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.”