‘Gunsmoke’: ‘Festus’ Star Ken Curtis Was Also a Country Singer

by Matthew Wilson
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Before he was everyone’s favorite character Festus on “Gunsmoke,” actor Ken Curtis quickly made a name for himself with his singing voice.

He was the “Gunsmoke” actor that took over for Frank Sinatra in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. But Curtis also sang in a country-western band as well. Curtis was part of the Sons of the Pioneers.

That singing group launched the careers of both Roy Rogers and Bob Nolan. The group became known for the hit song “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.”

But Curtis didn’t join the Sons of the Pioneers until 1949. He became the lead singer of the group, a position he held until 1953. During his tenure, the group recorded versions of songs such as “Room Full of Roses” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky.”

Curtis’ singing voice was actually a great success to his film career. Productions cast him in films as a singing cowboy early in his career. He appeared in one of his first leading roles in 1945’s “Rhythm Round-Up.”

Ken Curtis Joins ‘Gunsmoke’

During the Ninth Season of “Gunsmoke,” Curtis joined the cast in a regular capacity as Festus. Curtis had previously played the character during a Season Eight episode.

But that appearance was initially meant to be a one-off appearance. Curtis had played various roles throughout the series before then, appearing infrequently.

But “Gunsmoke” mainstay Dennis Weaver was leaving the series after nine seasons. The show’s production was looking to fill the hole in the show. Likewise, actor Burt Reynolds was leaving the following season as well. “Gunsmoke” brought Curtis in to play everyone’s favorite hillbilly turned deputy on the show. Curtis based the character on a local from his youth. And Festus quickly became a hit with audiences everywhere.

Curtis joined the show during Season Nine and stayed on the show for another decade as the character. In fact, the actor played the role for more than 300 episodes. He became one of the longest-running members of Dillon’s crew as a result.

Curtis starred in the show until it went off the air in 1975. The character became a large part of the show’s success in its later seasons. Festus often acted as a moral center to the show and Dodge City’s inhabitants. Though he starred in numerous western films, audiences today perhaps best remember Curtis for his role in the series. But you can also find some of his songs online as well.

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