HOME | FAMILY TREES | RECOLLECTIONS | SPOTLIGHT ON SOLVAY | ETC. | READ ABOUT IT | NAME DROPPING
 

Some actors, even those who had been in Hollywood for many years, found their best roles in television. Milburn Stone, who made his first movie in 1935, had done more than 150 of them before he was cast as “Doc” Adams on “Gunsmoke” in 1955. He would be featured in more than 600 episodes over the next 20 years of one of television’s longest-running programs.

Stone had played every kind of role imaginable in every kind of film imaginable, but he’ll always be remembered as the Dodge City doctor and close friend of Marshal Matt Dillon. (“Gunsmoke” had been a radio series for many years. In that version “Doc” Adams was played by Howard McNear, whose best-known television role was a Floyd the barber on “The Andy Griffith Show.”)

I had the opportunity to interview Stone – well, I was one of many journalists who talked to him press-conference style – in Chicago in 1964. This type of interview, if it can be called that, is often worthless. Only a few actors can make them interesting (see Robert Conrad), and Stone’s session went off the rails when a young woman from a Wisconsin newspaper was overcome by emotion when she attempted to ask a question. Turned out Stone was a special favorite of her parents, which made the actor one of her idols, and she was reduced to tears. The press conference never recovered.

Considering his 40-year career in movies and television — starting with an uncredited appearance as a sailor in 1935's "Ladies Crave Excitement" — Stone almost certainly would have been great in a one-on-one interview. He worked in 169 movies and TV shows, but "Gunsmoke" took up more than half his working hours. He appeared in an incredible 605 episodes of a series that ran from 1955 to 1975.

He made only brief appearance in many of his films, and he was in a wide variety, most of them "B" movies that were the opening attraction in double features. He did show up in some "A" films, including "Made for Each Other" (with Carole Lombard and James Stewart in 1939), "Johnny Apollo" (with Tyrone Power and Dorothy Lamour in 1940); "Cass Timberlane" (with Spender Tracy and Lana Turner in 1947)' "Operation Pacific" (with John Wayne and Patricia Neal in 1951), and "The Long Gray Line" (with Tyrone Power and Maureen O'Hara in 1955). In that last one, Stone played John J. Pershing when he was a captain, serving at West Point.

Never a major film star, Stone eventually became as famous and well-recognized as most of the bigger names in Hollywood. And because he was a fixture on television in the same role for 21 years, many Americans came to regard him almost as a member of the family.

Stone retired when "Gunsmoke" went off the air in 1975, and died five years later in San Diego. He was 75 years old. He was survived by his wife, Jane Garrison, whom he married in 1939, divorced a year later, and re-married in 1941. She was his second wife. His firsdt was Ellen Morrision, who he married in 1925. She died in 1937.

 


Before there was Google, people fed their curiosity and settled bets by calling their local newspaper.

I was reminded of this recently when I re-read a story about my phone interview with actor Ken Curtis in 1964.

The story was as much about the calls we received from our readers as it was about Curtis, because as luck would have it the actor was the subject of several questions that were puzzling Akron-area residents.

As the story explained ...

Akron Beacon Journal, December 6, 1964

A lady called the Beacon Journal a few weeks ago to ask if the man who plays bristly Festus Haggen on “Gunsmoke” is the father of the actor who plays good guy Jim Buckley on the syndicated “Ripcord” series. After all, she said, they’re both named Ken Curtis.

No, I explained, they’re both named Ken Curtis because they’re the same person. She didn’t believe me at first, but I soon managed to convince her.

Still that woman came closer to the truth than a man who called the office when Curtis first joined the “Gunsmoke” cast. This man had bet that Festus Haggen was really comedian Howard Morris.

That was a typical call. Seems everyone tries to settle a bet by calling a newspaper. Trouble is, we don’t always have the answer.

(Inexplicably, the most popular bet call these days concerns Bing Crosby’s age. He’s 60, if you’re interested. The date of his birth: May 4, 1904.)

Just about the time the woman called to suggest a father-and-son pair of Ken Curtises, another woman named Isobel Silden called from Rogers and Cowan, a Beverly Hills public relations firm, and asked if I’d like to interview the actor who plays Festus.

Of course, I said yes ... and that brought about another telephone call, this one from the two-faced Curtis. Here he is, appearing in two programs, and he told me he never even wanted to be an actor until fairly recently.

Curtis enrolled at Colorado College in 1935 with plans to be a doctor. He was swayed off course by success as a songwriter for a college production. So he went to Hollywood where he tried to sell his songs.

