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Ken Curtis; Played ‘Festus’ on ‘Gunsmoke’

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Ken Curtis, who as a boy helped out in his father’s jail in Colorado and as a character named Festus Haggen performed similar work for Marshal Matt Dillon in “Gunsmoke,” is dead.

Film producer A. C. Lyles said Monday his friend was 74 when he was found dead by his wife when she awoke in their Fresno-area home Sunday morning.

The onetime big band vocalist had been in apparent good health, Lyles said, attending a rodeo in nearby Clovis on Saturday. The cause of death has not been determined.

Born Curtis Gates in Bent County, in the dry lands of Colorado where his father was sheriff, he worked on the family ranch and at the town jail and studied saxophone in high school.

He came to Los Angeles in 1938 and became a staff singer on NBC radio, where he was heard by composer Johnny Mercer and singer Jo Stafford.

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They recommended him to Tommy Dorsey, who changed his name to Ken Curtis and then dealt him to the Shep Fields Band, where his recordings included the old hit “Breathless.”

He did infantry service in World War II, and then, after he was heard singing “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” Columbia Pictures converted him into a singing cowboy. He appeared in a series of low-budget Westerns with Guinn (Big Boy) Williams.

He then joined the singing group Sons of the Pioneers. Director John Ford hired those vocalizing cowboys for the soundtrack of his 1950 “Wagonmaster” and Curtis afterward became a stock player with Ward Bond, Ben Johnson and Harry Carey Jr. in the legendary Ford-John Wayne collaboration.

Curtis--whose first wife was Ford’s daughter Barbara--soon began appearing on television programs, including “Have Gun Will Travel,” “Rawhide” and “Gunsmoke.”

His seedy, drawling, unwashed “Gunsmoke” character with the squinty eyes and drooping hat became so beloved that when Dennis Weaver left the role of Chester Goode in 1964, Curtis signed on as his replacement for the remaining 11 years of what proved the most enduring Western series in TV history.

With Milburn Stone, who portrayed Galen (Doc) Adams, Curtis even formed a dancing and singing act in which Festus and Doc entertained at rodeos.

Curtis had also starred briefly in the 1961-63 adventure series “Ripcord” and for a single season (1983-84) in the Western soap opera “The Yellow Rose.”

He retired about 10 years ago, Lyles said, but appeared in “Once Upon a Texas Train,” a TV movie, in 1988.

Survivors include his wife, Torrie, and her two children by a previous marriage, who ask that contributions in his name be made to the Motion Picture and Television Country House and Hospital in Woodland Hills.


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