One hundred and seventeen years ago today, William Boyd was born in Hendrysburg, Ohio. When he was seven his family moved to Oklahoma, where Bill’s parents both died before he finished high school. Left to fend for himself, the strikingly handsome youth initially found work as a grocery-store clerk, then as a surveyor and oil-field worker. Bill married for the first time in 1917 and soon thereafter moved with his wife to Hollywood, California, where they hoped his pretty face would land him work in moving pictures. Happily for generations of Western fans, they were right.
In 1918 Bill made his screen debut as an unbilled extra in Cecil B. DeMille’s Old Wives for New. The already famous director championed young Boyd and over the next seven years gave him increasingly larger parts. Following Bill’s strong showing as the second male lead in The Road to Yesterday (1925), DeMille made him a full-fledged star in The Volga Boatman (1926) and gave him a pivotal role in the Biblical epic King of Kings (1927).
Boyd’s light, wavy hair and boyish good looks stood him in good stead throughout the silent era. He never reached the heights attained by such matinee idols as John Gilbert, Ramon Novarro, or John Barrymore, but he achieved some prominence as a dependable leading man in moderate-budgeted films made by the DeMille-sponsored Producers Distributing Corporation and released by Pathé Exchanges, Inc.
The advent of talking pictures didn’t hurt Boyd’s career; his voice was perfectly suitable to the new medium. When Pathé was absorbed into the conglomerate that became RKO Radio Pictures, Bill maintained his star status for several years, although his films were relatively inexpensive “program pictures”—the type that could play either half of a double bill, according to theater size, location, and clientele. Disaster struck in 1933, when newspapers and wire services across the country ran a photo of him accompanying lurid accounts of a sex-and-booze scandal involving another actor named William Boyd. Although it was a plain case of mistaken identity, the ensuing kerfuffle stopped Bill’s career dead in its tracks. It didn’t help that he was thrice divorced and a big drinker himself. Some media outlets ran corrections, but the damage was already done. RKO dropped Boyd like a hot potato, and for the next two years he could only find work in Poverty Row cheapies that traded on his earlier fame.
In early 1935, independent producer Harry “Pop” Sherman acquired screen rights to the Hopalong Cassidy stories written by Clarence E. Mulford. He raised funds to make a series of six pictures and then cut a distribution deal with Adolph Zukor’s Paramount Pictures. There was one caveat: In the interest of facilitating the series’ marketing and promotion, Paramount insisted that Sherman cast a recognizable star—past or present—in the lead role.
Originally, Pop had planned to make his celluloid Cassidy the grizzled cowpuncher of Mulford’s later novels (which were serialized in the pulp magazine Short Stories prior to book publication by Doubleday), but Paramount’s demand forced him to change direction. Problem was, the major movie cowboys were getting more money than he could afford to pay.
Sherman was turned down by several actors before someone recommended he approach Bill Boyd, who was “at liberty” after having completed four low-budget melodramas for Poverty Row producer George Hirliman. Boyd was not a horse-opera star per se, but two of his most popular starring vehicles—The Last Frontier (1926) and The Painted Desert (1930)—had been epic Westerns.
Although Bill wasn’t especially fond of Westerns, he eagerly accepted Sherman’s offer of five thousand dollars per film with a six-picture guarantee. At the time, neither Boyd nor Sherman had any expectation that the Hopalong Cassidy series would extend beyond the half-dozen entries scheduled for Paramount release during the 1935-36 season. Happily for generations of Western fans, they were wrong.
More on birthday-boy Boyd and Hoppy tomorrow….
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