Who was Ken Curtis?

The late American actor and singer Ken Cutis was born Curtis Wain Gates in Lamar, Colorado USA, on 2 July 1916, meaning that Cancer was his zodiac sign. He had 66 acting credits, and is perhaps still remembered best for playing Festus and various other characters in 306 episodes of the critically acclaimed western series “Gunsmoke”, which starred Milburn Stone and James Arness, and was created by Clyde Ware and Charles Marquis Warren. It follows the life of Marshall Matt Dillon in Dodge City, the series aired its 635 episodes from 1955 through 1975, and won 15 of its 40 award nominations.

Ken died from a heart attack in his sleep aged 74 on 28 April 1991; his remains were cremated, and his ashes scattered in Colorado.

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Education and early life

Ken was raised alongside his twin brother Chester Kurtis and their older brother Carl Gates on a ranch in Lamar, but they moved to Las Animas, Colorado in 1926, so that their father Dan Sullivan Gates could run for Sheriff; their mother Nellie Sneed Gates was a housewife.

Ken was mostly into playing football while growing up, for his Bent County High School team; he was also into music, and played the clarinet in a school band.

Ken matriculated in 1935 and then enrolled at Colorado College to study medicine, however, he eventually dropped out wanting to pursue an acting and music career.

He joined the US Army in 1943 and served for two years during World War II.

Roles in movies

Ken’s debut film role was playing Band Singer in the 1941 short musical “Shep Fields and His New Music with Ken Curtis”, then after demobilization, the year 1945 saw him appear in three movies: the musical comedy “Rhythm Round-Up”, the romantic musical “Song of the Prairie”, and the war drama “Out of the Depths”.

In 1946, he portrayed the lead character Curt Chambers in the musical western “That Texas Jamboree”, which also starred Andy Clyde and Jeff Donnell, and was directed by Ray Nazarro. It follows Sheriff Curt who won’t allow Brady Warren to run a gambling operation, which means that his and his daughter’s lives are now in danger. Some of Ken’s film roles in the remainder of the decade were in the 1946 romantic musical “Singing on the Trail”, the 1949 western “Riders of the Pony Express”, and the 1950 musical comedy “Everybody’s Dancin’”.

The year 1952 saw him play Dermot Fahy in the romantic comedy “The Quiet Man”, which starred Maureen O’Hara and John Wayne, and was written and directed by John Ford. It follows a retired American boxer who’s returned to the village in Ireland where he was born, and has fallen in love with a spirited redhead; the movie won 11 of its 19 award nominations, including two Oscar wins for Best Cinematography and Best Director. Some of Ken’s notable performances in the remainder of the ‘50s were in the 1955 biographical comedy “The Long Gray Line”, the 1956 crime drama “5 Steps to Danger”, and the 1959 western “The Horse Soldiers”.

What marked the ‘60s for Ken was perhaps portraying Corporal Ben in the critically acclaimed 1962 western “How the West Was Won”, which starred James Stewart and John Wayne, and was directed by John Ford and Henry Hathaway. Set in the 19th century, the film follows the building of the railroads, the Civil War and the Gold Rush, and it won 10 of its 15 award nominations, including three Oscar wins for Best Film Editing, Best Sound and Best Writing, Story and Screenplay. Ken had only one film role in the remainder of the ‘60s, playing Joe in the 1964 historical western “Cheyenne Autumn”.

In 1973, he voiced Nutsy in the critically acclaimed animated adventure comedy “Robin Hood”, and his only other two film roles in the ‘70s were in the 1976 western “Pony Express Rider”, and the 1978 adventure “Once Upon a Starry Night”.

Ken’s final three film roles were in the 1985 family western musical “The All American Cowboy”, the 1988 romantic action comedy “Once Upon a Texas Train”, and the 1991 western “Conagher”.

Roles in TV series

Ken’s debut TV series role was playing Major Hendericks in the 1957 episode “Warpath” of the western “The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp”, which starred Hugh O’Brian and Jimmy Noel, and follows the life of MarxhallWyatt Earp; the series aired from 1955 through 1961 and was nominated for two Primetime Emmys.

