1914 - 2002
Norman MacDonnell and John Meston's successful radio drama Gunsmoke ran from 1952 - 1961, overlapping the television phenomenon by six years. On radio the role of Chester Proudfoot was played by that consummate character actor, and former circus ringmaster for Barnum & Bailey, Parley Baer. Baer was also familiar to audiences from television roles such as those on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. His career spanned radio, television and movies from 1950 to 1996. Parley Baer's Chester was a good-natured counterpoint to William Conrad's tortured Marshall Dillon.
The television version of Gunsmoke debuted in 1955 with a new cast of faces for the medium. Struggling 30 year old actor Dennis Weaver impressed the producers enough to obtain a call-back with a request to add some humour to his reading. Hoping to stand out from the crowd, Weaver also added a limp to his characterization. Would he have done so if he had known he'd have to keep it up for the next 9 years? Dennis won acclaim and an Emmy Award (1959) for his portrayal, and also stretched his creativity by directing a few episodes. The year of his Emmy win he also had an interesting role working with Orson Welles in Touch of Evil. By 1964 Dennis Weaver's need to move away from Chester led to a final break with the show and he moved on to movie roles, singing, and more series work including Kentucky Jones (1964), Gentle Ben (1967-1969) and the popular, Emmy-nominated McCloud (1970-1977). He remained a busy working actor all of his life. Dennis was also actively involved in environmental causes and was President of the Screen Actor's Guild from 1973-1975.
Chester's most endearing traits were his devotion to his friends and his unwavering faith in Marshall Dillon (James Arness). He was a keen observer of human nature and intractable when it came to his own opinion. Chester's needling of Doc Adams (Milburn Stone) was part of their strong friendship. Chester was quite gallant where all ladies were concerned and an unfortunate, yet optimistic romantic. Chester could always be counted on to help in a crisis, although whether his efforts would be of any actual help was another matter. Chester prided himself on his coffee making abilities, but few visitors to the marshal's office ever asked for seconds.
Ken Curtis was a singer (Shep Fields, Tommy Dorsey, The Sons of the Pioneers) who entered movies at the end of the singing cowboy era. A natural fit for the John Ford stock company, especially after marrying the director's daughter Barbara, Ken first used his trademark twangy accent in the 1956 classic The Searchers. Ken's acting credits included a few episodes of Gunsmoke prior to the role of Festus Haggen. Director Andrew McLaglen had worked with Ken playing the role of a bounty hunter on Have Gun, Will Travel and recommended him for the part of Festus in Us Haggens. In the episode Festus is seeking revenge for the death of his brother by a cousin played by Denver Pyle. Festus began to recur on the series during 1962, while Ken was also involved in the series Ripcord (1961-1963) co-starring Larry Pennell. In 1964 when Dennis Weaver struck out in new directions, Festus Haggen became a full-time resident of Dodge City. James Arness remarks on the anniversary DVD set that they were worried when Dennis left as to how they would fill the "sidekick" spot and how the audience would react, but once Kenny took hold they knew they had nothing to worry about.
Hailing from somewhere out of the hills, Festus had his own unique speech patten ( "A little's a little, and a lot's a lot, there ain't no little lot, or lot of little, don't you see?" ) and an inexhaustible supply of quirky relatives and tall tales related to same. Festus got under Doc's skin even more than Chester, and that took some doing! Like Chester, Festus was extremely loyal to his friends and as a deputy could be counted on to hold his own when trouble came calling. As time went by, the comic aspects of the character overtook his toughness, yet I think Ken Curtis' supreme Festus moment is the dramatic turn in the 1974 two part episode Island in the Desert guest starring Strother Martin. Memorable television from a memorable character.
Some Gunsmoke fans are quite adamant about their preference for half hour episodes vs. hour, or B&W vs. colour or Meston/MacDonnell years vs. Leacock/Mantley years or Chester vs. Festus. I unabashedly adore all the seasons of Gunsmoke, but if push comes to shove, as it often does, you would not be wrong in considering me the captain of Team Festus.
Newly O'Brien (1967-1975)
I've never indulged in any Quint/Thad/Newly scuffles. I hope we're all in agreement that Newly trumps all. I'd hate for things to get ugly.