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Hopalong Cassidy Returns
Written by Tom Hoepf   

New book takes troopers behind the scenes with an American legend

You may think you know Hopalong Cassidy, America’s favorite cowboy who became a television pioneer and cultural icon. But until you read Hopalong Cassidy: An American Legend by Grace Bradley Boyd and Michael Cochran, you won’t have the big picture.

Newly released by Gemstone Publishing, this lavish and lovingly written coffee-table book is an honest look at the life of William Boyd, who resurrected his acting career by becoming Hopalong Cassidy, the straight-shooting good guy dressed in black.

Hoppy is best known to a generation that eagerly watched his Western films on television in the late 1940s and his TV series in the early 1950s. Boyd, who had the foresight and perseverance to acquire all rights to the Hopalong Cassidy character, took on the role for the rest of his life. He died of cancer Sept. 12, 1972 at the age of 77.

His wife of 35 years, Grace Bradley Boyd, now in her mid-90s, collaborated with Michael Cochran to chronicle the triumphs and challenges the couple experienced in making an American legend.

Michael Cochran and his publisher brother, Russ Cochran, who have produced the books Chet Atkins: Me and My Guitars and Les Paul: In His Own Words, teamed up again to produce this remarkable tribute to Hopalong Cassidy.

The authors weave a seamless and engrossing account of life in the golden age of Hollywood. Like the B movies in which William Boyd often starred, the Hopalong Cassidy story has a Hollywood ending, with good prevailing over evil. In 1998 Grace Bradley Boyd won a protracted legal battle over film rights to Hopalong Cassidy in what was the largest settlement in copyright history.

Hopalong Cassidy: An American Legend tells how a pulp-fiction character helped save a Hollywood actor who some considered past his prime and his talented but typecast actress wife from obscurity. Their stories began far from Hollywood: William Lawrence Boyd, born to a poor family near Cambridge, Ohio, in 1895, and Grace Bradley, born in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1913 to parents of modest means.

After bouncing around the country working odd jobs and marrying and divorcing a Boston heiress, Boyd headed to California, where his striking good looks got him an audition with film director Cecil B. DeMille in 1919. Impressed with Boyd’s confident demeanor and presence, DeMille signed him to a contract paying $25 per week.

In 1921 Boyd married aspiring actress Ruth Miller, who bore him his only child, William Wallace Boyd. The nine-month-old contracted pneumonia when his mother took him on a trip to Seattle to visit her parents, and died in Hollywood shortly thereafter. “The loss was devastating for Bill, and the grief and guilt that followed killed the marriage. After they divorced, he never spoke of her again, and for good reason,” writes Grace.

Boyd quickly climbed the ladder in the silent film industry. After starring in DeMille’s 1926 production of The Volga Boatman, an epic about the Russian Revolution, Boyd’s salary skyrocketed to $2,500 per week.

Among his devoted fans was young Grace Bradley, who was stepping out in the entertainment industry in New York. A promising pianist, she gave up music to earn a living for her and her widowed mother, modeling by day and dancing in clubs and theaters by night.

“I had never had a desire to be in films or for that matter, in show business. I was just trying to earn enough money for the two of us to live on,” writes Grace.

A producer at Paramount spotted her dancing at the Paradise Cabaret in New York, and with coaching from a stage actor friend William Frawley, who later played Fred Mertz on the I Love Lucy TV series, Grace performed well in a screen test.

It earned her a trip to Hollywood at age 19. Grace immediately had an interview with DeMille, who wanted to cast a virginal “good girl” to help bring down the villains in his 1933 gangster picture This Day and Age. Grace, who by then considered herself a big girl and wore nail polish, did not get the part. Instead, her first movie was a musical, Too Much Harmony, with Bing Crosby and Jack Oakie.

With no formal acting training and plagued by stage fright, Grace was often typecast as a vamp. In her third film, Girl Without a Room, she played a Russian temptress – with a bad accent.

Meanwhile William Boyd enjoyed the “uninhibited marathon of roaring parties, binge drinking and other excesses that were rife in Hollywood.” He was unaware of his growing dependence on alcohol until watching the daily rushes of the 1929 movie The Leatherneck with co-stars Alan Hale and Bob Armstrong and having no recollection of filming the scenes the previous day. About 1933 Boyd checked himself into a hospital with the intention of curbing his drinking. From that time on, if he had a drink it was white wine.

