Hopalong Cassidy

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Hopalong Cassidy

A multimedia cowboy hero, Hopalong Cassidy first appeared in a series of magazine stories that were published in 1905 and 1906. Clarence E. Mulford, who was residing in Brooklyn at the time and had never been West, was the author. His Cassidy was a tough, tobacco-chewing redhead, who bossed the hands at the Bar-20 Ranch and got his nickname from the fact that a gunshot wound in his leg had left him with a permanent limp. The more familiar image of this popular American fictional hero, however, is the one personified in movies and on television by silver-haired actor William Boyd. Boyd's Hopalong Cassidy was a dapper, soft-spoken cowboy, who almost always wore black, and was taken into the hearts of millions of kids. In his later television incarnation, Hopalong products became one of the first merchandising sensations inspired by television.

Mulford, who worked for over 20 years in a civil service job, sold his earliest Hopalong Cassidy stories to a travel monthly called Outing Magazine. The first collection of those stories in book form was titled Bar 20 and came out in 1907. All told, Mulford wrote over two dozen novels and story collections about his limping, hard-bitten cowhand between then and 1941. Much of the material appeared initially in such pulp fiction magazines as Argosy and Short Stories. A dedicated researcher and collector of Western lore, Mulford did eventually travel extensively in the Western states but, despite the popularity of his books, he is remembered today chiefly as the man who coined the name that others used to create an almost entirely different hero.

As Francis M. Nevins pointed out, "the man ultimately responsible for Hoppy's transformation into a screen hero was Harry Sherman." An entrepreneur since silent movie days, and one of those who helped finance The Birth of A Nation, Sherman bought the screen rights to the Mulford books and then put together a movie production outfit to make the films, which were distributed by Paramount. The actor Sherman chose to play Cassidy was also a veteran of the silents. A protégé of Cecil B. DeMille, William Boyd became a star in the 1920s in such films as The Volga Boatman and The Yankee Clipper, but by the mid-1930s he'd slipped some and was appearing in lower budget action films. The first movie in Sherman's cowboy series was Hop-A-Long Cassidy, released in 1935. In this film, the prematurely grey Boyd actually did limp, but in later outings he lost the limp, and the hyphens.

A formula was established from the start. Hoppy always had two sidekicks—one young and handsome (played originally by James Ellison), the other, crusty and humorous (first portrayed by Gabby Hayes). Known as a hellraiser in real life, Boyd reformed as the series progressed and Hopalong, who soon acquired the black outfit that was to become his trademark, also underwent changes. As a movie hero, he never drank, smoked or swore, and his relations with women were almost always nothing more than avuncular. A hit from the first, the Hoppy series eventually stretched to 66 titles. As one film historian noted, the pictures, "long on human interest, short on violence, were especially popular with family audiences."

Hopalong first moved into comic books at the end of 1942, as a back up feature in Fawcett's Master Comics. The following year, Fawcett started a Hopalong Cassidy comic book, which they kept going until 1954. In the late 1940s, Boyd took over the production of the Hoppy films and also bought the rights to all of the earlier Sherman productions. This proved to be an especially wise move. In 1949, NBC started showing the movies nationally, every Friday night from eight to nine p.m. and, as the number of American households with television sets grew, so did Hoppy's popularity. "The show became a hit very quickly," wrote Richard O'Brien, "and almost as quickly a wide variety of manufacturers leaped aboard Hopalong's bandwagon. There were Hopalong Cassidy costumes, tin windups, toy soldiers, binoculars, dart boards, knives, badges, shooting galleries, and of course a wide variety of guns and holsters." A comic strip began in 1949, drawn by Dan Spiegle and distributed by King Features.

In 1951, Boyd, who had last played Hoppy in 1948, produced and starred in a Hopalong Cassidy television series. It ran on NBC until the end of 1952, with movie veteran Edgar Buchanan as the hero's crusty sidekick. A radio show had been put together in 1948, but it wasn't until the character became a craze through TV that it showed up on national radio—first on Mutual and then on CBS. Andy Clyde, the resident old coot sidekick from the later movies, repeated his role as California Carlson on the radio networks. The show was last heard late in 1952. During the heyday of Hoppy, Boyd became a national celebrity and his personal appearances drew enormous crowds of dedicated kids. Hoppy gradually faded away, although the comic book, taken over by DC, continued until 1959. By the time he retired, Boyd, who controlled all the merchandising on the character, was a multimillionaire. He died in 1972.

—Ron Goulart

Further Reading:

Keltner, Howard. Golden Age Comic Books Index. Gainesville, Keltner, 1998.

Nevins, Francis M. The Films of Hopalong Cassidy. Waynesville, The World of Yesterday, 1988.

O'Brien, Richard. The Story of American Toys. New York, Artabras, 1990.

Sampson, Robert. Yesterday's Faces, Vol. 1. Bowling Green, Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1983.

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