In this installment of my Gunsmoke musings, I ask the all-important question:
Chester or Festus?
Which was your favorite? Which was the most help to Marshal Dillon?
It ranks in importance with other earth shattering pop culture decisions- who was your favorite Bond? Your favorite Law & Order detective? Your favorite Third Stooge? (for me it’s a close call between Curly and Shemp… I wish they could’ve been the Four Stooges! But I digress.)
First, a little background.
Chester Goode, played by Dennis Weaver, was a member of the original cast- and, like all the other originals, was a carryover from the radio program. On the radio version his name had been Chester Wesley Proudfoot, and he did not have the distinctive stiff-legged limp –that was introduced by Weaver. The limp is never explained; Chester does, however, mention serving in the army, so I always figured it was probably a war wound. The fact he got into the army suggests the limp came afterwards.
A common misperception: Chester was not a deputy. He wore no badge, and was described as “the marshal’s assistant.” It seems that he had been hired by Matt to help out around the jail; cleaning up, running errands, making coffee. However, Chester did often back the marshal’s play when apprehending bad guys –always taking a shotgun or one of the rifles from the rack in the office, never wearing a pistol.
In one episode (“Reward for Matt,” Season One), fearing for Matt’s safety, Chester surreptitiously took the marshal’s back-up revolver- “that old rusty Remington you keep in your desk.” Matt takes it away from him: “Sorry, Chester. A man has to kill his own snakes.”
Dennis Weaver left the series in the middle of the ninth season, having appeared in 290 episodes. He left to star in his own series, Kentucky Jones, which only lasted one season (but he had much more success later, with Gentle Ben and McCloud, and gave an excellence performance as trail-boss R.J. Poteet in the miniseries Centennial.)
The Gunsmoke writers gave no reason for Chester’s departure- one week he was there, the next week he was not, and he was never mentioned again that I am aware of. In fact, that tended to be the procedure on the show; new cast members were always introduced with an “origin” episode, showing them arrive in town, but when they left they were just gone without a word of explanation. The half-Comanche blacksmith Quint Asper, played by Burt Reynolds, is the only character I ever recall being mentioned again after they left (Festus: “Matthew, we’ve gone through several blacksmiths since the Comanche left.”)
Festus Haggen, played by Ken Curtis, was introduced in an eighth-season episode (“Us Haggens”), became a recurring character in the ninth season, and took over as Matt’s sidekick when Chester left –edging his predecessor out by appearing in 304 episodes. The apparently unlimited Haggen clan are sometimes referred to as Missouri ridge-runners, and Ken Curtis said he based the accent on someone he knew from his native Colorado… but said accent is very authentic Appalachian dialect.
Ken Curtis- a singer as well as an actor, and a former member of the Sons of the Pioneers –released two albums in the late ‘60s, singing and telling stories in character as Festus.
In one of the tales, “Ode to a Mule,” he tells of being a mule skinner in the Confederate Army, and specifically at the battle of Franklin in Tennessee. General Schofield (the Union commander) “was mighty hard on us Tennessee boys.” Festus came under heavy fire while trying to recover Confederate dead from Hood’s ill-fated charge- he survived only because his faithful mule Ruth carried him through the hail of bullets, succumbing herself once they reached safety. In gratitude to the mule who died carrying him to safety, he swore to name every mule he owned thereafter “Ruth,” no matter their sex.
The story tells us a lot about Festus. We can safely assume that the Haggen clan was comprised of East Tennessee mountain folk who migrated to Missouri at some point. Again, being from the area myself, the accent is perfect- my wife didn’t believe ye could be jobbed in the eye with a stob till she heard Festus say it too.
When we first met him, Festus was a man who had apparently spent most of his life on the wrong side of the law –like all his kin. His brother Jeff had been killed by a shotgun blast while trying to rob a stagecoach, and his twin brother Fergus had died of wounds received from a posse after a botched bank robbery. Festus first encounters Matt when they are hunting the same man- Black Jack Haggen, Festus’ uncle, who had abandoned the injured Fergus, stealing his horse and leaving him for dead. Matt and Festus strike up an uneasy partnership, catching the older bandit (who winds up shot dead by the marshal.)
We see Festus again the following season (the ninth)… trying to keep to the straight and narrow, he is now working in the Dodge area as a prairie wolfer. He shows up in town from time to time to trade in his hides, and winds up helping Matt more than once. For a very brief spell, Festus and Chester are both in Dodge- and they seemed to be fast friends.
