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Ride on Over to The Bar 20 ... A tribute to William Boyd's "Hopalong Cassidy"

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Posted: Saturday, June 30, 2012 12:16 pm

"Follow your stars in peace, old timer,” he says with breaking voice, as he fights back tears.  The handsome, silver-haired cowboy holds tight to his friend who has just died in his arms after being shot in the back. Without another spoken word, the scene moves from sorrow to revenge.  His tear-filled eyes turn icy as he stares out over the empty prairie.  There is no doubt he will avenge the murder. The handsome cowboy is Hopalong Cassidy; the old friend is Uncle Ben; and the movie, the first of the Hopalong Cassidy series, Hopalong Cassidy Enters (originally Hop-Along Cassidy, 1935).  The actor who created this touching scene, the talented William Boyd.

    His words are beautiful in their own right, “Follow your stars in peace,” but the actor's delivery adds so much to the sentiments the writer had in mind.  William Boyd created many such scenes as he gave his characters a distinctive believability and reality.  His greatest gift to all of us who are fans was his own special version of Hopalong Cassidy. Millions of us fell in love with this character, young and old, men and women, boys and girls.

    Hopalong Cassidy of Bar 20 fame was first a literary character created by author Clarence E. Mulford in the early 1900s.  A municipal clerk in New York, Mulford wrote eighteen Hopalong Cassidy stories. His Hopalong was very different from the one in the Hollywood movies of the 1930s and '40s.  A rough and ready, red-haired cowboy, the literary Hoppy loved women, whiskey, and tobacco.

    The very different Hopalong Cassidy we saw in the movies was the creation of William Boyd.  If he were here today, Boyd would share the credit of Hoppy’s popularity with his co-stars, producers, directors, writers, movie crews, even the breath-taking locations of Lone Pine where so many of the Hoppy movies were filmed. However, in truth, the “Hoppy” we still cherish is mostly due to the work of one fine actor who took a literary character, made him his own, and then shared him with all of us.  The best words to sum up William Boyd’s “Hoppy” came from his lovely wife, Grace Bradley Boyd:  “He was absolutely charismatic, everything went together—his face, his eyes, his body, his voice … He was just Hoppy.” Of all the B Western movie stars, William Boyd was the best, as evidenced by his body of work stretching back to the days of the silent movies. One man in particular proved his belief in Boyd's talent by starring him in important films—this man was a legend in his own right, Cecil B. DeMille.

    William L. Boyd was born June 5, 1895 near Cambridge, Ohio.  His family moved to Tulsa, Oklahoma when he was a boy. Tragically, in 1913 his father was killed in a job-related accident.  Like so many young men at that time the young William Boyd took on a succession of odd jobs, including work at lumber camps and grocery stores. He even got into acting and by the late Teens, he was getting roles in Hollywood. Working as a lowly extra in the movie Why Change Your Wife starring Gloria Swanson, he came to the attention of director Cecil B. DeMille.  The great C. B. liked the looks of this handsome, prematurely-gray young man and signed him to a contract at the princely sum of $30 a week.

    Boyd eventually was given roles in such silent greats as The King of Kings, The Road To Nowhere, and Two Arabian Knights, the last of which was directed by another Hollywood great, Lewis Milestone.  His first starring role came in the 1926 De Mille silent epic, The Volga Boatman, which was seen by a young teen-aged girl in New York named Grace Bradley, who fell in love with the silver-haired screen idol.  She would go on to become an actress in Hollywood and later play a lasting role in William Boyd’s life.

    Bill Boyd was your typical Hollywood movie star of his day.  He liked wine, and women, and enjoyed his success, until fate dealt a nasty blow.  Another actor with the same name, William Boyd, was arrested during a gambling and drinking party.  The press ran the story using the photo of our William Boyd by mistake and his career plummeted.  The paper ran a retraction, but the damage was done. (Editor's Note: To avoid confusion, film buffs refer to that other William Boyd as "Stage" Boyd due to his career on stage, while our William Boyd is, naturally, referred to as "Hoppy" Boyd.)

    His career sputtered along until 1935 when he was offered the role of Buck Peters, in Harry “Pop” Sherman’s new movie version of Mulford’s Bar 20 adventures.  Boyd accepted the offer, but he wanted to play Mulford’s character, Hopalong Cassidy.  He liked the name and thought kids would too.  Since Boyd still had name recognition value, Sherman agreed to let him play the part of the Bar 20 foreman.  Boyd also wanted to portray Hoppy as a character quite unlike the one Mulford had created. Thus was born the Hopalong Cassidy we love … The Galahad of the West.

    What William Boyd brought to his Hopalong Cassidy was sincerity of character.  In Boyd’s own words, “You have to understand the character you are playing and simply live him.  The camera will show you up if you’re just acting.  You have to be terribly sincere and natural.  You must have the whole personality and history of your character inside your head and then just open up your face and let the audience see what’s going on there.  You’re not acting then, you just ARE.”   

