On 24 June 1949, “Hopalong Cassidy” premiered upon television. It would be another three months before “The Lone Ranger” followed suit. Soon, more people were watching “Hopalong” than TV stalwarts Athur Godfrey, Ed Sullivan, and Groucho Marx. Hopalong Cassidy was a fictional cowboy hero created in 1904 by the author Clarence E. Mulford, who wrote a series of popular short stories and many novels based on the character. Mulford, a NY marriage license clerk did not travel to the West until after the publication of his 18th book.
In his early writings, Mulford portrayed the character as rude, dangerous, and rough-talking. From 1935, the character—as played by movie actor William Boyd in films adapted from Mulford’s books—was transformed into a clean-cut hero. Sixty-six popular films appeared, only a few of which relied on Mulford’s stories. Mulford later revised and republished his works to be more consistent with the character’s screen persona.
William Boyd portrayed Cassidy, a man known for his resolve, his honesty, and his sense of justice. Prior to playing Cassidy, Boyd had been a silent screen romantic lead. According to The Way It Was, “Boyd’s Hoppy was as wise as he was no-nonsense. Foreman of the Bar 20 Ranch, the sharp-thinking, hard-riding sleuth tirelessly pursued a host of unsavory hombres, from cattle rustlers to murderers to lusters after gold.”
Boyd was born in Hendrysburg in Belmont County, located 26 miles east of Cambridge, Ohio. He was reared in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the son of day laborer Charles William Boyd and his wife, the former Lida Wilkens. Following his father’s death, he moved to California and worked as an orange picker, surveyor, tool dresser and auto salesman.
In Hollywood, he found extra work in Why Change Your Wife? and other films. During World War I, he enlisted in the army but was exempt because of a “weak heart.” More prominent film roles followed, and he became famous as a leading man in silent film romances, earning an annual salary of $100,000. He was the lead actor in Cecil B. DeMille’s The Volga Boatman (1926) and DeMille’s extravaganza, The King of Kings, helping Christ carry the cross as Simon of Cyrene and also in DeMille’s Skyscraper. He then appeared in D.W. Griffith’s, Lady of the Pavements (1929).
Radio Pictures ended Boyd’s contract in 1931 when his picture was mistakenly run in a newspaper story about the arrest of another actor, William “Stage” Boyd, on gambling and liquor charges. Having been reckless with his money, Boyd was broke and without a job, and for a few years he was credited in several films as “Bill Boyd” to prevent being mistaken for his actor namesake.
As portrayed on the screen, white-haired Bill “Hopalong” Cassidy was usually clad strikingly in black (including his hat, an exception to the western film stereotype that only villains wore black hats). He was reserved and well spoken, with a sense of fair play. He was often called upon to intercede when dishonest characters took advantage of honest citizens. “Hoppy” and his white horse, Topper, usually traveled through the west with two companions—one young and trouble-prone with a weakness for damsels in distress, the other comically awkward and outspoken.
The juvenile lead was successively played by James Ellison, Russell Hayden, George Reeves, and Rand Brooks. George Hayes (later to become known as “Gabby” Hayes) originally played Cassidy’s grizzled sidekick, Windy Halliday. After Hayes left the series because of a salary dispute with producer Harry Sherman, he was replaced by the comedian Britt Wood as Speedy McGinnis and finally by the veteran movie comedian Andy Clyde as California Carlson. Clyde, the most durable of the sidekicks, remained with the series until it ended. A few actors of future prominence appeared in Cassidy films, notably Robert Mitchum, who appeared in seven films at the beginning of his career.
The 66 Hopalong Cassidy pictures were filmed by independent producers who released the films through the studios. Most “Hoppies,” as the films were known, were distributed by Paramount Pictures to favorable returns. They were noted for fast action and outdoor photography (usually by Russell Harlan). Harry Sherman wanted to make more ambitious movies and tried to cancel the Cassidy series, but popular demand forced Sherman back into production, this time for United Artists. Sherman gave up the series in 1944, but William Boyd wanted to keep it going. To do this, he gambled his future on Hopalong Cassidy, mortgaging most of what he owned to buy the character rights from Mulford and the backlog of movies from Sherman.
In the first film, Hopalong Cassidy (then spelled “Hop-along”) got his name after being shot in the leg. Hopalong’s “drink of choice” was the nonalcoholic sarsaparilla.
