Life sometimes follows art. William Boyd was a silver-haired matinee idol who began his career as a leading man in silent movie romances with a wicked reputation as a boozer, womanizer and hell-raiser. He had five wives (not all at the same time.)
Once at a Hollywood party somebody wanted to go on a boat ride, so on a whim he bought a yacht. His career foundered and declined in 1931 as no studio wanted to take a chance on hiring him.
In 1935 Paramount Pictures was planning to make a western film, Hop-Along Cassidy from the Clarence E. Mulford pulp fiction. In the book the hero was Buck Peters and the original Cassidy was Buck’s sidekick, a foul-mouthed ruffian with no ambition. Hop-Along had a gimpy leg, hence the nickname.
In 1935, the 40-year-old actor got the role of Hopalong Cassidy. He knew nothing about being a cowboy and he was terrified of horses. Still he got the title role and it was a life-changing experience.
Paramount reinvented Hopalong transforming him into a clean cut, clean-living hero who didn’t swear or drink anything stronger than sarsaparilla. It was said Mulford fainted when he attended the screening of Hollywood’s version of Hopalong.
Boyd dressed in navy blue but the show was not in color it looked like he was wearing black. He became so inspired by his alter ego he quit drinking, smoking and attending wild parties. He stayed faithful to his fifth wife, Grace Bradley from 1937 until his death in 1972.
After the studio dropped the series in 1948 Boyd managed to scrape up $350,000 to buy the rights. He took the films to NBC Television and the rest is history.
A reporter once asked him, “What made you give up your ways as one of Hollywood’s bad boys” and Boyd replied, “When you’ve got millions of parents and kids saying what a wonderful guy Hoppy is, what the hell do you do? You’ve got to be a wonderful guy.”