Hopalong Cassidy is a fictional cowboy hero created in 1904 by the author Clarence E. Mulford, who wrote a series of popular short stories and several novels based on the character.
At first Mulford portrayed Hopalong as rude, menacing, and rough-talking. Beginning in 1935, the movie actor William Boyd began making films based on the character and transformed him into a clean-cut on-screen hero. A total of sixty-six immensely popular films were released, only a few of which relied on Mulford’s original story lines. Mulford later revised and republished his earlier works to be more consistent with the character’s new, polished on-screen persona.
As portrayed on the screen, the white-haired Bill “Hopalong” Cassidy was usually clad strikingly in black. He was reserved and well spoken, with a sense of fair play. He was often called upon to intercede when dishonest characters were threatening honest citizens. “Hoppy” and his white horse, Topper, usually traveled with two companions, one young and prone to trouble, the other comically awkward and outspoken.
The youthful lead was successively played by James Ellison, Russell Hayden, George Reeves, and Rand Brooks. George Hayes, later known as “Gabby” Hayes, originally played Cassidy’s grizzled sidekick, Windy Halliday. After Hayes left the series because of a salary dispute with producer Harry Sherman, he was replaced by the comedian Britt Wood as Speedy McGinnis and finally by the veteran movie comedian Andy Clyde as California Carlson. Clyde, the most durable of the sidekicks, remained with the series until it ended.
The Hopalong Cassidy movies were filmed by independent producers who released the films through the studios. Most of the films were distributed by Paramount Pictures to very favorable audience response. They were known for their fast action and excellent outdoor photography. The studio ended the series in 1944, but William Boyd wanted to keep it going. To do this, he gambled his entire future on Hopalong Cassidy, mortgaging virtually everything he owned to buy both the character rights from Mulford and the backlog of movies from Sherman.Boyd resumed production in 1946, on lower budgets, and continued through 1948, when “B” westerns were generally being phased out. Boyd thought that Hopalong Cassidy might have a future in television, and spent $350,000 to obtain the rights to his old films, and approached the NBC television network. The initial broadcasts were so successful that NBC could not wait for a television series to be produced and simply reedited the old feature films down to broadcast length. On June 24, 1949, Hopalong Cassidy became the first network Western television series.
The series and character were so popular that Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the cover of national magazines, such as Look, Life, and Time. Boyd earned millions as Hopalong, mostly from merchandise licensing and endorsement deals. In 1950, Hopalong Cassidy was featured on the first lunchbox to bear an image, causing sales for Aladdin Industries to jump from 50,000 units to 600,000 units in just one year. In stores, more than 100 companies in 1950 manufactured $70 million of Hopalong Cassidy products, including children’s dinnerware, pillows, roller skates, soap, wristwatches, and jackknives.
There was a new demand for Hopalong Cassidy features in movie theaters, and Boyd licensed reissue distributor Film Classics to make new film prints and advertising accessories. Another 1950 enterprise saw the home-movie company Castle Films manufacturing condensed versions of the Paramount films for 16-mm and 8-mm projectors which they sold through 1966.
Boyd began work on a separate series of half-hour westerns made especially for television; Edgar Buchanan was his new sidekick, Red Connors. The show ranked number 7 in the 1949 Nielsen ratings. The success of the show and tie-ins inspired several juvenile television westerns, such as The Range Rider, Tales of the Texas Rangers, Annie Oakley, The Gene Autry Show, and The Roy Rogers Show.
After Boyd’s death, his company devoted to Hopalong Cassidy, U.S. Television Office, retained control of the entirety of Cassidy films but, by the mid-1960s, had withdrawn them from television availability and sales in any of the home movie markets. This remained the situation until the mid-1990s, after many of the loyal Cassidy fans had died, when the company’s officers made available to The Western Channel a package series of restored and cleaned negative-based prints of the films to cable TV viewers. These remained available on that channel until 2000, when they were again withdrawn.