Gunsmoke producers kept Burt Reynolds' role small out of fear he would take over the show
"Innately, he’s a leading man, which creates something of a problem for us," one producer admitted.
Though he was only in three seasons of Gunsmoke, Burt Reynolds appeared in 50 episodes. He joined the show in season eight – one of many changes the iconic Western went through in the mid-Sixties. Beloved sidekick Chester left the next season, replaced by the fun-loving but often ornery Festus Haggen. All three characters actually appeared in one memorable episode. Soon after that, the show switched to color!
In 1962, Gunsmoke took a chance on a young actor best known in Hollywood at that time for burning bridges on his last series, Riverboat. That actor was of course Burt Reynolds, who demanded to be released from his first regular TV role because he was bored with the character and clashed with star Darren McGavin. Still not mincing words years later, Reynolds told TV Guide “I will say this about McGavin, he is going to be a very disappointed man on the first Easter after his death.”
Reynolds’ behind-the-scenes squabbles didn’t keep him from getting regular guest spots, however. He appeared in Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Naked City, Route 66 and Perry Mason not to mention movies like Angel Baby and Armored Command in between Riverboat and his next regular series role: Quint Asper in Gunsmoke.
The producers in charge of filling TV’s Dodge City with entertaining characters could easily see Reynolds’ talent and charisma, but that’s also what made them wary. Quint was seldom put front and center, especially starting out, for fear he would naturally take over the spotlight.
Talking to TV Guide about the recently hired Reynolds, Gunsmoke producer Norman MacDonnell said, “I have the feeling that if he ever got the bit in his teeth, he’d run away with it. He’s not afraid of man, beast or God.”
But Reynolds got along great with his Gunsmoke castmates. He even named two of them, and a favorite Star Trek guest star, when talking about the best actors to work with. “I’ve worked with nice guys in this business—guys like Jim Arness and Milburn Stone and Ricardo Montalbán, guys who go out of their way to help you all they can.”
Even though he was only in three seasons, and somewhat sidelined for much of that time, Reynolds was a fan-favorite who was frequently mentioned in letters about the show.
MacDonnell could see his new actor’s potential from the beginning. “Innately, he’s a leading man, which creates something of a problem for us. We can’t use him as such.” It seems both Reynolds and the show’s producers knew he was destined for bigger things.
Reynolds told TV Guide his main philosophy in acting, “I don’t care how good or bad I am so long as I’m not dull.”