June 5 (1895) is the birthday of William Boyd who played and more or less lived the Western film series character of Hopalong Cassidy. He often dressed as Hopalong Cassidy in public.
He was born in Ohio but raised in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both his parents died when he was in his early teens and eventually he moved to Hollywood in 1919 to try his luck there. At that age he already had gray hair. But he was tall, handsome, well-built, blue-eyed and suave, and he found parts as a leading man in silent romance films.
In 1931 his very successful career crashed when he was mistaken for another actor with the same name involved in a scandal. The newspaper mistakenly published Boyd’s picture instead of the picture of the real culprit. A retraction was printed later, but the damage had already been done. Boyd got small parts in films after that and used the name Bill Boyd to avoid possible confusion.
But in 1935 he was offered the role of Hopalong Cassidy in a new Western film series then about to start. And that was the only role Boyd played for the rest of his film and TV career. He had no experience as a cowboy, but he became Hopalong Cassidy.
The films were hugely popular – and profitable. Budgets for them were larger than usual for B Western films, but they were still cranked out regularly. Boyd made as many as six of these films in a year.
The character of Hopalong Cassidy was based on a series of Western novels written by Clarence E. Mulford from 1906 to 1941. In the books Hopalong was a drinking, smoking, swearing, woman-chasing trouble-seeker. But Boyd convinced the producer of the series to change the traits of the character very significantly. Boyd’s Hoppy didn’t drink, didn’t smoke, and didn’t swear and was rather moralistic.
And he usually left the women to a younger sidekick. In 1935 Boyd was already 40, and he didn’t think he should play the romance lead anymore. (Contrast that to other actors. In “Rio Bravo”, for example, John Wayne was 51 when he romanced Angie [greatest legs in Hollywood] Dickinson, who was 27.) And Boyd always had another sidekick for comedy relief, men like Gabby Hayes. Hence the start of what was deemed “the Western trio”.
Hopalong was spelled Hop-a-long in early versions. It was supposedly because the character had a limp from a leg wound.
Boyd was sometimes referred to as the “good guy with the black hat.” He always wore all black. His big black hat was unusually tall. And his contrasting white hair and blue eyes made for a striking appearance.
Boyd’s famous white horse was named Topper.
Boyd played in all 66 films in the Hopalong Cassidy series, which ended in 1948. Boyd bought all the rights to the series – character, books, films – and released them to TV. He also licensed a huge range of Hopalong Cassidy merchandise. The Hopalong Cassidy character made Boyd very wealthy.
Boyd was always conscious of playing a role model for his “friends”, as he called the kids who watched his movies and TV series and listened on radio. He always had Hoppy speak grammatical English because of that. Later in life he declined to be interviewed or appear on TV or have his picture taken, lest it spoil the image young people (and those who weren’t so young anymore) had of Hopalong Cassidy.
Boyd has a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame. He was inducted into the Western Performers Hall of Fame at the National Cowboy and Western Heritage Museum in Oklahoma City, OK.
Boyd was married five times, in 1917, 1921, 1926, 1930, and 1937. He finally got it right with the last one. They were still married when he died on September 12, 1972.