Blessed with a resonant baritone voice, Boyd easily transitioned from silents to talkies. His first full talking picture was also his first Western, The Painted Desert, released in 1931. It co-starred newcomer Clark Gable, also in his first talking role. Boyd and Gable roomed together while shooting on location in the Arizona desert and remained close friends their entire careers.

While Gable’s star was rising, Boyd’s career was on the wane, and by 1934 he was no longer considered for leading roles or by the top studios. Compounding his problems, Boyd married and divorced two more actresses, Elinor Fair and Dorothy Sebastian. His misadventures had cost him his Beverly Hills mansion and his yacht. After a string of mostly forgettable pictures at RKO, Boyd appeared to be at a dead end.

Boyd’s luck changed in 1935 when longtime producer Harry Sherman called and offered him a supporting role in a movie series based on Western author Clarence E. Mulford’s character Hopalong Cassidy. Boyd read a script and seized on the idea of playing the lead. Boyd won the lead role in Hop-a-long Cassidy, later retitled Hopalong Cassidy Enters, and played Hoppy in five more films the first season. Unlike Mulford’s rough-hewn cowboy, Boyd shaped the title character to be an upstanding and fitting hero. The new image of Hopalong Cassidy also conformed to the Hays Code, a set of industry censorship guidelines. The series was an overnight success and Boyd took on the role of Hopalong Cassidy for life.

On May 12, 1937, while in his third season as Hopalong Cassidy, Boyd phoned Grace Bradley, whom he had been introduced to casually several years earlier. He invited her to a party at his beach house at Malibu. Following a whirlwind courtship they married on June 5, 1937. Grace fulfilled her remaining acting contracts and settled down to become “Mrs. Hoppy” full time. She took care of him through the grueling schedule of filming six movies a year, many shot on location at Lone Pine or Kernville, Calif. The couple remained inseparable for the next 35 years. Only when Boyd broke his leg while filming did Grace briefly return to work to help pay medical bills.

The Hopalong Cassidy movie series of 66 features ran 11 seasons, through 1948. The Boyds nearly went broke in the mid-1940s, however, gambling everything to secure the rights to Hopalong Cassidy. They even sold their mountaintop ranch that Boyd built in Ventura County and moved into a four-room house that rented for $65 a month. Their sacrifice began to pay off in September 1948 when Los Angeles television station KTLA began airing the early Hoppy movies for a rental fee of $250. The TV station was swamped with requests for more. Sunday evening soon became Hoppy Night in Southern California.

The Hopalong Cassidy phenomenon snowballed across the nation as NBC signed Boyd to film a weekly half-hour Hopalong Cassidy Show. The Hopalong Cassidy radio show went national on the Mutual Network in January 1950. The Hopalong Cassidy comic strip began appearing in 150 daily newspapers that same month. Fifteen million Hopalong Cassidy comic books were sold in 1949. Add to that the many Hopalong Cassidy toys and product endorsements.

Of the approximately 2,500 Hoppy-endorsed items manufactured and marketed, only a handful are pictured and fewer are described in the book. This is its only shortcoming, other than a few photos that could use captions.

Hoppy fans will relish seeing their hero and his horse Topper pictured in top form in the 1930s and ’40s, as well as seeing Boyd mature into the fatherly figure he became in the 1950s.

Movie buffs will be fascinated by the numerous publicity photos and movie stills of the1920s and ’30s stars and starlets like Joan Crawford, Carole Lombard, Ann Sheridan, Ida Lupino, George “Gabby” Hayes, Robert Mitchum and Cary Grant.

Grace’s detailed recollections of her life in Hollywood and with Hoppy reads like a diary of a dear old friend. The lavishly illustrated book contains 368 pages, but the fascinating subject matter and smooth delivery make it a quick read. Even though in real life the good guy dies at the end, the story has an upbeat conclusion.

“As his popularity mushroomed into a national mania, Bill became even more determined to use Hoppy’s influence as a positive force for the kids who idolized him, making sure his private life was just as clean and wholesome as Hopalong’s.”