Boyd resumed production in 1946, on lower budgets, and continued through 1948, when “B” westerns were being phased out. Boyd thought Hopalong Cassidy might have a future in television, spent $350,000 to obtain the rights to his old films and approached the fledgling NBC network. The initial broadcasts were so successful that NBC could not wait for a television series to be produced and edited the feature films to broadcast length. On June 24, 1949, Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western television series.
The success of the television series made Boyd a star. The Mutual Broadcasting System began broadcasting a radio version, with Andy Clyde (later George MacMichael on Walter Brennan’s ABC sitcom The Real McCoys) as the sidekick, in January 1950; at the end of September, the show moved to CBS Radio, where it ran until 1952.
The series and character were so popular that Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the cover of national magazines such as Look, Life, and Time. Boyd earned millions as Hopalong ($800,000 in 1950 alone), mostly from merchandise licensing and endorsement deals. In 1950, Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the first lunchbox to bear an image, causing sales for Aladdin Industries to jump from 50,000 to 600,000 in one year. In stores, more than 100 companies in 1950 manufactured $70 million of Hopalong Cassidy products, including children’s dinnerware, pillows, roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives.
There was a new demand for Hopalong Cassidy features in movie theaters, and Boyd licensed reissue distributor Film Classics to make new film prints and advertising accessories. Another 1950 enterprise saw the home-movie company Castle Films manufacturing condensed versions of the Paramount films for 16mm and -mm projectors; they were sold through 1966. Also, in January 1950, Dan Spiegel began to draw a syndicated comic strip with scripts by Royal King Cole; the strip lasted until 1955.
Boyd began work on a separate series of half-hour westerns made for television; Edgar Buchanan was his new sidekick, Red Connors (a character from the original stories and a few of the early films). The theme music for the television show was written by Nacio Herb Brown (music) and L. Wolfe Gilbert (lyrics). The show ranked number 7 in the 1949 Nielsen ratings. The success of the show and tie-ins inspired juvenile television westerns such as The Range Rider, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Annie Oakley, The Gene Autry Show, and The Roy Rogers Show.
After Boyd’s death, his company devoted to Hopalong Cassidy, U.S. Television Office, retained control of Cassidy films but, by the mid-1960s, had withdrawn them from television and sales in home movie markets. This remained the situation until the mid-1990s, after many Cassidy fans had died, when the company made available to The Western Channel a package series of restored and cleaned negative-based prints of the films to cable TV. These remained available on that channel until 2000, when they were again withdrawn. Minimal effort was made at that time, nor has it been made since, to offer the films for home video, excepting two packages of compressed, multi-title Hopalong Cassidy anthology DVDs, the first requiring purchase of the entire TV series to obtain copies of about a dozen films and then, in 2014, a reissue of the remaining stock of these same DVD pressings combined with the remaining titles in a first-time pressing.
In Other Media:
Louis L’Amour wrote four Hopalong Cassidy novels, which are still in print. In 2005, author Susie Coffman published Follow Your Stars, new stories starring the character. In three of these stories, Coffman wrote the wife of actor William Boyd into the stories.
Comic Books/Comics Strips
Fawcett Comics published a Hopalong Cassidy comic book one-shot in 1943, followed by an ongoing series from 1946–1953, when the company ceased publishing. DC Comics took over the title in 1954 with issue #86, publishing it until issue #135, in 1959.
Mirror Enterprises Syndicate distributed a Hopalong Cassidy comic strip starting in 1949; it was bought out by King Features in 1951, running until 1955. The strip was drawn by Dan Spiegle.
Beginning in 1950, Capitol Records released a series of Hopalong Cassidy “record readers” featuring William Boyd and music by Billy May, produced by Alan W. Livingston.
The song “It’s Beginning To Look A Lot Like Christmas” includes a reference to Hopalong boots as a holiday gift desired by children.
There have been museum displays of Hopalong Cassidy. The major display is at the Autry National Center at Griffith Park in Los Angeles, California. Fifteen miles east of Wichita, Kansas, at the Prairie Rose Chuckwagon Supper was the Hopalong Cassidy Museum. The museum and its contents were auctioned on August 24, 2007, owing to the failure of its parent company, Wild West World.