Surely, this should be a prime trivia question for Gunsmoke fans or those who religiously watch classic TV westerns.
You all know Ken Curtis as Festus Haggen, Marshal Matt Dillon’s right-hand man in Dodge City. He basically was the show’s heart. But Curtis played several characters on Gunsmoke. How many? Try seven. In fact, Festus was the fifth of seven characters Curtis played on the show.
So let’s review. Curtis’ first Gunsmoke episode was “Jay Hawkers.” He played a cowboy named Phil Jacks working a cattle drive.
Then Phil Jacks evolved into Briscoe (think dark hair, pencil-thin mustache) for “Change of Heart.” And Briscoe became a spooky-eyed bad guy named Jesse in the Gunsmoke episode called “Ex-Urbanites.”
Then future Festus became Scout, a member of the Kiowa Tribe in “Speak Me Fair.” Then there was ladies man Kyle Kelly in the Gunsmoke episode “Lover Boy.” And there was Frank Eaton, the lookalike bad guy in “Alias Festus Hagen.” This episode ran in 1972. Get this. Another marshal came to town and arrested Festus for murder. Seems the marshal believed Festus was a criminal named Frank Eaton. Matt Dillon worked to clear Festus’ name.
So got all those characters? Ken Curtis certainly was a talented actor who could embrace any part in any Western. But if you want to take a deeper dive into Gunsmoke trivia, Curtis first played Festus in season eight in an episode called “Us Haggens.”That’s when everyone learns that Festus has a twin brother named Fergus. He’d been murdered and Festus was out to bring the killer to justice. Denver Pyle portrayed Festus’ uncle Black Jack Haggen.
Curtis became a permanent cast member in season nine when Gunsmoke was in search of a No. 2 to Matt Dillon. Dennis Weaver, who portrayed Chester Goode, had left the show. leaving an obvious void in the cast. So why not replace him with a scruffy, rascally deputy.
Curtis definitely had lawman roots. His father was a sheriff of the family’s hometown in Colorado. He even modeled Festus on someone he knew growing up.
But he didn’t start show business as an actor. Rather, Curtis sang for a living. He performed with swing bands. After Frank Sinatra left for a solo career, Curtis became part of Tommy Dorsey’s band.
And yes, Curtis definitely could sing. He evolved from singer to singing cowboy, performing with the likes of Roy Rogers. And listen to him sing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds.” You’ll have an even better appreciation for the guy who portrayed Festus. When Gunsmoke was on filming breaks, Curtis would travel around the country, giving concerts.
Festus stuck with Matt Dillon until Gunsmoke ended in 1975. The marshal had five deputies over the show’s 20 seasons. But Festus was by his side the longest. However, Curtis never returned for the reunion movies.
Curtis died in his sleep in 1991. He was 74.