Every “Gunsmoke” fan remembers Festus. He was one of the most popular characters on the show. But actor Ken Curtis actually appeared much earlier in the show’s run.
Curtis first appeared on “Gunsmoke” in a much smaller capacity. He played a half-Native American scout in the episode “Speak Me Fair” for instance, according to IMDB. Curtis played various roles during the series’ early days, making infrequent appearances.
But he wouldn’t play Festus for the first time until 1962 in the Season 8 Episode 13, “Us Haggens.”
Audiences and production must have loved Curtis in the role. They brought Curtis back as a different character, Kyle Kelly, a season later in Season 9, Episode 2, “Lover Boy.” That same season they brought both Festus and Curtis onto the show for good.
Ken Curtis Joins ‘Gunsmoke’
According to IMBd, director Andrew V. McLaglen encouraged production to consider Curtis and Festus as full time regulars on the show. He convinced the show to give him a chance on a trial basis. “Gunsmoke” was losing regular Dennis Weaver, who played Chester Goode on the show. And they needed a new actor to fill Chester’s role in the ensemble.
Curtis joined as the lovable character, who became a Deputy under Matt Dillon. The role was a memorable one. And Curtis quickly made an impression on audiences everywhere. While James Arness may have been the show’s lead, Curtis quickly became the show’s heart. It’s hard to imagine those later seasons without his presence.
Curtis based the character on a real-life local that he knew growing up. The man was named Cedar Jack, and he was the town drunk where Curtis was growing up. Cedar Jack often wound up spending the night in jail due to his antics. But the man made an impression on Curtis. Years later, Curtis conjured up his country twang and other characteristics and gave them to the character of Festus.
Curtis and Festus were here to stay. Joining the show in 1962, the actor appeared in more than 300 episodes of the show. He became the longest-running member of Dillon’s various deputies on the show. In fact, Curtis stayed on the show until 1975, the same year the network decided to take the western off the air for good. He’s still remembered fondly by the fanbase today.