Gunsmoke cost more than $135,000 before filming even began

The word "Western" was not allowed on set. They even had a swear jar for it.

The Everett Collection

Read to Me

Though Gunsmoke had been a popular radio program for many years by the time CBS greenlit a TV version, adapting it to the new medium was far from easy. A behind-the-scenes look in a 1955 issue of Broadcasting magazine opens with the revealing line, "There is more to adapting a radio show to television than inserting camera angles into the script."

Quite a bit more, it turns out — $135,000 more! If that doesn’t sound like too much to develop a hit show, that's over a million dollars in today's money. And it was all spent before any cameras rolled on an actual episode.

When CBS wanted to bring Gunsmoke to television, they approached Charles Marquis Warren, an accomplished movie director and "one of the motion picture industry's leading experts on the American frontier West." Interestingly, Warren never thought of his now-iconic show as a "Western" and hated the label.

As Broadcasting put it, "On the west coast film stage for the series all hands must plunk a nickel in the coffee kitty whenever the naughty word slips out."

Warren's vision to set Gunsmoke apart from other Old West shows started from the very beginning. He wanted actors who could portray their characters in as realistic a way as possible and to ensure he found the best talent, he approached casting in a unique way. Instead of asking an actor to do "a scene from some Broadway play which showed the timbre of his voice or the caliber of his gestures," Warren wrote an original, 10-minute scene that utilized each main character from the show. It was almost a short episode in itself with a beginning, middle and end.

This methodical, if time-consuming, approach partly contributed to the pre-production costs of Gunsmoke. Shooting more than 150 auditions with a real set and film crew cost $44,500. Actors James Arness, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver and Milburn Stone were chosen for the four leads over dozens of other hopefuls, including 25 other actors vying just for the part of Matt Dillon.

Warren explained why it was so important to find the very best actors for each role. "In a weekly series, you have to have actors in the continuing roles who are real and natural. If anything, they must underplay, yet never become boring to the television viewer," he told Broadcasting.

Finding actors was only part of the expense of bringing Gunsmoke to the small screen. A 12,000 square foot indoor set was designed to recreate what a street in the real Dodge City of the late 1800s may have looked like. The walls and facades of the buildings were constructed on wheels so that they could be moved around to accommodate cameras, lights and crew members in a variety of setups. All in all, the set cost around $34,000 — a price tag few shows at that time could match.

The final chunk of initial expense for Gunsmoke came from the creation of the stories themselves. Warren and fellow producer Robert Stabler loathed the idea of pumping out scripts as fast as possible and allowed writers to work for months creating outlines, breakdowns and revisions. Development on stories began in late 1954 but the shooting didn't start until the summer of 1955. By the time filming on the pilot commenced, 26 scripts had been written with the full 39 needed for the first season done and approved by the time the show premiered in September 1955.

It's hard to fault Warren and Stabler for their dedication to making Gunsmoke as good as it could be from the outset. While some shows need a few episodes, or sometimes a few seasons, to find their footing, Matt Dillon and company hit the TV airwaves in good shape. Not only was there a surprise introduction from John Wayne, but the premiere sees Matt get gravely wounded, a rarity for a TV Western hero.

It's easy to forget how revolutionary a realistic and grounded approach to television production was in 1955, especially for a Western. Gunsmoke paved the way for many other great cinematic series like The Rifleman, Rawhide, and Wagon Train which premiered in the years after. It's a testament to Charles Marquis Warren's vision that his show outlasted them all, putting new adventures from Dodge City on TV for two whole decades.

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m0t0pSyCh0 17 days ago
I discovered Gunsmoke by accident while channel surfing. It's been almost 18 years, and to this day I still get surprised when I watch an episode I had not before. I am a forever fan and enjoy watching the gang every day and night. Outstanding stories, actors and crew. I prefer to watch Gunsmoke over the B.S that is offered on t.v now. Oh! Gotta go... show starts in...now!
HerbF 20 days ago
It should be pointed out that the Radio Show had been on the air for only a couple of years before CBS decided to move it to TV. The radio cast was unsuitable for the TV Version. (Although Howard McNair who played Doc on the radio might have been good on TV. He later played Floyd on "The Andy Griffith Show".)

Besides that, the first few seasons DID reuse Radio Scripts. and Plots - so the time needed to adapt them to Television does make sense.
denny HerbF 15 days ago
William Conrad (Cannon) played Matt Dillon on the radio show. And another Mayberry alumn, Parley Baer played Chester. It's wild that it ran on radio until 1961 while also having the TV series on as well.
MichaelSkaggs 20 days ago
Thank you, Gunsmoke, for giving us people we would not be embarrassed of to have in our homes.
stephaniestavropoulos 22 days ago
METV owes CBS .25 cents for the 5 times they used the "naughty word!" {Or is that .20 cents?}
hoopers56 23 days ago
I love Gunsmoke. I watch it every day if I’m home. I love all the different characters who perform in multiple roles.
Pacificsun 23 days ago
It's not easy to forget at all.
All that preparation, care and attention to detail is what made Gunsmoke last as long as it did.

Should be a lesson to creators/producers rushing stuff into production in this day, just to see what sticks to the (viewer's attention) wall.
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Lantern justjeff 21 days ago
After listening to the radio Gunsmoke on Sirius XM (I wasn't around for it originally), I prefer it over the TV version.
You referred to Gunsmoke as an "Adult Western." It was forbidden to call the show a Western on the set. If anybody did, they had to do what I suggested, cough up a nickel. That's why I said what I did.
Oh... that was the TV Show! The ***radio*** show branded itself "an Adult Western".
denny Lantern 15 days ago
I just found all the Gunsmoke radio broadcasts online for free. Thanks for bringing that my attention. It's on archive.org for anyone wanting to check it out.
Andybandit 23 days ago
Good story, I like Gunsmoke. Especially when it is in color.
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