‘Gunsmoke’: Why the Cast and Crew Weren’t Allowed to Call the Long-Running Series a ‘Western’

The word “Western” was so faux pas on the set of Gunsmoke that actors had to contribute to a swear jar if they uttered 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,” Broadcast once reported.

The series ran for exactly two decades and got its start back in 1955. At that time, Westerns were all the rage. In fact, two Westerns were even up for an Oscar the year that Gunsmoke premiered.

But for some reason, original director Charles Marquis Warren despised the label. And he didn’t want the actors getting into the viewers’ heads and making them think that his show fit the mold.

Sorry, Warren, but we can’t think of a better label for Gunsmoke.

What makes Warren’s distaste even more interesting is that he was “one of the motion picture industry’s leading experts on the American frontier West.”

Nevertheless, the director went to great lengths to ensure that his series stood out from the other Western-type shows that were popular at the time so no one had to donate to the cursed jar.

While doing so, he spent $135,000 on Gunsmoke before he even began filming. To put that into perspective, that’s equivalent to over $1 million dollars today.

‘Gunsmoke’ Director Spent a Fortune on Auditions

Auditions alone set the series back $44,500. Because Charles Marquis Warren wanted to hire actors who could portray their parts in a realistic manner—as opposed to the sometimes cheesy characters in other (dare we say) Westerns—he concocted a time-consuming plan.

Instead of asking hopeful actors to perform “a scene from some Broadway play, which showed the timbre of his voice or the caliber of his gestures,” he scripted a 10-minute scene that focused on each main character from the show.

Warren shot 150 auditions under that costly plan and, of course, ended up casting James Arness, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Milburn Stone in the lead roles.

According to the director, it was well worth it to invest the handsome chunk of change because, “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.”

After he finalized the star-studded casting decisions, Warren spent another $34,000 on the set. And the rest of the money went towards paying writers to take their time developing perfectly crafted storylines.

In the end, we’d say that Charles Marquis Warren did a fine job turning Gunsmoke into a lasting legacy. By the time the series ended, it had won four Emmy Awards.

But it also won eight other trophies from the Western Heritage Awards and the Western Writers of America. So sadly for him, Warren did not achieve his goal of keeping the series out of the genre.

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