When Ken Curtis wasn’t gunslinging, he was filling in for Frank Sinatra on the music stage with his favorite bandleader
In the world of long-running scripted dramas, few things come close to Gunsmoke’s success. The western TV show started out as a radio program before taking the television stage and staying there for a very long time. Throughout its run, it made many stars, including Ken Curtis. However, when Curtis wasn’t gunslinging, he was filling in for Frank Sinatra on the music stage with his favorite bandleader.
Gunsmoke was set in Dodge City and focused on a U.S. marshal named Matt Dillon. Dillon was charged with protecting the small frontier town and making sure that nothing went awry. Throughout the years, Dillon was joined by several memorable characters, from physician Doc Adams, Deputy Chester Goode, and eventually, Curtis’s Festus Hagen, Dillon’s sidekick.
According to Britannica, the series dabbled in the types of things one would expect from a western. From attacks from outsiders to in-town politics and struggles, Dillon wasn’t just a lawman in his town. In many ways, he was the heart and soul. The show was on the air for twenty years, followed by a series of reunion specials that ran until 1994. Throughout that time, fans couldn’t get enough of the western hit.
Arness was a natural as the larger-than-life Dillon. At 6’7″, the act of standing up already gave him the type of imposing presence that other actors could not reach no matter how hard they tried. The show saw a lot of change, from the popcorn fun of the 1950s to the politically charged and gritty television climate of the 1970s. Through its run, dozens of famous people, future famous people, and names from the past came through Dodge.
For many, however, none of the characters were as big a hit as Festus Hagan.
Many people know Curtis for his rough-and-tumble cowboy characters, but that doesn’t mean he lived that life off-screen. He got his start not as an actor but as a big band singer when they were all the rage. Curtis got his first roles on-screen, in part, because he was a singer. He appeared in several movies, including westerns, as a singer.
By the time he was cast in Gunsmoke, he had already made several appearances as a cowboy in both movies and television. However, after fans were introduced to Festus, it became the role that defined him for the rest of his life. Curtis spent most of his career on television instead of the big screen, although he still appeared in several high-profile projects, including Disney’s Robin Hood.
One of his earliest jobs, however, tapped into his singing more than his acting ability.
According to Wide Open Country, Curtis was a semi-successful crooner in the early 1940s thanks to his connections across the industry. For Frank Sinatra fans, they know about the “Strangers in the Night” singer’s relationship with Dorsey during the early stages of his career. In the early 1940s, however, Sinatra’s star was on the rise, and Dorsey sometimes needed other singers.
Whether Curtis was Sinatra’s replacement or just another Dorsey favorite remains unclear. However, what we do know is that in between Old Blue Eyes’ sets during his early days, Curtis also joined Dorsey on stage in many concerts after coming back from fighting in World War II, according to MeTV. As he gravitated toward country music, however, his place as a singing cowboy became more secure.
Curtis might not be the household name that either Sinatra or Dorsey are today, but there was a time where he was part of the biggest television show while also finding moderate success as a singer. As luck would have it, he was running in the same circle as a man who would eventually become one of the most successful singers and actors in history.