Western star William Boyd (1895-1972) was born on this day.
Almost exclusively known as “Hopalong Cassidy” today, Boyd had acted in pictures for nearly two decades before that fortuitous role came along. Born in Ohio, raised in Oklahoma, Boyd moved to Southern California as a young man and worked at a succession of odd jobs. In 1918, he found work as an extra in silent movies. Thanks to his good looks and natural acting ability by the mid ’20s he was starring in features by Cecil B. De Mille, D.W. Griffith and others, including The Road to Yesterday (1925), The Volga Boatman (1926), The King of Kings (1927), and Lady of the Pavements (1929). When sound came in, Boyd continued to star in films, though normally ones of lesser prestige. They include the western The Painted Desert (1931) with Helen Twelvetrees and Clark Gable in his very first film; and Suicide Fleet and Carnival Boat, both in 1932 opposite a very young Ginger Rogers. His last pre-Hopalong film was Port of Lost Dreams (1934) with Lola Lane.
Hopalong Cassidy was a character created by writer Clarence E. Mulford in 1904 in a series of novels and short stories written for pulp magazines, When the first Hopalong movie was made in 1935, Boyd originally audition for the sidekick role, but lobbied for the lead, and won. He was 40 years old at the time. The character’s unusual name stems from the fact that in the origin story he was shot in the leg and walks with a limp ever afterward. As conceived in the original stories he was a bit of a rough character, given to drinking and cussing. Hollywood cleaned him up for the children’s market. The movie version of Hopalong Cassidy didn’t drink, smoke, swear, or start fights. Cassidy’s famous beverage of choice was sarsaparilla, which became fodder for many a comedy routine.
Unusual for a movie hero, Hoppy dressed all in black, usually the preferred symbolic color for villains. He also benefited from a series of colorful sidekicks, played by Gabby Hayes, Britt Wood, and Andy Clyde.
The Hopalong Cassidy films were wildly popular. 66 of them were made and released to cinemas through 1948. They were better made than most B movie westerns, but everything must run its course. Towards the end, the produced of the series, Harry Sherman, pulled out. Boyd truly believed in the franchise, however. He bought the rights to the property from Sherman and produced the last dozen Hoppy films himself. In 1949, he sold them to television, making Hopalong Cassidy the first western TV series. With 66 features in the can, it was an easy matter to cut them down to an hour for television and have enough material for a weekly show. The popularity was so great that a series of new episodes were then created, with Edgar Buchanan as his sidekick. The films were re-released to cinemas, and a new radio series was launched, running from 1948 through 1952. The TV series ran through 1954. Boyd made a fortune from all of this, as well as from the licensing for a comic strip, comic books, trading cards, toys and other merchandise.
He made the cover of Time!
Despite his professional success, Boyd appears to have had a tumultuous private life. He was married no less than five times: to socialite Laura Maynard, and then to four actresses: Ruth Miller (not the same as Patsy Ruth Miller), Elinor Fair, Dorothy Sebastian, and Grace Bradley.