“I was told my songs were pretty bad,” he said, “but it was suggested that I might make a career out of singing.”

So he tried.

His first job was as a staff vocalist for NBC radio. A few months later he heard Frank Sinatra was going to leave the Tommy Dorsey band. Curtis auditioned and was given the job as Sinatra’s replacement, but Sinatra changed his mind and remained with Dorsey. Curtis also remained with Dorsey,, but only for three months during which he sang with Dorsey’s Hawaiian jazz group.

When Curtis quit he took a job with Shep Fields’ all-reed band. Then came World War II and a hitch with the Army.

After his discharge in 1945 Curtis was asked to sing on a radio show. His version of “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” attracted the attention of Columbia Studios and soon Curtis began an acting career. “Honestly,” he said, “I had never thought of acting until Columbia called me.”

That was the era of the singing cowboy, though in many movies the definition of “cowboy” seemed to include anyone dressed like Roy Rogers. As often as not, the characters were musicians who looked like they belonged on a dude ranch. In any event, Curtis several movies with Guinn “Big Boy” Williams as his sidekick. Providing most of the music, sometimes as ranch hands, were members of a popular musical group known as Hoosier Hot Shots.

These films, with such titles as “Rhythm Round-Up,” “Throw a Saddle on a Star,” “That Texas Jamboree” and “Singing on the Trail” either provided the second feature on a double bill, or were shown with the weekly serials that were popular in the 1940s.

(These serials began to fade in 1950 as television became more and more popular. Curtis starred in one 12-episode serial for Republic Pictures, as the title character in “Don Daredevil Rides Again.”)

From 1949 to 1952 Curtis was the lead singer with The Sons of the Pioneers, a popular group that appeared in several movies, many of them with Roy Rogers, who had gotten his start with the Pioneers. They also appeared in a few John Ford films, and in 1952 Curtis established a special relationship with the famous director when he married Ford’s daughter, Barbara.

And it was in a 1956 Ford film, “The Searchers,” that part of the Festus Haggen character was born. In the film Curtis and Jeffrey Hunter were rivals of sorts for Vera Miles.

“One day Hunter and I got to kidding,” said Curtis, “and I started talking in my dry land dialect.” (He explained that’s the way people talk in the area around Curtis’ hometown of Lamar, Colorado.)

“Director John Ford overheard me and asked me to talk that way in the movie. As a result, my ‘romantic’ scene with Vera Miles was burned into a comedy scene.”

Curtis tucked the comic portrayal away in his bag of tricks and before he had a change to pull it out again he was approached to be a leading man in the “Ripcord” series with co-star Larry Pennell.

“Larry and I did some skydiving before we started the series just so we’d be able to understand what it was all about. We did it in secret because the studio wouldn’t have allowed us to take the chance.

“None of our jumps was ever filmed, of course. We left that to the experts. But I really got interested in sky diving and if I were younger (he’s 48), I’d take it up as a hobby.”

It was while doing “Ripcord” that Curtis accepted a guest role on “Gunsmoke” in a story about the backwoods Haggen family. Curtis’ performance as Festus stayed in the minds of the program’s producers who approached Curtis about a continuing role when Dennis Weaver left “Gunsmoke,” taking his gimpy Chester character with him.

In Chester’s absence, it’s up to Festus to provide comedy relief on the program. Curtis does a fine job. He’d have to be doing a fine job for someone to get him confused with Howard Morris.

The only drawback, said Curtis, is that he has to keep his beard.

“Sometimes I think I got the role because I’ve got the mangiest beard in Hollywood. At first I felt grubby. Now I’m used to it. I don’t even think about it when I’m out in public – not until I notice people staring at me.”

Curtis said he was happy to be playing a comic relief character rather than a leading me.

“There’s too much sameness to a leading man. I can have fun with Festus Haggen, but playing Jim Buckley on ‘Ripcord’ got to be a drag.”

After "Gunsmoke," Curtis had guest roles in several prime time series before becoming a regular on "The Yellow Rose," a contemporary Western soap opera that starred Sam Elliott, Cybill Shepherd and David Soul. It ran one season (1983-84). Joining Curtis in the supporting cast was Noah Beery Jr., who had been so memorable previously as James Garner's father on "The Rockford Files."

Curtis died in 1991, suffering a heart attack while he slept. He was 74 years old. He was survived by his second wife, Torrie Ahern Connelly, whom he had married in 1966.

 
HOME CONTACT