For two decades, the Western television drama Gunsmoke was a crucial element of American culture. For eleven of those years, Ken Curtis, who played Marshal Matt Dillon’s cantankerous deputy Festus Haggen, was a crucial element of Gunsmoke.
Curtis, who was born Curtis Gates in southeastern Colorado in 1916, was the real-life son of a sheriff, living during his youth in rooms atop the Bent County Jail.
While mostly remembered today for his work on Gunsmoke, Curtis originally gained fame as a singer. For several years he performed with the Western band Sons of the Pioneers, as well as with the more mainstream Tommy Dorsey Band (where he replaced Frank Sinatra as singer).
Curtis began showing up on screen in the 1950s, often for famed director John Ford, who just happened to be his father-in-law at the time. Curtis appeared in supporting roles in several of John Wayne’s films, including The Searchers and The Quiet Man.
For a time, Curtis produced B-horror films, creating such anti-classics as The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster.
In 1964, he secured lasting fame when joined the cast of Gunsmoke. The show began on radio in 1952, and made its television debut three years later. It would last for (what was then) a record twenty seasons, often as the number one show on television.
After the show wrapped in 1975, Curtis still acted and performed at carnivals and rodeos. He was inducted into the Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1981.
Twenty years ago this week, Curtis died in Fresno. As a fitting ending for a true son of the West, his ashes were later returned to Colorado and scattered over the earth from which he sprang.