Real name: Curtis Wain Gates
1916 - 1991
Ken Curtis was born July 2, 1916 in Lamar, Colorado to Dan Gates and Millie (Sneed) Gates, and grew up in Las Animas, Colorado where his father was a real lawman. His real name was Curtis Wain (not Wayne) Gates. Supposedly, he spent time during the late 1930s as a staff/studio singer doing non-country and non-western tunes over the NBC radio network. He also did stints with the bands of Shep Fields and Tommy Dorsey (more details on his connection with Dorsey and Fields follows). He did his WW2 duty as a member of the infantry and was in the service from 1942-1945.
After the war, Columbia signed him to a contract and he had his own series with the chaotic Hoosier Hot Shots novelty singin' group. By the late 1940s, Curtis was no longer employed at Columbia. He starred in a few low grade, independently produced westerns, and was the lead in the Zorro-like chapterplay, DON DAREDEVIL RIDES AGAIN (Republic, 1951).
Above is Curtis, his horse 'Zane' and Shug Fisher. Below is John Dehner, radio's Paladin in HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL, with the drop on Curtis. Both photos from RIDERS OF THE PONY EXPRESS (Screencraft, 1949). Shug Fisher was also with Curtis in STALLION CANYON (Astor, 1949).
Curtis became a later member of the 'John Ford Stock Company', and at the time, he was married to Ford's daughter Barbara. He worked in about a dozen of the Ford-directed films, many of which starred John Wayne: RIO GRANDE (1950), THE QUIET MAN (1952), THE LONG GRAY LINE (1955), MISTER ROBERTS (1955), THE SEARCHERS (1956), THE WINGS OF EAGLES (1957), THE LAST HURRAH (1958), THE HORSE SOLDIERS (1959), TWO RODE TOGETHER (1961), HOW THE WEST WAS WON (1962), and CHEYENNE AUTUMN (1964). He also had a role in Wayne's THE ALAMO (1960).
One of my favorite western musical memories is Ken Curtis doing the lead (with the Sons of the Pioneers) on "I'll Take You Home Again Kathleen" in the Ford and Wayne RIO GRANDE (1950).
During the 1950s Sci-Fi movie boom, Curtis formed his own production company and churned out a few low budget films including two B&W horror/monster flicks, THE KILLER SHREWS (1959) and THE GIANT GILA MONSTER (1959). KILLER SHREWS is memorable to me ... because of the lovely Ingrid Goude as well as the stunt doggies, ridiculously disguised as shrews, that are running amuck with long 'hair blankets' covering their bodies.
Curtis starred in the syndicated TV show RIPCORD, which was all about skydiving and assorted rescue and airplane related adventures, and the show ran for 76 episodes during 1961-1963. Curtis' buddy Shug Fisher was also in the cast. Then he adopted a look and costume reminiscent (at least to me) of Al St. John's 'Fuzzy Q. Jones' character, and became the unkempt, scraggly, backwoods "Festus Haggen" character. Curtis initially appeared as Festus in the hour long "Us Haggens" episode from GUNSMOKE season eight, and that show was broadcast December 8, 1962. Later, Curtis/Festus became a GUNSMOKE regular as Marshal Matt Dillon's deputy. He did that role for eleven years, from 1964 through the end of the series in 1975.
The Handbook of Old-Time Radio, A Comprehensive Guide to Golden Age Radio Listening and Collecting by Jon D. Swartz and Robert C. Reinehr (Scarecrow Press, 1993) and On the Air, The Encylopedia of Old Time Radio by John Dunning (Oxford Press, 1998), include the following radio show credits for Curtis: HOLLYWOOD BARN DANCE ran on CBS West Coast, 1943-1948, and Curtis and Andy Parker and the Plainsman are listed for the 1947 season; the Sons of the Pioneers were the stars of THE LUCKY U RANCH program which ran over the Mutual Broadcasting System circa 1951-53, and Curtis was with the group at that time (in early 2002, a CD titled Sons of the Pioneers - Memories of the 'Lucky U' Ranch was issued on the Jasmine label).
Not mentioned in either reference book are several guest appearances by Curtis in the ALL STAR WESTERN THEATER, another of the West Coast western programs. It ran from 1946-1948 and consisted of over a 100 half hour shows, and Foy Willing and the Riders of the Purple Sage were the hosts/stars.
Les Adams knew Curtis during his post-GUNSMOKE days. Les adds:
"Ken Curtis was one of the nicest show business people I ever met. If you want to see the origin of Festus, check out the Curtis role in THE SEARCHERS. Said he played it that way (under what little protest power he had) because Ford made him hoke it up as that wasn't the way LeMay wrote the character. Ken said he never figured out whether Ford made him play it that way because he was mad at him (which he usually was), or just didn't want the character to be as strong as in the book and diminish the Jeffrey Hunter role."