After Chester leaves, Matt begins occasionally deputizing Festus and leaving him to watch over things when the marshal has to be out of town (this as-needed situation is first described in the season ten episode “Deputy Festus.”) Later, Thad Greenwood and then Newly O’Brien also serve as part-time deputies. Festus initially works part-time at Moss Grimmick’s livery stable, doing repair work to wagons (a skill he would’ve learned as a mule-skinner, no doubt) but eventually seems to be Matt’s full-time deputy, even doing the work of a deputy U.S. marshal (tracking fugitives in other states.) In the final season, Matt usually leaves Newly “in charge” –and, as we learn in the first TV movie, Newly eventually takes Matt’s place as marshal.
There’s the background. So who’s your favorite? I’ll say upfront that –while I like both characters –if I were the marshal and had to pick one I’d go with Festus. Here is how the two match up, in various categories…
Though Chester can be relied on in a posse, or for laying down covering fire… he’s not really a tough guy. He is hampered physically by his bad leg; he is also high-strung, nervous, fastidious, and a hypochondriac. One gets the distinct feeling he doesn’t wear a pistol because Matt doesn’t allow him to, figuring he’d get himself killed.
However, Chester is brave and determined… and as the show progresses, you can almost see the frustration in Dennis Weaver as he tires of being the gimpy sidekick and wishes for a more central, heroic role. He gets it a few times, in his last couple of seasons – catching some bad guys and solving some mysteries. The very last episode he appears in, “Bently,” features Chester figuring out who the killer is –only to be brushed off somewhat ignominiously by Matt, Doc, Quint, and Kitty. Not only do they not believe him, they are impatient with his antics, treating him like an idiot. Turns out Chester was right –the old farmer who had died leaving everyone to believe he had robbed and murdered Dave Bently was innocent; the bad-guy rancher who had really committed the crime (due to jealousy) tried to have Chester killed because he was snooping around too much, and accidentally killed his own young wife –who had been trying to warn Chester.
The last time we see Chester he is deeply shaken by the turn of events, and offers to escort the innocent man’s elderly widow to the stage, right after she learned that her husband had not been a killer and that Chester was the only one who had believed in him. In the last scene they are walking silently together to the depot. The more I watch that final scene, the more convinced I am that Chester just got on that stage with her and went someplace he’d be appreciated.
So I think in the final analysis Chester was more competent than the audience –or any of his friends –really realized.
Festus, on the other hand, was portrayed from the very beginning as a handy person to have in a shooting scrape or a brawl, as well as a talented tracker. If anything, he became more of a caricature as time went on –for some reason getting more scruffy and squinty-eyed after his first few seasons (Curtis also changed the character’s voice, making it deeper.) Toward the end of the series, the viewer could pretty much know that when Matt left town someone or other was going to knock Festus and Newly in the head and take over Dodge. Even then, however, Festus was presented as much more competent than Chester would have been –and many episodes were centered on Festus trailing desperadoes alone. And he was a hellion in a rough-and-tumble, apt to bite off that there hangy-down part of your ear.
From day one, Matt’s interactions with Festus demonstrated mutual respect and trust in his abilities, while his treatment of Chester was condescending and protective.
BEING THE MARSHAL’S ASSISTANT
This was Chester’s official designation, and he was much better at the duties it entailed than Festus would or could have been. He always kept the coffee fresh, cleaned the place up (although I recall him grumbling once about Matt making him wash windows, which “ain’t no type of job for a man”), delivered messages, kept the prisoners fed, and so on. Festus, on the other hand, was seriously hampered by the fact he was completely illiterate… and he just wasn’t a tidy person like Chester.
Believe it or not, Festus wins this one… scruffy as he was on a normal day (and when he was prairie-wolfin’ he was even scruffier), Festus had something Chester did not.
A fancy dress shirt.
When the occasion suggests it, Festus foregoes his usual white shirt and goes with a sort of paisley one –he fastens the collar button, and even adds arm garters. The best Chester does is sometimes add a vest to his simple wardrobe.
Chester sings to himself while he putters around the office –his favorite tune, which I don’t recognize, is about moving to Kansas. He also plays guitar pretty well, and blows a mean comb.
