

Beyond Gunsmoke, there was other stuff. He provided the voice of Nutsy the Vulture in Walt Disney’s country-flavored version of Robin Hood (1973). He appeared on such shows as Petrocelli, Grizzly Adams, Vega$, and Airwolf. He was a regular on the series The Yellow Rose (1983-84) with Sam Elliott, Cybil Shepherd, David Soul, Edward Albert and Noah Beery Jr. He was in Burt Kennedy’s TV movie Once Upon a Texas Train (1988) with Willie Nelson, Richard Widmark, Chuck Connors, and Shaun Cassidy. His last appearance was in Conagher (1991) with Sam Elliot and Katharine Ross.

For more on the history of show business see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,