The Motion Picture Herald and Boxoffice polls were conducted from about the mid 1930s through the mid 1950s. With a few exceptions, the annual results would list the 'Top Ten' (or 'Top Five') cowboy film stars. In most cases, the winners were what you would expect --- Autry, Rogers, Holt, Starrett, Hoppy, etc. Ken Curtis' career as a B western hero was too brief for him to obtain a top ten ranking in these polls.
Curtis' last filmwork was a role in the made-for-TV western, CONAGHER (1991), which starred Sam Elliott and Katherine Ross. He died on April 28, 1991. An obituary mentioned that Curtis passed away in his sleep at his Fresno, California home and survivors included his second wife Torrie and her two children from a prior marriage.
The Curtis legacy remains a wonderful voice ... his songs, both country-western and pop ... his music with the Sons of the Pioneers ... and as Festus in GUNSMOKE.
Curtis ... and Tommy Dorsey ... and Shep
Fields... and the Sons of the Pioneers
One of the common stories reported in Curtis biographies is that he was the "replacement" for Frank Sinatra in the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra. Airchecks/transcriptions of Sinatra's final performance with Dorsey have been available for years --- the date was September 3, 1942 in New York, and Frank's last vocal with the band was a tune called "The Song Is You". The broadcast also includes Sinatra and Dorsey introducing Frank's replacement, Dick Haymes. Curtis did a couple recordings with the Dorsey Band in late 1941. One was "Love Sends A Little Gift Of Roses", recorded 9/26/41, and was sung with the Pied Pipers vocal group (which then included Jo Stafford). That recording is available on the CD Whatcha Know Joe by The Pied Pipers.
Tommy Dorsey's Orchestra was a powerhouse and money maker in the early 1940s, with a bunch of talented sidemen, and vocals from Sinatra, Jo Stafford, Connie Haines, and the Pied Pipers. The band was originally handled by M.C.A., but around 1941, Dorsey broke away and formed Tommy Dorsey, Inc. which allowed him to do his own bookings and such.
The relationship of Dorsey and Ken Curtis is not clear, but following are several bits of conjecture:
* Frank Sinatra wanted to go out on his own, but he was under contract. Dorsey may have hired Curtis as an "insurance policy" if and when Sinatra walked out.
* Dorsey may have simply tested Curtis for future use.
* Dorsey was doing some investing/brokering in musical talent, and he may have traded, loaned, sold or released Curtis to bandleader Shep Fields.
* When Dorsey realized that Sinatra wasn't going to walk prematurely, he had no need of the extra vocalist, leaving Curtis to find work elsewhere.
Ken Griffis' reference book on the Sons of the Pioneers, Hear My Song: The Story of the Celebrated Sons of the Pioneers, mentions: that Dorsey was the one who suggested the name change from Curtis Wain (not Wayne) Gates to Ken Curtis; and he joined the Sons of the Pioneers singing group in 1949 and was with them through 1953 (and he continued to record with the SOP through 1957).
As mentioned, Curtis became the boy singer with the Shep Fields orchestra and recorded several tunes, including the patriotic "This Is Worth Fighting For". A few 'soundies' are available on videotape of Curtis and the Fields band, circa 1942. Sometime in mid 1942, Curtis left to serve a hitch in the U. S. Army infantry.
Original name: Curtis Wain Gates
Birth: Jul. 2, 1916
Death: Apr. 28, 1991
Actor. Best known for his long-running role as Festus, the cantankerous deputy in the long-running TV series "Gunsmoke". Born Curtis Wane Gates in Lamar, Colorado to Dan Gates and Millie Sneed Gates. His father was Sheriff of Las Animas, Colorado. He worked at the town jail and played the saxophone in high school. He served in the Army during World War II. He attended Colorado College for a time wanting to study medicine but was so successful as a singer-songwriter that he left college and got a job in Los Angeles in 1938 as a singer on NBC Radio. He was a vocalist in the Tommy Dorsey orchestra. He entered films in the late 1940s in a series of low-budget westerns for Columbia Pictures. He then joined the singing group "Sons of the Pioneers." They did the soundtrack of John Ford's 1950 movie, "Wagonmaster." Curtis became a stock player with Ward Bond, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey in the Ford Production Company. At the time, he was married to Ford's daughter, Barbara. His film debut was in "Sheriff of Tombstone" (1941). His other film credits include: "Out of the Depths" (1946), "Cowboy Blues" (1946), "Rio Grande" (1950), "The Quiet Man" (1952), "Mister Roberts" (1955), "The Searchers" (1956), "The Wings of Eagles" (1957), "The Last Hurrah" (1958), "The Horse Soldiers" (1959), "The Alamo" (1960), "Cheyenne Autumn" (1964), Disney's animated "Robin Hood" (1973) as the voice of Nutsy, "Pony Express Rider" (1976), and "Lost" (1983) his last theatrical film. We know him best for his TV work which included regular roles on "Ripcord" (1961-63), "Gunsmoke" (1964-75), "How the West Was Won" (1978), and "Yellow Rose" (1983-84). He also appeared in mini-series and made for TV movies and guest starred on many TV series. He died in his sleep of natural causes in Fresno, California, at age 74.
