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Festus is Marshal Matt Dillon's second official deputy in the town of Dodge City, Kansas (the first official deputy was Clayton Thaddeus Greenwood). He comes to Dodge City in an episode titled "Us Haggens" to avenge the death of his twin brother, Fergus. He first appeared in 1962 and was part of the main cast from 1964 until 1975. Festus's best-known attributes are his simple vocabulary and demeanor (which hide a sharp eye and considerable native intelligence), which ends up being interpreted by viewers as "lovable" and kept Curtis on the series as a full-time cast member.
Fergus joins their outlaw uncle—Black Jack Haggen—and is wounded trying to escape a posse. When Jack's horse comes up lame, he makes Fergus take the lame horse and leaves Fergus for dead. Fergus, however, makes it back to the Haggen place and tells Festus what happened. Festus rides out after Jack, who has come to the attention of Matt when he kills a local farmer and steals his wagon. Festus joins Matt and they apprehend Jack, who is shot by the marshal in an escape attempt.
Festus decides to stick around Dodge. He can frequently be seen arguing with Doc Adams, or trying to get someone to buy him a beer at the Long Branch Saloon. Although originally distrusted by Matt and the townspeople, Festus is eventually accepted by them and becomes the town's only full-time official deputy marshal. In episodes such as "Deadman's Law," he is in charge of the town.
Little is known of his past life except that he has been a trapper and a laborer on the Transcontinental Railroad and that he cannot read. He repeatedly states that he refuses to learn to read, because he has no way of knowing whether what he reads is true.
- On a phonograph record titled "Gunsmoke's Festus Haggen Calls Out Ken Curtis," it's revealed that he served in the Confederate States Army, and explains why he calls all his mules Ruth. In the episode "Brides and Grooms", he claims to have an uncle "Lazarus Dinglefoot" (though he doesn't indicate whether he's related by blood or marriage)
- Some famous sayings of Festus are "Golly Bill!" and "You ornery ole scudder." He calls Marshal Dillon "MATH-hew"
- There is some confusion on how Festus's last name is spelled. While "Haggen' appears to be the most-widely used spelling outside of the show, episode 562 was titled "Alias Festus Haggin." It also appears on at least one occasion spelled "Haggin" (on the side of a wagon). A Western Union telegram sent to "Festus Haggin" is seen at the end of episode 490 (Season 15, Episode 1, "The Devil's Outpost")