William Lawrence Boyd, known throughout the world as “Hopalong Cassidy”, was born June 5, 1895 in Hendrysburg, Ohio, to Charles William Boyd, and his wife, the former Lida Wilkens (aka Lyda). Following his father’s death, Boyd moved to California to seek work. In Hollywood, he worked as an extra in Why Change Your Wife? (1920) and other films. More prominent film roles followed, including his breakout role as Jack Moreland in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Road to Yesterday (1925). Boyd’s performance in the film was praised by critics, and movie-goers alike and DeMille soon cast him as the lead in the highly acclaimed silent drama film, The Volga Boatman which firmly established him as a matinee idol and romantic “leading man.”
In 1935, Boyd was offered the supporting role of Red Connors in the movie Hop-Along Cassidy, but he asked to be considered for the title role and won it. The original character of Hopalong Cassidy, written by Clarence E. Mulford for pulp magazines, was changed from a hard-drinking, rough-living red-headed wrangler to a cowboy hero who did not smoke, swear, or drink alcohol (his drink of choice being sarsaparilla) and who always let the bad guy start the fight. Like cowboy stars Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, Boyd gained lasting fame in the Western film genre.
The “Hoppy” films were more polished than the typical low-budget westerns of the time and usually featured superior outdoor photography and familiar supporting players from major Hollywood films. Theaters responded to the high quality of the productions by giving the series more exposure than other cowboy films of the time. When interest in the character faded the producer, Harry Sherman, abandoned the Hopalong Cassidy franchise. However, Boyd was determined to keep it alive and produced the last 12 Cassidy features himself. But in spite of his efforts the series ended in 1948. Boyd remained convinced that the character was still a viable property and, after selling or mortgaging almost everything he owned, purchased the rights and film backlog from Sherman for $350,000.00.
In 1948 Boyd offered a print of one of his pictures to the local NBC television station hoping for new exposure. The film was so well received that NBC asked for more, and soon Boyd released the entire library to the national network. The films were extremely popular and began the long-running genre of Westerns on television making William Boyd the first national TV star. Like Gene Autry and Roy Rogers, Boyd licensed a phenomenal amount of merchandise relating to Hopalong Cassidy including watches, trash cans, cups, dishes, Topps trading cards, a comic strip, comic books, cowboy outfits, home-movie digests of his Paramount releases via Castle Films, and a new Hopalong Cassidy radio show, which ran from 1948 to 1952.
Although Boyd’s portrayal of Hopalong made him a wealthy man, he believed in supporting his biggest fans: America’s youth. Consequently, he refused to license his name for products he viewed as unsuitable or dangerous, and turned down personal appearances at which children would be charged admission.
William Boyd passed away in 1972 leaving a legion of loyal fans who continue to follow his onscreen exploits to this day. The American Heritage Center is proud to house, preserve, and make available to the public the personal papers and memorabilia of this amazing individual who to this day means so much to so many.
Post contributed by AHC Assistant Director and Collections Manager William L. Hopkins.