‘Gunsmoke’: Why the Show Ran Up $135,000 Before Filming Started

CBS wanted to make “Gunsmoke” special in bringing the popular radio show to TV. Their efforts cost them $135,000 before an episode aired.

Let’s put that amount in modern-day terms. That’s more than $1 million in today’s finances compared to that time in 1954. CBS executives, though, wanted “Gunsmoke” to be a truly special show on their network.

According to an article on MEtv.com, CBS went to director Charles Marquis Warren for help. They wanted Warren, who specialized in Western movies, to bring his same big-screen magic to the small screen.

Warren started the process, but it cost the network a pretty penny.

Gunsmoke’ Director Meticulously Picked Main Actors

One thing he wanted was the actors portraying characters to do so with a sense of realism. Warren spent time writing special 10-minute individual scenes for each character. More than 100 actors did screen tests for the four major roles of Marshal Matt Dillon, Miss Kitty, Chester, and Doc.

In the end, James Arness, Amanda Blake, Dennis Weaver, and Milburn Stone beat out all the other actors for the roles. That process itself, which included the use of a real set and film crew, saw Warren use $44,500.

“In a weekly series, you have to have actors in the continuing roles who are real and natural,” Warren said in a 1955 interview with Broadcasting Magazine. “If anything, they must underplay, yet never become boring to the television viewer.”

Warren Builds Indoor Set, Gets Show Scripts Prepared

A 12,000-square-foot indoor set that would be a near replica of how Dodge City’s main street looked back in the 1800s was built. The set’s walls and facades were put on wheels, making it easier to move around for one scene or another. That set cost $34,000 by itself, a price unheard of for a TV show that’s not even yet on the air.

Let’s take a look at what Warren has put together at this time. He has his four main actors, plus an indoor set. What is the director missing right now? Scripts. That is one thing Warren didn’t want to put his time around at all.

Story development for “Gunsmoke” started in late 1954. Shooting episodes started in the summer of 1955. At the time Warren started filming the show’s pilot episode, 26 scripts were written. The full 39 needed for the first season was done and approved in time for the show’s premiere in September 1955.

‘Gunsmoke’ Gets John Wayne To Open Initial Episode

“Gunsmoke” even received a special blessing of sorts from movie legend John Wayne, who suggested Arness for the Dillon role. Wayne introduces Arness and Marshal Matt Dillon to TV viewers as “Gunsmoke” makes its first appearance on CBS. It was the kind of boost that gave Warren’s work an extra spark with viewers at home.

From that point on, “Gunsmoke” stayed on CBS for 20 seasons. A few cast members would come and go, but Arness played Dillon from opening credits to the final episode.

It cost CBS a pretty penny back in the day, but their expenditure ended up being repaid many times over and over.

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