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Ken Curtis' Farewell Note

If there are to be prayers said for me, let them be said in the hearts of my friends and those whose lives I may have touched during my lifetime - by all means let there be no sadness or grief - I want my family and friends to remember only the happy times we were together, my attributes (if any) and try to overlook all of my faults - (That should keep you busy until the time we all meet up again!!)

Ken Curtis

Festus Letter
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June 27th 1964 TV Guide Article
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Festus Note

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Los Angeles Time Obituary (Plain Text):
April 29th 1991

Ken Curtis, who as a boy helped out in his father’s jail in Colorado and as a character named Festus Haggen performed similar work for Marshall Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke” is dead.

Film producer A.C. Lyles said yesterday that his friend was 74 when he was found dead by his wife in their home near Fresno, Calif., Sunday. The onetime big-band vocalist had been in apparent good health, Lyles said, attending a rodeo in nearby Clovis Saturday. The cause of death has not be determined.

Born Curtis Gates in Bent County, in the dry lands of Colorado where his father was Sheriff, he worked on the family ranch and at the town jail and studied saxophone in high school.

He came to Los Angeles in 1938 and became a staff singer on NBC Radio, where he was heard by composer Johnny Mercer and singer Jo Stafford.

He did infantry service in World War II, and then, after he was heard singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” Columbia Pictures converted him into a singing cowboy. He appeared in a series of low-budget westerns with Guinn “Big Boy” Williams.

He then joined the singing group Sons of the Pioneers. Director John Ford hired those vocalizing cowboys for the soundtrack of his 1950 “Wagonmaster” and Mr. Curtis afterward became a stock player with Ward Bond, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey in the legendary Ford Production Company.

Mr. Curtis – who’s first wife was Ford’s daughter Barbara –soon began appearing on television programs, including “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Rawhide” and “Gunsmoke.”

His seedy, drawling, unwashed Gunsmoke character with the squinty eyes and drooping hat became so beloved that when Dennis Weaver left the role of Chester Goode in 1964, Mr. Curtis signed on as his replacement for the remaining 11 years of what proved the most enduring Western series in TV history.

Jan 26 – 1971

Dear friend Bob,

Thank you for your very nice letter and your very generous praise regarding my portrayal of Festus. To try to summarize my approach to a character – upon reading the character’s function and involvement in a script, I try to figure every characteristic of the person – his general attitude towards life, his walk, his tastes, his manner of speech, his faults and his attributes.

My portrayal of Festus is quite simple for me, since I patterned him after several people I have known during my lifetime – you to, I’m sure have a well of memories to draw from – don’t hesitate to use them in building your character.

In my opinion it’s an actors duty to walk into the first rehearsal with a well defined character – then it’s up to the director to shade or change the character to fit into the overall picture or play.

Hope this will help you some Bob and I wish you the very best in your career.

Your Friend,
Ken ‘Festus’ Curtis

Standard Note Plain Text:

Dear Hazel,

I hope the enclosed photo fills your request and that this note finds you in best of health and spirits.
If you can find no better use for it, I guarantee this picture will be most effective in scarin’ stray varmints away from your trash-can!!

Ken Curtis – “Festus”


Nineteen hundred years ago, give or take a year or two, around 60 A.D., a Roman named Festus was for a brief time procurator of Judea, and, according to the historian Josephus, the people rioted because of a decision he made favoring the Syrians at Caesarea. Today there is violent public reaction to another Festus – the replacement for the seemingly irreplaceable Chester in CBS’s Gunsmoke, a shaggy character named Festus Haggen, played by a former crooner, singing cowboy, movie bit player and parachuting TV hero named Ken Curtis.

The producer of Gunsmoke, Norman MacDonnell, says, “The mail on Festus is either absolutely white or absolutely black. Some people say they can’t stand him.
Others say they like him better than Chester. They either love him or they hate him – but 90 percent say they love him.”

There is no question of the reaction to Festus in Gunsmoke’s Dodge City. They love him there – 100 percent. The rest of the cast had become resentful of the attitude of Dennis Weaver, who played Chester. “Why, on his last show, he hardly even limped!” says Amanda Blake, who plays Kitty.

As for Festus himself, where Dennis Weaver said, “After nine years as Chester, I have exhausted all the areas of creativity,” the 48 year old Curtis who has been around show business since 1939, says, “There are so many good actors that are hurtin’, I’m just grateful. I hope Gunsmoke goes on for another 10 years.”

The character was not calculatedly created as a replacement for Chester. Twice Curtis did a similar role in Have Gun – Will Travel, where under the name of Monk he became involved with “Mr. Pala-dine.” Festus Haggen made his first appearance in Gunsmoke in December 1962 in a script by writer Les Crutchfield entitled “Us Haggens.” It was supposed to be only a one-shot , but according to MacDonnell, “He had charm. Later we had him do another and liked him even better.” When Weaver left Gunsmoke to do his own series, Kentucky Jones, on NBC, Festus was moved into the gap.

Although the basic bumpkin humor of Chester and Festus is similar, the characters differ widely. Festus can be “cold and deadly,” says MacDonnell. In one Gunsmoke episode, he killed a man in cold blood for assaulting his cousin. Festus has also been seen kissing a girl, something which would have been unthinkable for Chester – and which, as someone close to the program points out, “is closer than Matt Dillon has gotten to Kitty in 10 years.”

Festus and Chester are probably most alike in their speech. Ken Curtis picked up the accent –which rarely slips into his off-screen speech– as a boy in the dry-lands of southeastern Colorado, where he was born Curtis Gates in a two room prairie cabin on July 2nd 1916. His father was a homesteader and for a time sheriff of Las Animas, Colorado. The family lived in the jail then, and at 10 young Curtis was substitute jailer when his father was out of town.

