Wednesday, July 13, 2011

The Eternal Question: Chester or Festus?

Parley Baer
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 Marshal Dillon.

Dennis Weaver
1924 - 2006

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 Marshal 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 major 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
1916 - 1991

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 as Charlie McCorry.

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 pattern ( "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 two memorable actors.

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.

Buck Taylor
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.


  1. I should not admit this but I have never seen an episode of Gunsmoke in my life. I am so ashamed. :(

  2. DL, I knew there were people like you out there, but I (sighs, shakes head sadly)...I never...

    You're young yet. There's still hope. You can be rehabilitated through Old Time Radio sites, DVDs and specialty western channels.

    I'll bet Bing liked "Gunsmoke"!

  3. CW! You actually did it! I am so tickled, and I take full responsibility for the work you had to put into this! Mea culpa...But what a GREAT article - fascinating stuff for a Gunsmoke lover like me, things I never knew about. And you were so fair to Chester -- knowing that you are hands-down Team Festus, I applaud your sense of justice!!

    I'm a black and white Gunsmoke, Chester fan, but like you I just always liked it anyway. I must admit that being Team Chester, I still enjoyed the show when he limped away into the sunset. You reminded me of some of Festus' more endearing qualities, and here comes the big admission - ready? - Curtis was better at the dramatic episodes than Weaver. There, I've said it and you can hold that over my head forever! LOL!

  4. Being part of the Festus generation, I'm happily signing up for team Festus.
    Dennis Weaver will always be McCloud for me, that was a fun series.
    I remember one time Festus said to Doc, "How do you know the readin', you're readin' is right?"
    Caftan Woman, your readin' is always right!

  5. Becky, the credit for this post is entirely yours.

    My "sense of justice", of course, came from all those years of watching "Gunsmoke". Plus, Dennis is pretty irresistible.

    Yes (rubbing hands gleefully), yes, I will hold it over your head forever!

  6. Novabreeze, I appreciate the compliment via Festus.

    "McCloud" was a dandy. Nothing says 70s to me like the Sunday Mystery Movie.

  7. I have to go with Festus, because--as has been noted--he was a actually a deputy! Plus, he was with the show longer.

  8. Howdy, Rick. Welcome to the team. As Festus would say "The onliest thing you get from straddlin’ the fence is a sore backside."

  9. Poor Chester -- so far I'm a team of 1. My Grandpa, always a loyal Gunsmoke fan who held the TV hostage for all episodes, would be another Team Chester. So that's 2! LOL!

  10. I know there are more than 2 of you out there, Becky. They're all just laying low, settin' on the porch, watching the people come into Dodge, and waitin' for Doc to get back from delivering a baby. Their presence is felt.

    1. My husband and I are Chester fans. His vulnerability shines through and so does his loyalty. We watch the reruns every night. There is nothing better on tv even now.

  11. Was Chester the one with the limp? I must have watched "Gunsmoke" as a wee tot, because my parents like to remind me of the day I started walking really funny and would not stop.

    It was the day of my cousin's wedding and they missed the wedding to rush me to the emergency room. I finally 'fessed up that I was walking like the guy on "Gunsmoke." I was about three or four at the time, which would have made it about 1965.

    Last year, I found some half seasons of "Gunsmoke" on DVD at Big Lots for only $6. Looking forward to watching them one of these days.

  12. I will have to defer to you on this one. I can say, however, that I love the new look at Caftan Woman. Snazzy!

  13. Festus, no question. Glad you're with me. I'd hate to lose a friend over this.

  14. I love this: "Nothing says 70s to me like the Sunday Mystery Movie." So, true.

    Love the new blog look. Who does your decorating?

    I just like "Gunsmoke", plain and simple. It's one of those few shows where if I catch the first minute and a half, I get sucked into the whole episode and lose all track of time.

    I prefer the B/W episodes. If somebody was to point a six-shooter at my head and force me to decide, I'd say Festus.

  15. Kevin, that is a very cute story. You must be a legend in your family.

    I guess we're placing you on Team Chester, in charge of distinctive walks.

    I have yet to see it, but they say there is one episode where Dennis forgot to limp and nobody noticed it until it hit the air and they got letters from folks wondering how Chester was cured.

  16. Miss Tracey, I apologize. Obviously, I have let the side down by not indoctrinating you into the wonderful world of "Gunsmoke" in your youth. I still recall with shame the time I showed you "Winchester '73" and your response was "Jimmy Stewart made westerns! Who knew?"