Posthumous reunions [?]:
Cremated, Ashes scattered.
Specifically: Colorado flatlands
Ken Curtis (July 2, 1916 - April 28, 1991), was an American singer and actor best known for his role as "Festus Haggen" on CBS' long-running western drama, Gunsmoke, which he portrayed from 1964 to 1975.
Early life and career
Curtis was born Curtis Wain Gates and reared in Las Animas near Lamar in southeastern Colorado. His father, Dan Gates, was the sheriff. The family lived above the jail and his mother, Nellie Sneed Gates, cooked for the prisoners.
He was a singer before moving into acting, and combined both careers once he entered movies, performing with the popular Sons of the Pioneers from 1949 to 1953 as well as singing with the iconic Tommy Dorsey band, replacing Frank Sinatra when Sinatra left the Dorsey band.
The son-in-law of director John Ford, Curtis teamed with Ford and John Wayne in Rio Grande, The Quiet Man, The Wings of Eagles, The Searchers, The Horse Soldiers, The Alamo and How The West Was Won. Curtis also teamed with Ford, along with Henry Fonda, James Cagney, William Powell, and Jack Lemmon in the comedy Navy classic Mister Roberts. In the 1950s, Curtis tried his hand at producing two extremely low-budget monster films, The Killer Shrews and The Giant Gila Monster. Curtis also guest starred on an episode of Perry Mason—as a circus clown.
Curtis also co-starred with Larry Pennell in the 1962 syndicated television series Ripcord, a half-hour drama about a skydiving service company. Curtis played the role of "Jim Buckley" and Pennell was "Ted McKeever." The series helped generate interest in the sport of parachuting.
Curtis remains best known for his role as Festus, the scruffy, cantankerous, functionally illiterate deputy in Gunsmoke. While Marshal Matt Dillon had a total of five deputies over two decades, Festus held the badge the longest (eleven years), in 239 episodes, and was the most colorful. Festus was patterned after "Cedar Jack", a man from Curtis' Las Animas childhood. Cedar Jack, who lived about forty miles out of town, made a living cutting cedar fence posts. Curtis observed him many times Jack would come to Las Animas, where he would usually end up drunk and in jail.
Besides engaging in the usual personal appearances most television stars undertake to promote their program, Curtis also traveled around the country performing a western-themed stage show at fairs, rodeos and other venues when Gunsmoke wasn't in production, and even for some years after the show was canceled.
In 1981, Curtis was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy & Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma.
His last role was as cattle rancher "Seaborn Tay" in the television production Conagher (1991), by famed western author Louis L'Amour, with Sam Elliott in the lead role.
Curtis died in his sleep of natural causes in Fresno, California.
Date of Birth
2 July 1916, Lamar, Colorado, USA
Date of Death
29 April 1991, Fresno, California, USA. (in his sleep of natural causes)
Curtis Wain Gates
6' (1.83 m)
Considering the kind of scruffy, backwoods, uneducated, Deep-South hillbilly types he played, many people would not find it hard to believe that Ken Curtis was born and raised in Las Animas, Colorado, the son of the town sheriff. What they would find hard to believe is that he began his show business career as a singer in the big-band era, and was a vocalist in the legendary Tommy Dorsey orchestra. He entered films in the late 1940s at the tail end of the singing cowboy period in a series of low-budget westerns for Columbia Pictures. When that genre died out, he turned to straight dramatic and comedy parts and became a regular in the films of director John Ford (who was his father-in-law). He ventured into film production in the 1950s with two extremely low-budget monster films, The Killer Shrews (1959) and The Giant Gila Monster (1959), but he is best known for his long-running role as Festus Hagen, the scrofulous, cantankerous deputy in the long-running TV series "Gunsmoke" (1955).
Torrie Connelly (1966 - ?)
Barbara Ford (31 May 1952 - 23 July 1964) (divorced)
Grew up in Las Animas, Colorado, where his father, Dan Gates, was sheriff. As was the custom at the time, they lived above the jail and his mother, Nellie (Sneed) Gates, cooked for the prisoners. He once said he patterned "Festus" after a local character known as Cedar Jack, who lived about 40 miles out in the cedar hills and made a living cutting cedar fence posts for farmers and ranchers. When he came to Las Animas, he usually ended up drunk and in jail. This gave Curtis plenty of opportunity to observe him.
Introduced the western standard "Tumbling Tumbleweeds" to movie audiences.
Before acting career, sang with Tommy Dorsey's band and the Sons of the Pioneers.
Son-in-law of director John Ford.
Inducted (as a cast member of "Gunsmoke" (1955)) into the Hall of Great Western Performers of the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in 1981.
Early in his career, he sang with Shep Fields' Orchestra.
Although his character, Festus Haggen, was introduced to "Gunsmoke" (1955) in an episode called "Us Haggens," in which he arrived in Dodge City to avenge the death of his twin brother, the fact that Festus had a twin was never again mentioned on the show.
I'm really proud of "Gunsmoke" (1955). We put on a good show every week, one that families could all watch together without offending anyone.