    William Boyd certainly followed through on his own advice and for the rest of his career he would only do this one role.  He portrayed Hopalong in sixty-six movies and fifty-two television episodes as he lived the life of the honorable cowboy, on and off the screen.  In essence, he became Hopalong Cassidy.

    William Boyd would tell you his life changed for the better after he met Hoppy, but there was a real-life person who also had a profound impact on him.  In 1937, he met that teenage girl who earlier had fallen in love with his image in The Volga Boatman. Now a beautiful young actress in Hollywood, she met Boyd on a blind date. At first, when he called her up and said he was William Boyd, she hesitated, thinking it was a friend playing a joke. But when she said something amusing, his distinctive Hoppy laugh was a clear giveaway. She now knew it really was her screen idol, and she agreed to go out with him.

    When he came to pick her up at her mother’s house, Grace described what happened: “He was at the bottom of the stairs with Mother. When I reached him, he opened his arms and I walked right into them.  It was very special, and then it went very well.”  Three weeks to the day, they were married on June 5, 1937, his birthday.

    Grace Bradley turned out to be the perfect match for William Boyd.  She gave up her acting career and lovingly became "Mrs. Hopalong Cassidy”—in fact, that's the way she would sign her autographs. The couple remained together until Hoppy's passing in 1972. Grace continued to carry on his legacy, speaking to Hoppy fans and visiting with them at film conventions until she passed away on her 97th birthday, September 21, 2010. Their love is the true love songwriters glorify, and hopeless romantics like me dream about.

    The same year they met, 1937, Grace and Bill had another very important meeting.  On a visit to a ranch, they found a magnificent white horse.  Grace named him Topper, and this is the horse Hoppy would ride up to the end of his career. The two would appear together not just in movies, but in parades and all the other personal appearances William Boyd made.  When Topper died, Boyd said he would never ride another horse—there was only one Topper.

    William Boyd’s Hopalong Cassidy was multi-faceted.  He was good, honest, brave, and tough. He was also funny, caring, loyal and not afraid to show his emotions. He wasn’t a Superman—he got shot, tied up, put in jail, and knocked around. He was the smartest cowboy, fastest gun, toughest fighter, and best rider in the West.

    When William Boyd was on screen as Hoppy, the attention of every viewer was his.  He had a smile that charmed women, pleased children, endeared him to his saddle pals, and very often drove his adversaries crazy.  His voice could go from a gentle, “How do you do, Ma'am?” to the growl of a lion when telling an enemy attempting to draw a gun on him under a table to, “Put it away.”  He had a belly laugh that will never be imitated successfully, though some have tried.

    Astride his white charger, Topper, Hoppy seemed to fill the screen, and his silver hair and blue eyes showed through even in black and white films. Broad shouldered, sitting tall in the saddle, he had that special thing called screen presence that so few have. Although his early movies are very entertaining, it was not until he found Hoppy that this special something happened.  Just as there is only one “James Bond”, Sean Connery, there is only one “Hopalong Cassidy”, and that is William Boyd.   

    An example of his screen presence can be seen in Hills of Old Wyoming made in 1937, with top billing going of course to William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy. Eighteen minutes into the movie and our hero is yet to be seen. Meanwhile, Hoppy’s two pals, Lucky Jenkins (Russell Hayden) and Windy Halliday (George Hayes), are in trouble with the Indian agents.  They have accused the Indians of rustling cattle and are being taken to jail by the villainous Indian agent played by Morris Ankrum and his henchmen.  Riding up the trail in handcuffs our two heroes look lost until we see Windy look up the trail and exclaim, “Hoppy.” Audience expectations soar as Hopalong Cassidy, calmly sitting on his horse, blocks the trail.  “What seems to be the trouble here?” he says.  No gunplay (yet), no harsh words, just a calm assurance that often hid the seriousness of Hoppy’s emotions. One has to be able to sell such a scene with a look, a presence, and William Boyd does that. We have waited almost twenty minutes to see Hoppy, and when he enters, the effect is understated, yet powerful.  That is when the goose bumps begin.

     

    His screen presence is two-fold with both physical and emotional aspects.  Physically, he was handsome with silver hair and blue eyes, a charming smile and an impressive build.  In 1941, he was 46 years old and was as trim and chiseled as his 20-year-old co-stars.  The way he walked and carried himself in the saddle was striking.  It was said he wanted younger, handsome sidekicks like Jimmy Ellison (Johnny Nelson) or Russell Hayden (Lucky Jenkins) to take over the romance in the films because he didn’t want to play that role anymore.  However, for women like me, he was the one.  I once remarked to Mrs. Boyd that when I watch a Hopalong movie, it isn’t “Johnny” or “Lucky”, the handsome sidekick, I am watching, it’s Hoppy.  I know she understood what I meant.  In her own words, “He was absolutely charismatic.”

