From a childhood in a jailhouse to filling the shoes of Frank Sinatra.
With his perpetual five-o’clock shadow, tattered hat and reedy voice, Festus Haggen is one of the most colorful characters in television history. We certainly spent a lot of time with the hillbilly-turned-deputy. Introduced on Gunsmoke in 1962, Festus appeared in 300 or so episodes all the way through 1975.
Ken Curtis, the talented man behind the scruff, was just as charming but far different from his character. A former high school quarterback, Curtis left behind his academic pursuit of medicine to sing. His early showbiz career flourished behind a microphone. His crooning skills landed him on the big screen. From cowboy pictures, he made the leap to TV Westerns.
Here are six surprising facts you might not have known about this legend.
1. He grew up in a jail.
No wonder he was so comfortable upholding the law in Dodge City alongside Marshal Matt Dillon. Curtis’ dad was the sheriff of Bent County, in Southeastern Colorado (about 190 miles due west of Dodge City). The jail was located on the second floor of a brick building in Las Animas, seen here. The Curtis family lived on the first floor!
2. He based Festus on a real man named “Cedar Jack.”
As Curtis was growing up, he became familiar with a local feller named Cedar Jack. Living outside of town, Cedar Jack was sort of the Ernest T. Bass meets Otis Campbell of Las Animas, often ending up in dad’s jail cell. Ol’ Cedar Jack made an impression on young Curtis, who later appropriated Jack’s nasally, twangy voice and mannerisms for Festus.
3. He replaced Frank Sinatra in a big band.
In the early 1940s, Curtis landed a plum gig as a singer for the Tommy Dorsey Band. A titan of big band jazz, Dorsey had previously employed a skyrocketing New Jersey crooner named Frank Sinatra. Perhaps you’ve heard of him.
4. He filled the shoes of Roy Rogers in a band, too.
Following his time with Tommy Dorsey, Curtis transitioned into cowboy music. In 1949, he joined the trailblazing country band Sons of the Pioneers. Curtis, seen here at the top of the pyramid on the cover of the 1950 album A Garden of Roses, served as the lead singer for a few years. Again, he was filling big shoes… er, boots. The Pioneers had previously been the launching pad of the ultimate singing cowboy, Roy Rogers! Curtis sang on hits such as “Room Full of Roses.”
5. He was the son-in-law of John Ford.
John Ford remains the king of the American Western film, having helmed classics such as Stagecoach and The Searchers. He was just as skilled in directing war movies and literary adaptations, like 1940’s The Grapes of Wrath, which earned him one of his Oscars. John Wayne is the actor most associated with Ford, but there’s another face in plenty of his flicks — Ken Curtis. Curtis, who was married to Barbara Ford from 1952–64, had roles in Mr. Roberts, The Searchers, The Wings of Eagles, The Last Hurrah, Two Rode Together and other Ford films.
6. There is a statue of him outside a credit union in Central California.
If you ever find yourself in Clovis, California, pop over to the Educational Employees Credit Union and pull into the parking lot. There you’ll find a statue of Festus Haggen inside a short black fence. Curtis lived in Clovis, in Fresno County, late in his life.