Happy Birthday Ken Curtis: Remembering the ‘Gunsmoke’ Actor’s Best Moments

by Megan Molseed

He is most widely known as the grumpy and irritable deputy on “Gunsmoke.” With his twangy high-pitched voice, Festus, played by Ken Curtis, has long been one of television’s most memorable characters. Especially for Western fans. For 13 years, “Gunsmoke” fans got to know the “hillbilly” deputy.

Born July 2, 1916, Curtis grew up in Las Animas, Colorado. He surely learned a lot about the inner-workings of his most famous character’s duties as a deputy from his father, who served as sherrif is Curtis’s home town.

To celebrate the late actor and singer’s birthday, Classic Movie Hub tweeted a warm message.

“Born Today, July 2, in 1916, Ken Curtis – Sons of Pioneers, Tommy Dorsey vocalist, over 60 roles including The Searchers, The Alamo, Mister Roberts -and of course Festus Hagen on TVs Gunsmoke!” the Tweet read, along with a photo of Curtis as we all knew him best. With his famous “five-o’clock shadow” and a cowboy hat.

“Gunsmoke’s” Ken Curtis First Found Fame as a Singer

According to the Ken Curtis IMDB biography, by the age of 24, the “Gunsmoke” star was working for the NBC radio network as a singer.

This may be a surprising piece of the actor’s history for some. The page notes that before his acting sucess, Ken Curtis was a vocalist for the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. It wasn’t until the late 1940s that the “Gunsmoke” actor broke into films, and later, television.

“He entered films in the late 1940s at the tail-end of the singing-cowboy period in a series of low-budget Westerns for Columbia Pictures,” the IMDB page said of Ken Curtis. “When that genre died out, Curtis turned to straight dramatic and comedy parts.”

Curtis’s Acting Career Started With a Family Connection

The actor was also the son-in-law of famous western film director, John Ford. Curtis was married to Ford’s daughter, Barbara from 1952 to 1964.

Curtis served in the Army infantry during World War II from 1943 until 1945.

According to a Wide Open Country article, the “Gunsmoke” actor began his acting career by signing with Columbia Pictures upon his return. According to the article, Curtis’s first leading man role was in the 1945 film “Rhythm Round-Up.”

From 1949 until 1953, Ken joined the ranks of Roy Rogers when he joined the Country Music Hall of Fame singing group, “The Sons of the Pioneers.” Curtis brought his own style to the group which was popularized during the “singing cowboy” era. “The Sons of the Pioneers” established such hits as “Room Full of Roses” and “Ghost Riders in the Sky” during Curtis’s time with the group.

“Gunsmoke’s” Festus Haggen character debuted during the eighth season of the hit Western series. Always a little disheveled, and sporting a constant “five o’clock shadow,” Festus Haggen quickly became a favorite among the “Gunsmoke” audiences. Curtis’s Festust remained one of the main characters on the hit CBS series until its end in 1975.

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