Ken Curtis’ off-screen life today belies this bucolic background. He and his wife, the former Barbara Ford, daughter of famed movie director John Ford, live at exclusive Toluca Lake. Ken wears heavy shell-rimmed glasses, tailored jackets and slacks, diamond cuff links, alligator shoes, and he drives a thunderbird.

Only the scraggly beard is a clue to the part he plays. He’s 6 feet tall and weighs 180 pounds.

He wanted to be a doctor, but he was so successful as a songwriter in student productions at Colorado College that he left school and headed for Hollywood. There, in 1939, he was assigned as a staff singer for NBC Radio. Later, after a few misadventures, including a stint as a sandhog, he sang briefly with the late Tommy Dorsey, who changed his name from Curtis gates to Ken Curtis. Then, before enlisting in the Army in 1943, he sang with Shep Fields’ band.

After the war he returned to Hollywood. His singing of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” on a radio program with Johnny Mercer got him the co-starring role in a series of Westerns of which he says, “I’d stop in the middle of a gun fight and sing a song.”

From 1947 to 1952, he was a member of the Sons of the Pioneers, a western singing group. It was at this time that he met the girl who was to become his wife. She was then an assistant film editor on one of her father’s pictures, “Wagonmaster,” for which the Sons of the Pioneers sang the musical score. A small part in a later John Ford picture, “The Searchers,” brought into being the character now known as Festus Haggen. Ken’s part was supposed to be a serious one: “I was to be kind of a Ralph Bellamy, but I was kidding around on the set, doing the dry-land dialect. I didn’t even know Mr. Ford was listening. Then when it came time for me to do my lines, he said, 'How would you say that in dry-land?' I did it for him and he said, 'Play it that way.'”

Ken Curtis does not take himself or Festus Haggen too seriously. Concerning acting, he says, “We’re just doing a job, like a bookkeeper in a bank, except people watch us.”

Three times Chester has limped ostensibly for the last time down the dusty street of Dodge City and twice he has come back when other plans for Dennis Weaver failed to materialize. But if Weaver’s new series should prove unsuccessful and he tries returning to Gunsmoke once again, he will find the corral locked, the welcome mat gone. Festus Haggen is there to stay.


From The Fresno Bee
May 21, 2003
Heading West
Clovis restrooms spur move of cowboy statue, but higher profile seems to click.
By Marc Benjamin Edition: FINAL Section: LOCAL NEWS Page: B1

Almost 30 years after the television career of Gunsmoke deputy marshal Festus Haggen concluded, the character still has not galloped into the sunset.

Just across the street.

This month, a statue of Festus – the character created by former Fresno County resident Ken Curtis – was moved from the rear of Clovis Big Dry Creek Museum to the front entrance of the Educational Employees Credit Union.

The higher-profile location didn't require an agent or publicist.
It was a greater purpose: nature's call. Moving the statue will create space for new downtown Clovis restrooms.
“The option we had was to build [restrooms] back there, and the question was what could be done with Festus?" said Willy Barnes, Educational Employees Credit Union branch manager and a downtown business group board member who has been working on the statue relocation for 18 months.

The restrooms will be built in an area on the south side of the museum, which sits at Fourth Street and Pollasky Avenue.

Work will begin this summer and be finished by late fall, said Sharon Jackson, Business Organization of Old Town's executive director. “It's something we have wanted for a very, very long time,” she said. “I have been working on it for seven years, and they were working on getting restrooms before I was here.”

The bonus, Jackson said: Festus is more visible and likely will become the subject of tourists' photographs.

Barnes said, “It's amazing how much interest it's sparked from people using the ATM [automated teller machine]. People have noticed him.”

The credit union paid the roughly $2,000 expense to move the 900-pound statue. “It didn't take 15 minutes,” said Jeff Webb of Target Construction, the company that moved Festus 200 feet to the southwest. “I tell everyone he's guarding the bank.”

The statue was donated to the city by local sculptor Samantha Cowen in 1991 and unveiled in February 1992.

The Festus character was portrayed by Ken Curtis, an actor cast in several western movies, including How The West Was Won. He died in 1991 at age 74 at his home south of Clovis.

Festus was a character born during an appearance as "Monk" in "Have Gun Will Travel." Curtis joined the cast of "Gunsmoke" in 1963 and played Festus until the series ended in 1975.

Curtis moved to rural Fresno with his wife, Torrie, in 1980. In his words, it was to “get away from Los Angeles.” Curtis was a World War II veteran who was a rodeo cowboy, a pre-med student in college, a singer with Tommy Dorsey and a movie and television actor.

“Ken 'Festus' Curtis embodies all the wonderful attributes held by our Clovis citizens and even more,” said Clovis historian Ron Sundquist. “He is the symbol of a great hero so needed by everyone young and old.”

The day before his death, April 29, 1991, Curtis rode in the car of Clovis Rodeo grand marshal Martin Mouliot, a longtime friend.

The life of the statue that memorializes Curtis' most famous character has not been without its saddle sores. In 1992, only two weeks after Festus was placed, the statue had its legs severed and his neck and arm cracked.
In 2000, the statue was defaced with eggs, toilet paper, mustard and paint balls before being rolled off its base.

For those who may have any notions about additional cowboy cruelty, Webb has a warning: “This time, he's bolted down.”

The reporter can be reached at or 441-6166.

Copyright (c) 2003 The Fresno Bee
Record Number: 0415799186