A word about childhood heroes. Well, perhaps a word about one of my childhood hero’s and the man who is still one of my hero’s. The year I was born was the final season of America’s first western TV show, Hop-a-long Cassidy. The actor William Boyd first stared as Cassidy in 1935 in the movie Hop-along Cassidy. This movie turned into a film series and eventually the first television horse-opera.
The fact that the series ended shortly before my birth didn’t keep me from seeing it. Thanks to syndication, I saw every episode and every film, more times than I can count. My hero Hoppy was a bigger than life character, and the actor who portrayed him happily threw himself into the role, even off camera. To thousands of children, for the rest of his life, he was William Hop-a-long Cassidy.
As written, in the books, Cassidy was a cantankerous, aging cowboy and gunfighter, that drank, smoked, chewed tobacco, and gambled. The primary character in a long-running pulp fiction series of books. I have read every single book in the series and love them. But William Boyd didn’t see his Hoppy the same way that author Clarence E. Mulford saw the character. Mulford wrote about the wild blooded, redheaded foreman of a West Texas Ranch. A man wounded in his hip in a gun battle in his youth who hopped when he walked, hence the name, Hop-a-long. While Mulford’s Cassidy was a likable enough fellow, he wasn’t what Boyd saw as a role model for children.
Acutely aware that children would be drawn to the character of Cassidy, Boyd insisted on changes. Part of the reason can be traced back to his A-list star power and how it shattered overnight. A stage actor named William ‘Stage’ Boyd arrest for Alcohol and Drug Possession at the height of Prohibition harmed both player’s carriers. William Boyd’s (the film star) picture ran in an article about the other fellow's arrest, destroying his career. For several years Boyd was persona-non-grata in Hollywood. Once he landed the role of Cassidy, he decided to mold himself into a role model for anyone, especially children. To protect his second chance, Boyd refused to allow the character to be portrayed on screen as written.
Perhaps if Boyd hadn’t been such a bankable star, Mulford would have won, and Hoppy would have been a foul-mouthed antihero. The fact that Boyd’s films always turned a 100% plus profit carried a lot of weight. No film that William Boyd appeared in every lost money. No other Hollywood actor can make that claim. Boyd’s protection of his version of Hop-along Cassidy ran deep, turning down any role that wasn’t Hoppy that might damage anyone’s view of the Cassidy Character.
Some of my earliest memories are watching the TV reruns, or movies and seeing William Boyd after the show, still in character. He would tell me to be kind to my friends, to treat others as I wanted to be treated, and to always remember to wear my goulashes when it rained, or other helpful tips.
Years later, as grown man, I saw an interview with an aging Boyd, in some documentary about westerns, where he said, “In 1935 I meet a fellow called Hoppy, and he changed my life.” Along with such notable western icons of the 1950’s TV fair, The Lone Ranger, The Cisco Kid, and others, William Lawrence Boyd as Hop-a-long Cassidy helped shape my love of Westerns.
If you ever get the chance catch some of the TV shows or movies you should watch them. Hopefully, Hoppy will come on after the show and give some sage words of advice for young people. So, there is no mistake, as a child my Hero was Hop-a-long Cassidy (both in book form and on the screen). However, as an adult, I admire the man William Boyd, far more than the fictional character in the books or that larger than life silver screen image that Boyd played.