    Unlike so many contemporary actors who rely on their looks, William Boyd also had an emotional presence.  He could create the mood of the scene with just a look, or the tone of his voice.  He wasn’t afraid to have Hoppy show his feelings, whether it was anger or confidence, sadness, or fear.

    The scene I referred to in the introduction is one of the most poignant I have ever seen. Holding his fallen saddle pal, who was portrayed by George Hayes, Hoppy looks out over the empty prairie with the same emptiness in his heart. You can see it in his eyes and you can hear the sadness in his voice as it breaks. And you feel it by the lump that forms in your throat as you hear, “Follow your stars in peace, old timer.”

    For most of us, there isn’t a Hoppy movie that we don’t like, but we all have our favorites. I would have to say mine is Three Men From Texas (1940).  This one has everything:  action, comedy, romance, drama, and it was shot in my favorite location, Lone Pine, California. In it, William Boyd’s talents show through in every scene. The premise is that Lucky Jenkins, Hoppy’s protégé, wants to go out on his own and prove himself as a lawman. Hoppy isn’t sure his friend is ready to be a Bat Masterson or a Wyatt Earp.  In one of the most touching scenes between these two characters Lucky tells Hoppy, “There’s only one man I want to be like and I guess you know who that is, Hoppy.”  The love that shows in Hopalong’s face—in William Boyd’s face—as he looks at his young friend is the unspoken love between a father and a son.

    In the scene where Lucky leaves to become a sheriff, he and Hoppy must go their separate ways. Hoppy tells his friend, “So long, kid, and remember, the fastest gunman in the world can be outsmarted, if you can’t outdraw him.”   Lucky rides ahead turns and waves goodbye.  Hoppy waves back, turns and rides away.  The sadness Hoppy is feeling can be seen by the way he sits in the saddle, his head is down and his shoulders forward, as if he has lost his only son.  Again, emotion without a spoken word, something a silent film star like Bill Boyd understood instinctively.

    His comedic talents really show through in Three Men from Texas. This was the movie that introduced the character, California Carlson as portrayed by Andy Clyde.  Their first meeting in this movie is a wonderfully funny scene where California mistakes Hoppy for an outlaw when in fact he is a Ranger.  It's funny to watch Andy Clyde try to worm his way out of trouble by stuttering and stammering, and this is just the first of many fun scenes between Hoppy and California. William Boyd knew how to share the screen with his co-stars whether it be the comedy sidekick, kids, or the leading ladies. In North of the Rio Grande (1937) Hoppy waltzes, complete with guns, boots, and spurs, with the bar hostess, Faro Annie (Bernadene Hayes), to the tune of "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." In Renegade Trail (1939), he teaches the young fatherless boy right from wrong just by talking with him. “That’s a good idea, son," Hoppy says. "I mean the part about giving the other fella an even break, always playing square and helping folks when they need ya.”

    And contrary to what some say, in Hopalong Cassidy Returns (1936), he delivers a soft and touching screen kiss to the lady outlaw, Lilli Marsh (Evelyn Brent), who is dying in his arms. It was her last request.  Mrs. Boyd assured me that Hoppy had to kiss her as a gentleman for it was her dying wish to be kissed by Hopalong Cassidy.  It is one of the great screen kisses in the movies.

    Another key aspect of William Boyd’s Hopalong movies was their authenticity.  His clothes were plain and his horse didn’t do tricks, although to watch that magnificent white horse was a treat in itself. Topper was a handsome horse, big and broad-chested. He loved to run and always seemed to know where the camera was. You can catch him nudging Hoppy in the back when he's trying to deliver his dialogue. Sometimes Topper seems to speak himself when he's bobbing his head up and down and making his silver bridle rattle and shake.  In that same goodbye scene in Three Men From Texas, Topper and Lucky’s horse, Banjo, nuzzle each other as if they were saying good-bye themselves.  The greatest director in the world couldn’t have asked for a better take than that one. Topper added his own charm to the Hoppy movies, and kids of all ages loved him.

    The stories give you a sense of life in the late 1800s. Trail Dust (1936) is one of the best cattle-drive films ever made, and Texas Trail, (1937) where Hoppy and his boys round up a giant herd of wild horses offers spectacular outdoor scenes. There were no cars or radio shows or musical interruptions. With all due respect to the singing cowboys, theirs was just a whole different form of western movie.

    I don’t pretend to be an actor or director or producer or movie critic whose profession is to know what is involved in making a character believable. I just know that for me, Hoppy is the real thing, the complete cowboy hero.   When you see a Hopalong Cassidy movie you are witnessing the talents of a wonderful actor who gave millions of us the wholesome escape that we all need. Today in this era of “reality” entertainment, and violent and raw movie making, Hoppy's films seem more important than ever. If given a choice, I'd ride on over to the Bar 20 with Hoppy and Topper every time.

    William Boyd has been gone since September 12, 1972, but for fans like me he never will be truly gone because he gave me and millions like me an everlasting gift. Thank you, Mr. Boyd—thank you for giving us Hopalong Cassidy, Gentleman of the Bar 20.