Ken Curtis

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For other people with the same name, see Kenneth Curtis (disambiguation).
Ken Curtis
Ken Curtis.jpg
Born Curtis Wain Gates
(1916-07-02)July 2, 1916
Lamar, Prowers County, Colorado, United States
Died April 28, 1991(1991-04-28) (aged 74)
Fresno, California, United States
Cause of death Heart Attack stroke
Occupation Actor, singer
Years active 1941–1991
Height 6 ft 0 in (183 cm)
Spouse(s) Lorraine Page (1943-?)
Barbara Ford (1952–1964; div.)
Torrie Ahern Connelly (1966–1991; his death)
Children 2
The old Bent County jail in Las Animas in southeastern Colorado, where Ken Curtis lived as a boy

Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 – April 28, 1991) was an American singer and actor best known for his role as Festus Haggen on the long-running CBS western television series Gunsmoke. Although he appeared on Gunsmoke in other earlier roles, he was first cast in his iconic role in season 8 episode 13, "Us Haggens". His next appearance was with his mule, Ruth, in "Prairie Wolfer" in season 9 episode 16, which also features Noah Beery Jr., as a villain.


Early years[edit]

Though born Curtis Wain Gates in Lamar in Prowers County in southeastern Colorado, he lived his first ten years on a ranch on Muddy Creek in eastern Bent County. The family moved in 1926 to Las Animas, the county seat of Bent County, so that his father, Dan Sullivan Gates, could run for sheriff. The campaign was successful, and Gates served from 1927 to 1931 as Bent County sheriff.[1] The family lived below the jail, since the jail was the whole second floor and his mother, Nellie Sneed Gates, cooked for the prisoners. The jail is located for historical preservation purposes on the grounds of the Bent County Courthouse in Las Animas.

Curtis was the quarterback of his Bent County High School football team and played in the school band. He graduated in 1935. During World War II, Curtis served in the United States Army from 1943 to 1945.[2]

He attended Colorado College to study medicine but left after a short time in order to pursue his musical career.[3]


Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen and James Arness as Matt Dillon, 1968

Curtis was a singer before moving into acting and combined both careers once he entered films.[4] Curtis was with the Tommy Dorsey band in 1941, and succeeded Frank Sinatra as vocalist until Dick Haymes contractually replaced Sinatra in 1942. Curtis may have served simply as insurance against Sinatra's likely defection, and it was Dorsey who suggested that Gates change his name to Ken Curtis. 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[5] with The Hoosier Hot Shots, playing singing-cowboy romantic leads. Curtis met his first wife, Lorraine Page, at Universal Studios, and they were married in 1943. For much of 1948, Curtis was a featured singer and host of the long-running country music radio program WWVA Jamboree.

Ken Curtis joined the Sons of the Pioneers (the foremost Western vocal group in history) as a lead singer from 1949 to 1952. His big hits with the group included "Room Full of Roses" and "(Ghost) Riders in the Sky".

Through his second marriage, Curtis was a son-in-law of director John Ford. Curtis teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande,[citation needed] The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo and How The West Was Won. Curtis also joined Ford, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon in the comedy Navy classic Mister Roberts. He was featured in all three of the only films produced by Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney's C. V. Whitney Pictures: The Searchers (1956); The Missouri Traveler (1958) with Brandon deWilde and Lee Marvin; and The Young Land (1959) with Patrick Wayne and Dennis Hopper. In 5 Steps to Danger (1957 film) he is uncredited as FBI Agent Jim Anderson. Curtis also produced two extremely low-budget monster films, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. In 1959 he appeared as cowhand Phil Jakes on Gunsmoke S4 Eph 21 Jayhawkers.

Curtis guest-starred five times on the Western television series, Have Gun Will Travel with Richard Boone. He also guest-starred as circus performer Tim Durant on an episode of Perry Mason, "The Case of the Clumsy Clown", which aired on November 5, 1960. Then he co-starred with Larry Pennell in the 1961–1963 first-run syndicated television series Ripcord, a half-hour action and adventure show on a skydiving service company of its namesake. Curtis played the role of Jim Buckley and Pennell was his young disciple Ted McKeever. This program helped generate interest in sport parachuting.

In 1964, Curtis appeared as muleskinner Graydon in the episode "Graydon's Charge" of the syndicated Western television series, Death Valley Days. In the story line, one of the last attacks of the American Civil War in New Mexico Territory is pending against a renegade Confederate camp. Denver Pyle played Graydon's partner, Ortho Williams. They eye the attention of a widow (Cathy Lewis) and seek to show their courage to win her hand. Graydon agrees with reluctance to send his mules, laden with dynamite, into the rival camp. This episode was semicomedic.[6]


Curtis remains best known for his role as Festus, the scruffy, cantankerous and illiterate deputy in Gunsmoke. While Marshal Matt Dillon had a total of five helpers over two decades, Festus held the role the longest (11 years), in 239 episodes, and was the most colorful. Festus was patterned after "Cedar Jack" (Frederick Munden), a man from Curtis' Las Animas childhood. Cedar Jack, who lived 15 miles south of town, made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis observed many times that Jack came to Las Animas, where he would often end up drunk and in his dad's jail. Festus' character was known, in part, for his nasally, twangy, rural accent which Curtis developed for the role, but which did not reflect Curtis' actual voice.

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 was not in production, and even for some years after the show was canceled. Curtis also campaigned for Ronald Reagan in 1976, during the future 40th President's attempt to secure the Republican nomination (from incumbent Gerald Ford).

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. A decade later, he returned to television in the short-lived Western series The Yellow Rose, in which he performed most of his scenes with Noah Beery, Jr..

Last years[edit]

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

Curtis' last acting 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 it. He joined the Gunsmoke cast in 1967, superseding the previous deputy, Thaddeus "Thad" Greenwood, played by Roger Ewing.

Curtis married Torrie Connelly in 1966. They were married until his death in 1991 and he had two step- children.[3][7]

A statue of Ken Curtis as Festus can be found at 430 Pollasky Avenue in Clovis, California, in Fresno County in front of the Educational Employees Credit Union. In his later years, Curtis resided in Clovis.[8]


Curtis died on April 28, 1991, in his sleep of a heart attack in Fresno, California.[9] He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.

Selected filmography[edit]



  1. ^ "Gunsmoke:". Retrieved 2016-09-03. 
  2. ^ "Gunsmoke:". Retrieved 2016-09-03. 
  3. ^ a b Ap (1991-05-01). "Ken Curtis, Actor, 74, Festus on 'Gunsmoke'". The New York Times. ISSN 0362-4331. Retrieved 2016-09-03. 
  4. ^ "Gunsmoke:". Retrieved 2016-09-03. 
  5. ^ [1] "Ken Curtis appeared in a number of cheesy movies,"
  6. ^ "Graydon's Charge". Internet Movie Data Base. January 5, 1964. Retrieved August 5, 2015. 
  7. ^ "Death: Torrie Ahern Connelly Curtis". 1997-11-13. Retrieved 2016-09-03. 
  8. ^ [2] "Ken Curtis statue,"
  9. ^ [3] Ken Curtis Obituary, LA Times,

External links[edit]