Ken appeared in an episode of three series in 1961: the western “Rawhide”, the crime mystery “The Case of the Dangerous Robin” and the action adventure “Sea Hunt”. From 1961 through 1963, he starred as Jim Buckley in all 76 episodes of the adventure “Ripcord”, which also starred Shug Fisher and Larry Pennell, and was created by Harry Redmond Jr; it follows the lives of a skydiver and a pilot.

The ‘70s saw Ken appear in an episode of a couple of series, including the crime mystery “Petrocelli”, another crime mystery “Vega$”, and the western “How the West Was Won”.

In 1983 and 1984, he played Hoyt Coryell in 22 episodes of the drama “The Yellow Rose”, which starred Sam Elliott and Cybill Shepherd, and was created by Michael Zinberg; it follows a family as they’re running their Yellow Rose ranch, and the series was nominated for a 1985 Young Artist Award for Best Young Supporting Actress in a Daytime or Nighttime Drama (Michelle Bennett).

Ken’s final two TV series roles were in the 1986 episode “Wildfire” of the action science fiction adventure “Airwolf”, and the 1990 episode “December Days” of the crime mystery “In the Heat of the Night”.

Other credits

Ken produced three movies: in 1959 the  science fiction horror thriller “The Giant Gila Monster” and the science fiction horror “The Killer Shrews”, and the 1960 family drama “My Dog, Buddy”.

He received special thanks for the 1992 short documentary movie “John Wayne’s ‘the Alamo’”.

Some of Ken’s talk-show appearances were in “The Mike Douglas Show”, “This is Your Life” and “Musik ist Trumpf”.

Awards and nominations

Ken won a 1967 Western Heritage Award for Fictional Television Drama, for “Gunsmoke”.

He was also nominated for a 1973 Photoplay Gold Medal for Variety Star.

Career as a singer

Ken was focused on music prior to deciding to concentrate solely on acting.

He performed with the late American jazz trombonist, composer and conductor Thomas Francis ‘Tommy’ Dorsey Jr. in 1941, succeeding the late American singer and actor Francis Albert ‘Frank’ Sinatra as a vocalist.

Ken then joined the band Shep Fields and His New Music, and until 1948 was host of the country music radio program “The Wheeling Jamboree”.

From 1949 through 1952, he was the lead singer of the group Sons of the Pioneers.

Love life and wife

Ken was married thrice. He met his first wife Lorraine Page while he was under contract at Universal Studios in 1942, and they exchanged vows in 1943; the date of their divorce remains undisclosed.

Ken and his second wife, the late American film editor Barbara Ford married in a private ceremony on 31 May 1952, and their divorce was finalized on 23 July 1964; Barbara died aged 62 on 27 June 1985.

Ken’s third wife was non-celebrity American Torrie Ahern Connelly; they married on 12 March 1966 and remained together until Ken’s death. He had two step-children, from Torrie’s former husband.

Ken was married to his third wife Torrie Ahern Connelly at the time of his passing, and he had two step-children.

Interesting facts and hobbies

Ken was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame in 1981.

He was into politics; Ken was a Republican and voted for Barry Goldwater in the 1964 US presidential election.

He had a hillbilly accent and was also known for his beard.

After Ken’s father became Sheriff, the family lived above the jail, and Ken’s mother cooked for the prisoners.

His family members were all into music; his brothers sang and played the banjo, his mother played the pump organ and his father the fiddle/violin.

Ken was invited to reprise his role as Festus Haggen in the 1987 movie “Gunsmoke: Return to Dodge”, but refused because of the low salary.

Height, eyes and wealth

Ken had brown eyes and gray hair, was 5ft 11ins (1.8m) tall and weighed around 170lbs (78kgs).

Ken’s net worth was estimated at over $5 million at the time of his death.

1 Comment

  1. Gonville Bromhead Reply

    Don’t see any credits for him in 1969 The Green Berets…

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