Ken Curtis was the son of Las Animas Sheriff Dan Gates and his wife,Nelly. They lived on the second story of the jailhouse. Foreshadowing his role of Festus on Gunsmoke, Ken acted as deputy during his father's abscence.
He attended college, where he studied medicine. However he gave up ideas of becoming a doctor and switched to learning songwriting.
Ken went to Hollywood to be discovered as a singer, which he was by Tommy Dorsey. Dorsey hired him in the event that Frank Sinatra left him. Sinatra didn't leave so Dorsey lent Ken to orchestra leader Shep Fields.
Ken left Fields to enlist in the infantry during World War II. He served in the Pacific.
After the war, Ken obtained a job as a singer for NBC radio. Columbia Studios heard him and hired him to portray a singing cowboy in several movies.
When this stint was over, Ken joined the western singing group, The Sons of the Pioneers. Together they sang the soundtrack for The Wagonmaster and also for Rio Grande, which they appeared in.
Ken then decided to leave the Pioneers' touring group in favor of a movie career,although he still recorded with them in the studio. He was mainly a supporting actor for John Ford, whose daughter he married. Ken also produced three movies and he made a number of guest appearances on television.
Ken played the role of Jim Buckley in the Syndicated TV series, Ripcord.
Several of his t.v. appearances were on Gunsmoke. When Dennis Weaver left that show, Ken was hired as his replacement. He made a name for himself as Marshal Dillion's hillbilly deputy, Festus Haggen. He remained with Gunsmoke until its conclusion, eleven years later.
Ken continued to appear in movies and on television until his death.