But he can’t compete with Festus. In his early episodes, Deputy Haggen occasionally unleashes that mellifluous Ken Curtis singing voice. He also, in those first few seasons he was on the show, frequently sings his own theme song: “Festus, don’t let no pretty woman make a fool of you… build yourself a herd, then you can cull one out if you want to…”
Both Chester and Festus are known for working hard when the occasion warrants, and for working hard to make sure the occasion doesn’t warrant. They’re also both cheap, and always on the lookout for a free drink or meal.
We get to meet Chester’s “wild” brother Magnus, and the uncle who raised Chester after his father died, Wesley Goode (Magnus ran away and went wild when he was ten, never sleeping in a bed again. My guess would be that when Wesley’s brother died, he tried to take in both boys but Magnus didn’t cooperate.)
In a first season episode, "How to Die for Nothing," however, Chester -after remarking that he was ten years old before he realized boys were supposed to have a ma -says he was raised up by Ben Cherry, a friend of his father's. When asked how long he stayed with him, Chester said "till he pegged out in his sleep one night, then I buried him in the ground and started out on my own." Maybe Uncle Wesley took him in for awhile, then he ended up with Cherry.
Uncle Wesley appears in a fourth season episode that was adapted from one of the radio episodes. Chester’s uncle shows up in town unannounced, to his nephew’s consternation; Chester had been writing home and saying that he was the marshal of Dodge City, and he had an assistant named Mister Dillon. Chester’s friends play along with the charade to help him save face. His uncle is impressed, for he too had a low opinion of his nephew’s competence:
““I had 11 nephews, and Chester was nowhere near the brightest. About number nine. Chester just borders on bein’ ignorant, I’d say… I never thought he’d amount to anything.”
Chester foils a robbery, proving he is not the klutz everyone takes him to be. Well, not completely.
This episode, oddly, keeps the original radio title: “Marshal Proudfoot.”
As discussed earlier, we also met Festus’ uncle (Black Jack) early on. The Haggens just keep coming (“there’s a sight of us around.”) We probably encounter over a dozen, plus we learn of many more via Festus’ stories (he frequently quotes his Grandpa Hawg Haggen.) There were so many, in fact, I’m not going to go into detail here and instead make them the subject of a future installment.
Both Chester and Festus make a second career out of arguing with Doc Adams, often reducing him to dyspeptic sputtering.
One thing that sets Festus apart in his first couple of seasons is his close friendship with the blacksmith, Quint Asper (Burt Reynolds.) It is a very playful relationship, showing us a side of Festus we rarely see otherwise. The episode “Comanches Is Soft” (Festus’ frequent rejoinder to the half-Comanche blacksmith), in which Festus and Quint go on a drunken, carousing adventure, is one of the funniest of the series.
“Mad Dog” is another favorite of mine, in which Festus is mistaken for a deadly gunfighter in another town… and also thinks he is dying of rabies, and decides he’d rather go out shooting (and biting) his enemies.
The funniest Chester episode (and one of the best in the series), by contrast, is “Chesterland”… in which Chester tries to satisfy his (somewhat accidental) fiancée by building a house out on the prairie. His housekeeping/homebuilding efforts are one hilarious disaster after another, and the girl was only after what little money he had anyway. So in the midst of the hilarity, there is still great sadness… and the humor with Chester, almost always, is along the lines of “Poor Chester… he really does try so hard, but he just can’t accomplish anything.” While often funny, that’s no fun.
“Chesterland” is probably the high point of Chester’s love life. He has a few unrequited crushes, gets taken advantage of a lot, and the one time he meets a woman who really does appreciate him –she throws him over and runs off with an outlaw, to keep the outlaw from killing him (“He Learned about Women.”)
Festus at least does have a steady girlfriend for awhile- April, who was introduced in the same episode he was and who appeared several times in the ninth season. There are also a few widder-women that take an interest in Festus, and sometimes vice-versa (Chester had an ill-fated widow adventure as well, and an ill-fated mail order bride.)
That’s MY assessment- of course, I may be biased in favor of Festus, because he is the Gunsmoke sidekick I grew up with. When I talk to folks older than me, they tend to prefer Chester. I think that if they ever do a TV or big screen remake of Gunsmoke –as they are about to do with The Big Valley and The Rifleman –they should use both Chester AND Festus, with Chester as the “marshal’s assistant” taking care of things at the jail and Festus as the chief deputy. That would be perfect.