Ken Curtis was just as much of a country boy in real life as he was onscreen in the hit series Gunsmoke (1955). Curtis played the always smelly, yet incredibly charming role of Festus Haggen for over 300 episodes of the Western.
In the series, Festus was known for his distinctive way of talking, his down and dirty get up and his deep country roots. In real life, Curtis was known for the same things — except he knew how to tie a tie and dress up from time to time. When Curtis wasn’t filming new episodes of Gunsmoke, he would perform and promote the series at rodeos all across the country.
With over 600 episodes, 20 seasons and a long legacy in Western history, Curtis seemed to have done a mighty fine job of promoting it. According to a 1972 interview with Press and Sun-Bulletin, Curtis said he enjoyed performing, traveling and meeting many Gunsmoke fans.
At the time, many people believed that Gunsmoke endured all of those seasons because it was an anthology series that regularly introduced fresh faces and characters, but Curtis disagreed. The source for his Gunsmoke information? Rodeos.
“I’m on the rodeo circuit all year round and get a chance to talk to more fans than anybody else,” Curtis said. “They don’t ask about the guests: all they remember are the family shows. Viewers still talk about my Haggen relatives, and they’ve never forgotten the bit about my little hangie down ear, a special Haggen marking. Now that one took a piece of writing.”
When Curtis said “family shows” he wasn’t referring to the general family-based sitcoms, he was talking about his Gunsmoke family and their connections to one another. The Gunsmoke story tied together Kitty, Matt Dillon, Doc Adams and his character, as opposed to an anthology story focused on a guest star outside of the main cast and storyline.
For many years, Curtis and Milburn Stone, who played the role of Doc Adams, were Gunsmoke’s goodwill ambassadors on the road. The pair would put on a folksy little act at rodeos all across the country.
They met with fans, got opinions on certain episodes, storylines and characters and were the face of the show outside of the series. However, in 1971, Stone suffered a heart attack. This left Curtis on his own, but his mission was still the same: Promote Gunsmoke.
After Stone quit touring with Curtis, Glenn Strange, who played the Gunsmoke bartender, and Buck Taylor joined him on the road. The rodeo business covered the country with around 500 shows per year. It was more than enough to keep Curtis busy in his free time.
According to the interview, Curtis said he was usually mobbed by Gunsmoke fans while he was on tour. Even when he wasn’t in the U.S., he was being recognized for the series. For example, while he was in Norway he said he had to fight off the fans.
Curtis hoped to perform at a rodeo in Europe soon as well as other places in the world. He said if Norway was any clue for how the rest of the world would be, he was in good hands.He was able to get an inside look into what the country thinks about Gunsmoke. From there, cast, crew and producers would work hard to give the fans what they want. Turns out, it was just more Ken Curtis.