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Ken Curtis 1916-1991

Country : Lamar, Colorado
Profession : Actor
Date of birth : 1916-07-02
Date of death : 1991-04-28
Cause of Death : Natural causes

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Ken Curtis (2 July 1916 – 28 April 1991) was an American singer and actor best known for his role as Festus Haggen on the long-running CBS western drama, Gunsmoke.


Early years

Curtis was born Curtis Wain Gates and reared in Las Animas near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. His father, Dan Gates, was the sheriff. The family lived above the jail and his mother, Nellie Sneed Gates, cooked for the prisoners.


Curtis was a singer before moving into acting, and combined both careers once he entered movies, performing with the popular Sons of the Pioneers from 1949 to 1953 as well as singing with the iconic Tommy Dorsey band. Curtis replaced Frank Sinatra as vocalist for the Dorsey band, but details of Curtis's relationship with the band are unclear. He was with the Dorsey band in 1941, prior to Sinatra's departure, and may have served simply as insurance against Sinatra's likely defection. Dick Haymes actually replaced Sinatra, in 1942. Curtis then joined Shep Fields and His New Music], an all-reeds band that dispensed with a brass section.

Columbia Pictures signed Curtis to a contract in 1945. He starred in a series of musical westerns with The Hoosier Hot Shots, playing singing-cowboy romantic leads. For much of 1948, Curtis was a featured singer and host of the long-running country music radio program WWVA Jamboree.

The son-in-law of director John Ford, Curtis teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo and How The West Was Won. Curtis also teamed with Ford, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon in the comedy Navy classic Mister Roberts. In the 1950s, Curtis tried his hand at producing two extremely low-budget monster films, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. Curtis also guest starred on an episode of Perry Mason—as a circus clown.

Curtis also co-starred with Larry Pennell in the 1962 syndicated television series Ripcord, a half-hour drama about a skydiving service company. Curtis played the role of "Jim Buckley" and Pennell was "Ted McKeever." The series helped generate interest in the sport of parachuting.


Curtis remains best known for his role as Festus, the scruffy, cantankerous, functionally illiterate deputy in Gunsmoke. While Marshal Matt Dillon had a total of five deputies over two decades, Festus held the badge the longest (eleven years), in 239 episodes, and was the most colorful. Festus was patterned after "Cedar Jack", a man from Curtis' Las Animas childhood. Cedar Jack, who lived about forty miles out of town, made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis observed the many times Jack would come to Las Animas, where he would usually end up drunk and in jail.

Besides engaging in the usual personal appearances most television stars undertake to promote their program, Curtis also traveled around the country performing a western-themed stage show at fairs, rodeos and other venues when Gunsmoke wasn't in production, and even for some years after the show was canceled.

In two episodes of Gunsmoke, Carroll O'Connor was a guest-star; years later Curtis guest-starred as a retired police detective on O'Connor's NBC program In the Heat of the Night. He voiced Nutsy the vulture in Disney's 1973 animated film Robin Hood. In 1983 he returned to television in the short-lived western series The Yellow Rose.

Personal life

In 1981, Curtis was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.

His last role was as the aging cattle rancher "Seaborn Tay" in the television production Conagher (1991), by western author Louis L'Amour. Sam Elliott starred in the lead role, and Curtis' Gunsmoke costar Buck Taylor (Newly O'Brien) played a bad man in the same film. Buck Taylor's father, Dub Taylor had a minor role in the film. Taylor joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1967, superseding the previous deputy, Thaddeus "Thad" Greenwood, played by Roger Ewing.

Curtis died in his sleep of natural causes in Fresno, California. He was cremated and his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.

Gunsmoke Deputy Festus Haggen (1964-75)

Conagher (1-Jul-1991)
Once Upon a Texas Train (3-Jan-1988)
Pony Express Rider (Nov-1976)
Robin Hood (8-Nov-1973) [VOICE]
Cheyenne Autumn (3-Oct-1964)
Two Rode Together (26-Jul-1961)
The Alamo (24-Oct-1960)
The Killer Shrews (25-Jun-1959)
The Horse Soldiers (12-Jun-1959)
The Last Hurrah (24-Oct-1958)
The Missouri Traveler (21-Jan-1958)
Spring Reunion (Mar-1957)
The Wings of Eagles (22-Feb-1957)
The Searchers (13-Mar-1956)
Mister Roberts (30-Jul-1955)

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