After nearly 40 years of riding across millions of American TV and movie screens, the cowboy actor William Boyd, best known for his role as Hopalong Cassidy, dies on this day in 1972 at the age of 77.
Boyd’s greatest achievement was to be the first cowboy actor to make the transition from movies to television. Following World War II, Americans began to buy television sets in large numbers for the first time, and soon I Love Lucy and The Honeymooners were standard evening fare for millions of families. But despite their proven popularity in movie theaters, westerns were slow to come to the small screen. Many network TV producers scorned westerns as lowbrow “horse operas” unfit for their middle- and upper-class audiences.
Riding to the small screen’s rescue came the movie cowboy, William Boyd. During the 1930s, Boyd made more than 50 cheap but successful “B-grade” westerns starring as Hopalong Cassidy. Together with his always loyal and outlandishly intelligent horse, Topper, Hopalong righted wrongs, saved school marms in distress, and single-handedly fought off hordes of marauding Indians. After the war, Boyd recognized an opportunity to take Hopalong and Topper into the new world of television, and he began to market his old “B” westerns to TV broadcasters in Los Angeles and New York City. A whole new generation of children thrilled to “Hoppy’s” daring adventures, and they soon began to clamor for more.
Rethinking their initial disdain for the genre, producers at NBC contracted with Boyd in 1948 to produce a new series of half-hour westerns for television. By 1950, American children had made Hopalong Cassidy the seventh most popular TV show in America and were madly snapping up genuine “Hoppy” cowboy hats, chaps, and six-shooters, earning Boyd’s venture more than $250 million. Soon other TV westerns followed Boyd’s lead, becoming popular with both children and adults. In 1959, seven of the top-10 shows on national television were westerns like The Rifleman, Rawhide, and Maverick. The golden era of the TV western would finally come to an end in 1975 when the long-running Gunsmoke left the air, three years after Boyd rode off into his last sunset.