Yes, Hopalong (or “Hop-along,” as he was billed in the original credits) Cassidy did indeed limp when he made his screen debut in 1935’s Hopalong Cassidy Enters. But if the black-clad “B” western icon’s infirmity seemed to fade away in time, one thing that stayed constant over the course of the character’s 66 feature films was his tireless dedication to law and order on the American frontier. Played to clean-cut perfection by actor William Boyd, “Hoppy” would remain a Saturday matinee favorite for 14 years, rivaled in popularity only by fellow cowpokes Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, and in the 1950s would find an whole new audience as the star of his own radio and TV series.
To mark Cassidy’s 80th Hollywood anniversary, the good folks at Echo Bridge Home Entertainment earlier this summer released Hopalong Cassidy: The Ultimate Collector’s Edition, a 10-disc set which includes all 66 Hopalong films made by Paramount and United Artists, along with enough extras to fill a saddle bag: a trio of 1951 radio show broadcasts, rare photo and poster galleries, a gallery of comic strips starring Hoppy, and more. And to further celebrate, we here at MovieFanFare have rounded up a passel of fun facts about the beloved hero and the man who played him:
1. The character Hop-Along Cassidy was created in 1904 by Illinois-born author Clarence E. Mulford. Originally depicted in print as a hard-drinking, tough-talking saddle tramp who was far from a children’s role model, Cassidy was featured in over two dozen novels, starting with 1906’s Bar-20. One thing that did carry over from the books to the silver screen was the gunshot wound that gave Hop-Along his nickname.
2. When Paramount began production on Hopalong Cassidy Enters, originally known as just Hop-along Cassidy, actor William Boyd was initally offered the part of ranch foreman Buck Peters (the studio had apparently planned for character actor James Gleason to play Cassidy). Boyd, however, knew a good opportunity when he saw it, and the white-haired Hollywood veteran fought for and won the title role, It was one with which he would be forever linked in the public’s mind; after 1936 the only screen appearances Boyd made were as Hoppy. So, who wound up playing Buck? None other than another Saturday afternoon favorite: Flash Gordon’s arch nemesis Ming the Merciless, Charles Middleton.
3. William Boyd was born in central Ohio in June of 1895 and moved with his family to Oklahoma when he was seven. Orphaned as a teen, he worked at various jobs, everywhere from grocery stores to orange groves to oil fields, before trying his hand at acting. Boyd made his first screen appearance as an extra in C.B. DeMille’s 1918 comedy Old Wives for New and would become a favorite of the director, starring in his 1926 drama The Volga Boatman and playing Simon of Cyrene in the following year’s The King of Kings. Other key pre-Cassidy credits for William included Two Arabian Nights in 1927 and 1929’s The Flying Fool and High Voltage. His career hit a roadblock in the early ’30s when newspapers featured a picture of him while describing a scandal involving the similarly-named William “Stage” Boyd.
4. Once Boyd was established in the role of Hopalong, he took an active part in making sure the character used proper grammatical English, never drank anything harder than sarsaparilla, and never threw the first punch in a fistfight. “I’ve tried to make Hoppy a plain and simple man in manners and dress,” the actor once said. “Hoppy isn’t a flashy character. He isn’t illiterate. Nor is he smart-alecky. He doesn’t use big words or bad words. After all, I felt that Hoppy might be looked up to and that children might try to pattern their lives after the man. If Hoppy said ‘ain’t’ and ‘reckon’ and ‘that-away,’ all the kids might start saying the same things.”
5. While he was certainly the main protagonist in his films, Boyd had a corral of supporting players to help him battle the bad guys (after all, Boyd was already 40 when the series started). First was singing cowpoke Jimmy Ellison, who appeared in Hopalong Cassidy Enters and seven more Hoppy adventures from 1935 to 1937. Other young guns who rode alongside Cassidy included Russell Hayden, Brad King Jay Kirby, Will Rogers’ son Jimmy, future Superman George Reeves, and Rand Brooks. When it came to comic relief, Boyd could “rely” on such sidekicks as the bewhiskered George Hayes from 1935 to 1939 (when he left the series over a salary dispute and later added the nickname “Gabby”) as Windy, followed by Mack Sennett alum Andy Clyde, who played California Carson from 1940 to the final film in 1948. Hoppy’s most frequent co-star was, of course, his faithful horse, Topper.
6. Speaking of co-stars, that’s indeed none other than Robert Mitchum trying to get the drop on Boyd in a scene from 1943’s Hoppy Serves a Writ. It was the third screen turn for the movie tough guy and future Academy Award nominee, who cut his eyeteeth on the western genre and appeared in seven different Cassidy entries, usually on the wrong side of the law.
7. By the late 1940s many Hollywood cowboys were starting to ride off into the sunset (on the screen, that is), and the 66th and last Hopalong Cassidy oater, Strange Gamble, was released in 1948. By this time, William Boyd had taken a strange gamble of his own, purchasing the rights to the Hopalong character from writer Mulford and producing the final batch of pictures himself. He then bought up the entire film library for $350,000 from producer Harry “Pop” Sherman and made a deal with NBC to air it on television. The result was a revived interest from a new generation of young western fans and the launch of a half-hour Hopalong Cassidy TV series, which ran from 1952 to 1954 and featured Edgar Buchanan as Red Connors, Boyd’s new sidekick. It also led to a stampede of Hoppy-related merchandise.
8. What kind of “Hoppy-related merchandise,” you ask? Well, among the items were cowboy hats and costumes (all in stylish black, of course), cap guns, roller skates, pillowcases, mugs and dinnerware, ice cream, radios, cameras, board games, paintable figurines, comic books, trading cards and more. A 1950 Aladdin lunchbox plastered with Boyd’s image was the first to feature a licensed TV character and sold over 600,000 copies. Boyd himself–usually riding Topper–made appearances at parades and stage shows across the country and was featured on the covers of such magazines as Life, Look and TV Guide. He even had his own short-lived Southern California theme park, Hoppyland, in the early ’50s (could Hoppyland have inspired Walt Disney to open his own park?).
9. After Boyd hung up his big-screen spurs with a 1952 cameo as himself in his old pal C.B. DeMille’s big top drama The Greatest Show on Earth, the director later approached him and asked him to consider playing Moses in DeMille’s epic remake of The Ten Commandments. Boyd declined, fearing that audiences would think only of Hoppy while watching him part the Red Sea and not take the film and its story seriously.
10. Having made a comfortable living from his cinematic alter ego, Boyd spent the final two decades of his life in retirement with fifth wife Grace Bradley, whom he married in 1937. He declined (politely, we’re sure) all requests for interviews or TV appearances (including one from Johnny Carson when the two crossed paths on a cross-country flight in the mid-’60s), saying that he feared it would be too much of a shock to his now-grown fans to see their former frontier hero as an old man. After undergoing treatment for lymphatic cancer, his health declined, and the clean-living, sharpshooting idol of boys and girls for decades passed away in September of 1972 from heart failure and complications from Parkinson’s disease.
11. In 2009 the United States Postal Service honored Boyd by putting him on a commemorative stamp, one of 20 on their Early TV Memories sheet. Joining Hoppy–and his equine pal, Topper–were fellow gunslinger The Lone Ranger, Lassie, Jack Webb, Ozzie and Harriet, Howdy Doody and other favorite small-screen pioneers.
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