    Thanks so much re the site. I always wanted to be snazzy. Janet helped me make the icons clickable (those that are).

  17. Brian, this is such a relief. Looks like it would have been a deal breaker for both of us.

  18. Thanks, Jacqueline. I started thinking the old look was getting kind of tired, but I can't afford a trip to a spa, so I took it out on the site.

    Consider yourself inducted into Team Festus. However, we will make allowances for a switch in allegiance what with you being a B&W gal and all.

  19. I forgot to tell you how much I LOVE the pink typewriter at the top! Deco art! And you know, I just feel kinship with anybody who loves Gunsmoke, Team Chester OR Team Festus. It was such a great show! I always thought Kitty was so cool and tough and ran her own life -- I liked her!

  20. I thank you, and my pink typewriter thanks you.

    It's true what you say about the "Gunsmoke" kinship. It's a tie that binds.

  21. I just saw this post (not sure how I missed it). The answer is, of course, Radio Chester...TV Festus.

  22. Ivan, you're a true diplomat and a welcome addition to Team Festus. Would you, by any chance, be a "McCloud" fan?

  23. CaftanWoman, because of our original little talk about our preferences, the Chester/Festus question has become eternal! Wish they were still around (they are both dead, aren't they? LOL!). I would write and let them know that we have kept their names alive!

  24. Would you, by any chance, be a "McCloud" fan?

    Very much so -- I think McCloud was Dennis Weaver's crowning TV achievement...much better than Gentle Ben, which I had trouble liking because I was always rooting for the bear to eat little Clint Howard.

  25. Poor little Clint. Hee-hee. "There ya' go."

  26. Caftan Woman! Chester vs. Festus lives again!

  27. We had so much fun with this debate! Chester still stands out for me! As for Newly --- p u!

  28. I loved watching Gunsmoke reruns when I was a kid, and I've gotta go with Team Festus. I even named a stray cat we adopted after him. I always liked the fact that Festus was one of the few characters who ever challenged Matt Dillon but still remained loyal to him.

    1. Amanda, there's been so much fun with this post over the years that I forget to tally the votes.

  29. I've listened to many more radio episodes than I've watched of the TV version. I'm not equipped to choose sides, but love this entry. I may have to set aside time to dedicate to this show soon. So many greats and maybe then I can join this conversation in earnest.


    1. It is so easy to get lost in classic radio and classic television. How do we ever get anything accomplished?

  30. I will have to go with Team Chester, because his character stayed true. But by season 7, I did tire of his uselessness and was happy for the earlier first character portrayal of Festus, then the writers decided he was too intelligent and useful and then made him too much of a foolish character. So, I only liked the Festus of Season 8/9, afterwards he became too much of a joke.

    1. Your contribution to the debate is noted and much appreciated.

  31. Dennis Weaver was great in Duel!

  32. Festus is the best-est. With all due respect to the opinions of those who prefer Chester, I find him annoying more often than not. In fairness, part of that is the writers' fault because the character varies from a very competent quasi-deputy in some episodes to Gunsmoke's version of Barney Fife (minus the likeability Don Knotts brought to his role) in others.

    Chester seemed to create as many problems as he solved, and along the way we had to contend with his bad "southern accent", his even worse singing of the same two or three songs ("I've been all over Kansas . . . In every Kansas town . . .") and his beating around the bush when it comes to telling Matt about some supposedly urgent crisis:

    Chester [rushing towards Matt]: Mr. Dillon! Mr. Dillon!
    Matt: What is it, Chester?!?
    Chester: Oh, it's just tarrible, Mr. Dillon! You got to come quick!
    Matt: Where, Chester?!?
    Chester: Somebody's gonna get kilt if you don't get over thar in a hurry!
    Matt: Over where, Chester?!?
    Chester: I wouldn't of believed it if'n I didn't see it with my own eyes!
    Matt: Believe what, Chester? What's the problem?!?
    Chester: Well, now, that's what I'm a-tryin' to tell you! Ain't you been a-listenin'?

    And while the writers may be to blame for some of that, there are times I suspected Weaver was ad libbing a bit and dragging things out, perhaps to get more screen time. Don't get me wrong: I respect him as an actor. He was excellent in Duel and his Twilight Zone episode ("Shadow Play") is one of the best in a great series, but as Chester he grates on my nerves most episodes.

    Thanks for giving me a place to vent. I've been going through the entire series, I'm halfway through Chester's last stand (i.e., Season 7), and I needed to get that off my chest . . . er.



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