Updated: Aug 5
Ken Curtis is best remembered for playing a roughly groomed, primitive philosopher deputy with a lexicon all his own. As Marshal Matt Dillion’s sidekick for 11 seasons on the television show Gunsmoke, Curtis created an unforgettable character with even more unforgettable words of wisdom such as…
"Why I'm so hungry, my stomach is growing teeth."
“Safer than chitlins on a city folk's supper plate.”
“Hold `yer taters.”
“When a fellars got character…he ain’t never gonna be nuttin but a whole heap of pure ol-d joy to his momma and daddy.”
Ken Curtis played several other characters on Gunsmoke during the early years of the legendary show. He started his show business career as singer. He even replaced Frank Sinatra in the Tommy Dorsey band in 1941. From 1949 to 1952, he was the lead singer of the Sons of the Pioneers.
Someone’s Rocking My Dreamboat (1941) audio link:
Curtis’ musical career lead to a contract with Columbia Pictures in 1945 and a series of starring roles in musical Westerns. Singin’ and hoorahin’ across the West seemed tailor made for this son of a Colorado sheriff with a sweet tenor voice and cowboy good looks.
He made eight of those films and accompanying Ken on those musical horseback rides was a quartet of musicians known as the Hoosier Hot Shots.
“What we had to sell was a product called stupid,” one of the Hot Shots once admitted. I’d stop in the middle of a gunfight and sing a song.”
Curtis appeared in more than 40 feature films during his 50-year career and briefly branched into film production as the producer of three low-budget drive-in movies. But, it is Festus who made him famous and too often if made people mistake him for the character Earnest T. Bass played by Howard Morris on The Andy Griffith Show.
“I wouldn't care if they tattoo Festus all over. He's been good to me.”
With Ken Curtis as their lead singer, the Sons of the Pioneers did the soundtracks for director John Ford’s Wagon Master (1949) and Rio Grande (1950). Curtis’ film career took a big-budget turn when he married John Ford’s daughter in 1952. That year, he had an uncredited role in his father-in-law’s class film The Quiet Man starring John Wayne. In 1955, Curtis received a credit and a larger role in John Ford’s Mr. Roberts.
In 1956, Ken Curtis stepped into a prominent role in what is considered by many critics to be John Ford’s masterpiece. The Searchers (1956) has been called the greatest American Western and one of the most influential films ever made.
While Ethan Edwards (John Wayne) and his nephew Martin Pawley (Jeffery Hunter) are spending years searching for Ethan’s niece who was captured by Indians, Charlie McCorry (Ken Curtis) has been serenading and romancing Martin’s longtime sweetheart Laurie (Vera Miles). When Ethan and Martin home and are surprised to walk-in on Charlie and Laurie’s wedding, ol’ Martin and singin’ Charlie get into a dusty throwdown.
“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’ time on screen would increase and his film credit would rise in ranking in 1957 when he co-starred in another Ford/Wayne collaboration The Wings of Eagles.
The film takes place shortly after World War I, and with the help of John Dale Price (Ken Curtis), super Navy flyer “Spig” Weed (John Wayne) is out to prove the military importance of aviation. However, when the great flyer falls down and flight of stairs and is paralyzed, he has to find another way to advance Navy aviation, again with the help of his pal played by Ken Curtis.
After The Wings of Eagles, Ken Curtis would spend a couple of years playing minor roles in films not directed by his father-in-law John Ford until Ford called on him again for another more prominent role alongside John Wayne. His singing cowboy days weren’t over. This time he was the musically inclined Corporal Wilkie in The Horse Soldiers (1959), but Ken Curtis was also spending this time branching off his film career.
In 1959, Curtis formed a production company and started making film of his own. The first two where a 1959 drive-in double feature monsterfest. One features hound dogs in rodent costumes, and the other features a big live lizard trampling small model cars and barns.
The Killer Screws, in which producer Ken Curtis as co-stars,
and The Giant Gila Monster were made for slightly more than $100,000 each, but they made millions at the box office. Today, they are considered camp classics and continue to make big money in the video market.
“It’s mostly the giant gila monster crawling really slowly around miniature sets, sometimes little miniature trains and miniature cars. It doesn’t really get to do much, but there’s plenty of good creepy stuff and what kid wouldn’t want to see that?”
-Joe Dante, director of Gremlins (1984)
Ken Curtis and his production company made one more movie in 1960. My Dog, Buddy is an adventure film involving a 10-year old boy badly injured in a car crash that killed his parents. He is separated from his belong dog Buddy at the accident scene and taken to the hospital. Buddy then goes on a canine quest to find his trusted 10-year old companion, and kindhearted Dr. Lusk, played by Ken Curtis is determined to unite the two.
After producing those three independent films, Ken Curtis returned to playing supporting roles in big-budget epics, including a reunion with John Wayne in The Alamo (1960), and three more John Ford pictures, Two Rode Together (1961),How the West Was Won (1962), and Cheyenne Autumn (1963).
By 1964, Ken Curtis and his Festus character had joined the cast of Gunsmoke permanently. When the show ended its 20-year run in 1975, Curtis basically retired, but stayed in the Western genre with supporting roles in a few feature films and television movies. He was inducted into The Cowboy Hall of Fame in 1981. A fitting tribute to a performer who was really part of the West…the son of a Colorado sheriff who grew up in a home above the jail.
I've thought about doing other dramatic roles besides westerns, but I grew up in the West and I know the West.
July 2, 1916 - April 28, 1991