Ken Curtis, the actor behind beloved Gunsmoke character Festus Haggen and the son-in-law of Western film director John Ford, had quite the career as a singer, with his musical past creating minimal degrees of separation from Frank Sinatra and Roy Rogers.
Curtis, born Curtis Wain Gates on July 2, 1916, grew up in Las Animas, Colorado, where his father was the sheriff. By 1940, he lived in New York and worked as a singer for the NBC radio network.
In 1942, Curtis' first brush with fame came when he cut a few songs for Tommy Dorsey's orchestra. At the time, Dorsey's go-to vocalist was Sinatra. The common narrative that Curtis replaced Sinatra seems overblown, but that doesn't diminish that the future Festus collaborated with a fancy orchestra while living in New York City. He also worked for bandleader Shep Fields.
After serving in the Army infantry during World War II, Curtis signed with Columbia Pictures and began his film career. Early Western roles paired Curtis with other singing talents, from singing cowgirl Carolina Cotton to big screen regulars the Hoosier Hotshots. Curtis' first film as a leading man, 1945's Rhythm Round-Up, even featured Western swing pioneers Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys.
From 1949 to 1953, Curtis served as lead singer of the Country Music Hall of Fame singing group The Sons of the Pioneers. Prior to Curtis joining, the group featured Rogers, Bob Nolan and other singing cowboy icons and popularized the song "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." With Curtis at the helm, The Sons of the Pioneers scored hits with "Room Full of Roses" and "Ghost Riders in the Sky."
In 1950's Hollywood, Curtis became a regular in Ford's films, including the classic John Wayne films Rio Grande (1950), The Quiet Man (1952), The Searchers (1956), The Wings of Eagles (1957), The Horse Soldiers (1959), and How the West Was Won (1962). Curtis also appeared with Wayne in The Alamo (1960).
As alluded to before, Curtis was married to Ford's daughter, the former Barbara Ford, from 1952 to 1964.
Additional films of note featuring Curtis include Riders of the Pony Express (1949), Don Daredevil Rides Again (1951), The Last Hurrah (1958), The Missouri Traveler (1958), The Young Land (1959), Cheyenne Autumn (1964) and even Disney's animated classic Robin Hood (1973).
Curtis also owned his own production company during a golden era for sci-fi b-movies. It brought us schlocky favorites The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster (both from 1959).
Curtis first transitioned to the small screen in a 1961-'63 television series about parachuting, Ripcord. In '64, Curtis' Festus Haggen character debuted during the eighth season of CBS' long-running TV series Gunsmoke. The lovable, disheveled deputy remained in the world of Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness) and Miss Kitty (Amanda Blake) until the series ended in 1975. Curtis had appeared in Gunsmoke before, as a one-off character in the 1959 episode "Jayhawkers."
Before sealing his television legacy as Festus, Curtis appeared in the series Have Gun, Will Travel; Perry Mason; and Death Valley Days. Other shows listed in Curtis' IMDB credits include In the Heat of the Night, The Yellow Rose, Rawhide and Wagon Train.
Curtis' final film, Conagher, aired on TNT in 1991, the same year as the singer and actor's death.
Curtis died on April 28, 1991, in his sleep of a heart attack in Fresno, California. He was cremated, and his ashes were scattered in the Colorado flatlands.
After decades of Gunsmoke reruns, it's hard to separate Curtis from the beloved Festus character. Yet there's clearly more to his legacy, from a series of musical Westerns that blurred the line between motion pictures and early country radio to impressive runs alongside the Sons of the Pioneers and The Duke.
This article was originally published in April of 2020.
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