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.