Monday, March 10, 2008

Hopalong Cassidy: Still in the Saddle

What I like most about William Boyd--the actor who played Hopalong Cassidy in over 60 films, a TV series and a radio series--was that he took his responsibility as a role model seriously.

I mean, he really took it seriously. Prior to playing Hopalong for the first time in 1935, he had drank, gambled and cheated his way through 4 wives. But as soon as he took the part of the cowboy and became a hero to countless children, it was as if someone flipped a switch. He cleaned up his own personal life, stayed married to his fourth wife until his death in 1972 and became as sincere a role model in real life as he was on film.

In 1950, the Hopalong movies found new life on TV and the character was suddenly more popular than ever. Literally thousands of fans would show up for his personal appearances and his lunchbox (the first ever produced that featured a celebrity image) sold like hotcakes.

Boyd made a bunch of half-hour televsion episodes to sell to TV stations along with his movies. In 1950, he also recording episodes for a syndicated radio series.

The radio show was quite good--well-written and well-directed. I listened to one particular episode this weekend titled "Apaches Don't Use Guns" that I think deserves special mention.

In terms of plot, the episode was nothing that hadn't been done a zillion times in films, books, TV and radio. A band of Indians besiege an undermanned army post. Been there, done that.

But, despite this lack of basic originality, the episode is downright enthralling. Well-paced, with good acting and sound effects, it manages to keep the listener on the edge of his seat throughout the story.

Also notable were some nice bits of characterization, especially a calvary officer who at first comes across as an arrogant jerk, but later proves to be honorable and brave. A moment in which Hopalong acknowledges this--despite having earlier been treated rudely by the man--is a nice touch.

Obviously, originality and innovation will always be a vital part of storytelling as a whole. But Hopalong's radio show demonstrates that skilled storytellers can also cover the same old ground and still be entertaining.

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