Ken Curtis did not mind playing Festus Haggen on Gunsmoke but he wanted people to know that he was more than a big mess. Festus wasn’t the cleanest cat around Dodge City. After all, when you’re working hard with Marshal Matt Dillon (James Arness), you might not have time to take a shower here and there.
Yet when it comes to being presentable when offscreen, Curtis took that seriously. He would work at looking cleaned up all the time.
“I have to wear my best clothes offstage,” Curtis told the Wisconsin State Journal in 1965. “Otherwise, I’d be rousted by the police for being a bum. I must have a few days’ growth of beard for the show, so I have to counterbalance my appearance as much as possible.”
Yes, the scruffy beard look was as much a staple of Festus as him yelling out “Matthew” toward Dillon. But the one-time Big Band singer knew how important it was to appear in public looking good.
Ken Curtis of ‘Gunsmoke’ Kept Dirt Off
When you ride horses as part of your work, there’s no doubt that dirt and grime will kick up from the dirt. It leaves pants with dusty, dirty areas around the bottom of a pair of jeans. Festus rode horses yet also walked around the streets of Dodge City, where a lot of action in Gunsmoke originated.
As for Curtis, he was born in Colorado and grew up on a ranch, MeTV reports. That’s where Curtis learned to ride horses, one thing that helped him secure his TV role.
But he was not a big fan of Festus’ horse on the show. “It doesn’t have any reins or anything, and I have to get it going with hees and haws,” Curtis said.
He’s quite aware that fans seeing him away from TV might be surprised by his appearance. Why? Because some of them expected to see Curtis always looking like Festus. Yet he didn’t want to present himself as a dirty, unkempt person.
“When the script calls for me to look even worse than usual I wear my sincere black suit offstage,” Curtis said. “But I’d rather just run around in sports shirts, sweaters, and slacks. Even then, I have to be clean as a pin and neatly pressed so I won’t be mistaken for one of the local beatniks.”
Actor Changed How People See Him
We don’t think anyone would come up with one single way to observe Festus on Gunsmoke. He’s one tough nut to crack personality-wise. While Festus is loyal to Dillon, Curtis is tired of people only seeing his character in one specific way.
“He has a lot of dimensions,” Curtis said. “Festus may look like the world’s biggest mess, but underneath it all lies a heart of pure gold brick.” That plays out in his loyalty to Dillon as a deputy. Curtis appeared in 304 episodes of Gunsmoke as Festus. But he also made four appearances in Gunsmoke episodes as a completely different character.
As for his musical career, Curtis, for a while, sang with Tommy Dorsey’s Big Band orchestra. He’s even part of a musical trivia question. Frank Sinatra left Dorsey’s band for brighter lights in 1941, and Dorsey was in a bind. So, he turned to Curtis and had him sing Dorsey’s music. He would be replaced by Dick Haymes in 1942, who was under contract to sing with the band.
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