With the recent passing of that sublime and absolutely natural Westerner James Arness, who will live in perpetuity as the forever able and Zen-master-with-a -six-gun Matt Dillon in endless reels of, Gunsmoke episodes ( all truly worth seeing), I thought of one of Matt’s few kindred spirits, Festus, played quite iconically by Ken Curtis.
In the Kitty-Doc-Festus triangle that serves the great independent spirit of the perpetual flinty and eternally taciturn Dillon, Doc (Milburn Stone) functioned as Matt’s most intellectual companion, an equal to ruefully discuss philosophy and occasionally plan strategy with, and of course, just like the Marshall, an ever astute judge of character.
Kitty (Amanda Blake), the red-haired proprietor of The Long Branch, the town’s saloon and elegant (and unsaid) whorehouse, was Matt’s only channel for overt emotion, passion, or sexuality, and she also exists as the foremost manifestation of burgeoning civilization, while she also coexisted as the triangle’s most emotive, hardened but still given to concrete measures of gentility, and—as all bar owners are—a quick interpreter of character.
Festus, who came to the show belatedly (after the show departures of Matt’s earlier two ids—Chester (Dennis Weaver)—the rube that Matt once was, and Quint (Burt Reynolds) -the half-blood native American who was of true Indian heritage the way the symbiotic Matt could never be), was a pure hillbilly and part scoundrel and the embodiment of cornpone digression , yet Matt admired him for his uncompromising ways, his disregard for much of what counted as airs, his unwavering loyalty to those who did the right thing, and his surprisingly cat-like ability to leap into action and mayhem, his sharpened gun battle tactics, his high lonesome love of the life’s simplicities, and deep-to-the-bone divining skills of sussing out potentially dangerous characters. Oh yeah, Festus had a helluva way with words, and somehow the Gunsmoke writing staff knew the only Ken Curtis could continually shoot that empty bottle off the fence post:
“ Let’s just cabbage on to them.”
“You’re nuthin’ but an ornery old scudder.”
“Just keep on blabberin’ alluva the time.”
“Righty thoughty of ya.”
“Mighty thoughty of ya.”
“I’ll be on you like ugly on an ape.”
“You better have a hollerin’ kinda of a voice, because he’s 45 miles away.”
“Just like two tumbleweeds, kinda bumpity-bumping across the prairie will directly hit a barbwire fence and just kinda hang up there till there ain’t nuthin left.”
“I’ll pay you back before you can say the rat ran over the roost with a piece of liver in his mouth.”
“What in the name of seventeen billygoats are you doing here?”
“You make me so damned mad I could smoke a pickle.”
“One thang about thinking, it aint like buttermilk…well, you can set it aside for a while and it won’t go bad.”
“It’s seems like some folks is born to lose, it’s the other’s that gotta work at it.”