Born Curtis Wain Gates on July 2, 1916 in Lamar, Colorado
Ken Curtis grew up in nearby Las Animas, Colorado. His father was Dan Gates and his mother was Nellie Sneed Gates. His father was elected county sheriff when Curtis was 12. The jail was also his home where the living quarters were downstairs and the cells were upstairs. He helped out around the jail, carrying the meals his mother cooked to the inmates while she stood guard with a shotgun. He played saxophone in high school and later attended Colorado College in Colorado Springs where he planned to study medicine.
First career steps
He discovered a passion for singing and songwriting and left college to try his hand at the music business, moving to Los Angeles in 1938 where he became a staff vocalist for NBC Radio. In Los Angeles he came to the attention of Harold Arlen (Wizard of Oz composer), who was so impressed with Curtis' vocals he hired him to record a song which he intended to sell to one of the big bands of the day. Tommy Dorsey didn't buy the song but liked Curtis' voice so much he hired him as a replacement for Frank Sinatra who had just left the band. Working for Dorsey led Curtis to move to New York. Dorsey didn't like the name Curtis Gates so had his new prospect change his name to Ken Curtis.
This interlude brought to you by World War II
Curtis' singing career was sidelined by World War II. He enlisted in the Army in 1942 where he served in the infantry in the Pacific until his discharge in 1945.
Meanwhile, back at the microphone
Resuming his singing career after his tour of duty in the military, he was doing various guest spots, one of which was for a program hosted by Johnny Mercer. On the program he sang 'Tumbling Tumbleweeds' and caught the ear of Columbia Pictures, who cast him as their next singing cowboy. Curtis made 8 western action/musicals for Columbia during 1945-46. By 1947 his contract with Columbia had expired and so had the American love affair with the singing cowboy. He worked in radio for the next couple of years until 1949, where he started to get movie roles in a number of low budget westerns. He also began his association with The Sons of the Pioneers, an established western singing group. His work with the singing group provided a stable career and led to his exposure to other opportunities.
Ken has a better idea
The Sons of the Pioneers did soundtrack recordings for director John Ford in his 1949 film Wagon Master, and again in 1950 for Rio Grande. The group appeared in the latter film and Curtis even had a speaking part. Ford was impressed enough to use Curtis in his 1952 film The Quiet Man. In this association with Ford he also impressed the director's daughter Barbara, whom he married in 1952. Curtis left The Sons of the Pioneers in 1953 ostensibly to pursue his acting career, but had no credits during either '53 or '54. He rejoined The Sons of the Pioneers in 1955, doing studio work with them but not on their tours. He soon ended his work with the group.
Ford becomes job # One
During 1955 he landed roles with his father-in-law in several minor roles. In 1956's film The Searchers his part was to be a serious one. Clowning around on the set, he was overheard by Ford doing his lines using what he termed a 'dry land' accent. Ford requested he do his lines using that style. That was the progenitor of his later characterization of Festus Haggen.
Spreading his wings
During 1959 Curtis deviated from his acting career a bit to create his own production company. He produced a few low budget films including The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster, both in 1959. They each cost about $100,000 to make while grossing over $1 million each, a very astute business move.
Ken discovers the small screen
The year 1959 saw Curtis appear on TV in his first appearance on Gunsmoke. He also appeared on episodes of Wagon Train, Have Gun; Will Travel, Rawhide, and Perry Mason. Curtis landed his first recurring series role in TV in 1961's Ripcord, a show about skydiving. It had a 76 episode run. Early in the series Curtis and co-star Larry Pennell did some skydiving on their own to get the feel of the sport. The studio soon ended their skydiving adventures because of the risks involved and insurance worries.
A fateful beginning
Ken Curtis made his first appearance as Festus Haggen on December 8, 1962. His work was met with approval and earned him another appearance as the character. When Dennis Weaver departed the show in 1964 it created a vacuum. The show's cast had been stable for 9 years until his departure. His character as Marshal Matt Dillon's sidekick Chester Goode had earned Weaver a niche in the hearts of the fans. Casting about for a replacement was a daunting prospect, one the producers didn't enjoy. Curtis was the solution, allowing his Festus Haggen character to fill the vacuum with a character who wasn't a clone of the departed Weaver. Viewer reaction was predictably mixed, but was largely positive. Curtis was grateful for the opportunity, saying he hoped the show would continue for 10 more years. He was almost right- the show lasted 11 more years, ending in 1975.
The same year he landed the Gunsmoke role, he lost a wife, divorcing his wife Barbara in 1964. That year also saw him appear in his last film for John Ford, appearing in Cheyenne Autumn, which was Ford's last film. For the next 11 years Curtis had no film projects except doing the voice of Nutsy in Disney's 1973 animated feature Robin Hood. Ken Curtis remarried in 1966 to former rodeo secretary Torrie Connelly.
A sad farewell
When Gunsmoke ended in 1975, the break was a difficult one for Curtis. He felt he had lost his family. He had immersed himself in his character and was proud of the work he and his fellow cast members had done. He liked that they had made good family entertainment that everyone could watch without worry of being offensive.
Keeping his hand in
From 1974-78 he took Festus on the road with the group The Dodge City Four, playing rodeos and fairs across the country. He appeared in a few more western roles in the late 70's and early 80's, including How the West was Won with James Arness, Pony Express Rider (1976), and Lost (1983). In 1981 he, (along with the other cast members of Gunsmoke), were inducted into The Hall of Great Western Performers of The National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum. He considered non-western roles but declined pursuing that avenue, finding his heart simply wasn't in it. In 1983 Ken Curtis had a role in the short-lived western series The Yellow Rose starring Sam Elliott and Cybil Shepherd. After the end of the series Curtis was semi-retired, doing a few personal appearances and signing a few autographs. He appeared in four more TV shows. They were Airwolf (1986), Once Upon a Texas Train with Willie Nelson in (1988), In the Heat of the Night (1990), and Conagher with Sam Elliott (1991).
A peaceful ending
Ken Curtis died at his ranch in Clovis, California on April 28, 1991. He died in his sleep from a heart attack. His ashes were spread over his beloved Colorado flatlands, place of his birth.
Ken Curtis was known for his portrayal of scraggly, illiterate and cantankerous Festus Haggen, making a memorable character come to life for the enjoyment of millions of fans. His rants with 'Doc' Adams, played by Milburn Stone, were classic Gunsmoke. He never got the girl, never rode a white horse, never got to be Marshal. He rode his mule Ruth, was happy to be deputy, and earned his place in American western film and TV history.