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Grace Bradley Boyd dies at 97; actress, widow of William 'Hopalong Cassidy' Boyd

She appeared in 35 films, but her most enduring role was as the wife of the western movie hero, keeping the 'Hoppy' character alive.

September 24, 2010|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times

Grace Bradley Boyd, an actress who came to Hollywood as a Paramount contract player in the early 1930s but abandoned her career after marrying the love of her life, William "Hopalong Cassidy" Boyd, has died. She was 97.

Boyd, the keeper of the "Hoppy" flame after the death of her western movie-hero husband of 35 years in 1972, died of age-related causes on her birthday Tuesday at her home in Dana Point, said Jane Mak, a longtime close friend.

As Grace Bradley, Boyd appeared in 35 films, including "Too Much Harmony," starring Bing Crosby; "The Big Broadcast of 1938," with W.C. Fields and Bob Hope; and "Come on Marines" with Richard Arlen and Ida Lupino.

The petite, Brooklyn-born actress, who launched her show business career as a dancer, was often cast as a femme fatale or "the wrong girl," but she played a variety of characters.

Her most enduring role, however, was off-screen — as the wife of William Boyd.

Born Grace Bradley on Sept. 21, 1913, she studied to be a concert pianist and at 15 represented the state of New York in an annual competition for young pianists at Carnegie Hall. Although she won the contest, she began modeling full time and attending dance school at night.

She was dancing in the floor show at the Paradise nightclub in Manhattan in 1933 when she was spotted by a Paramount Pictures director and placed under contract.

Grace Bradley had a string of movies behind her when she received the phone call that changed her life.

Years before, as a 12-year-old schoolgirl, she had become smitten by dashing, silent-screen star William Boyd.

Since his earlier success, the handsome actor's career had plummeted, then risen again in 1935 after he began playing Hopalong Cassidy, the silver-haired western hero who dressed in black and rode a snow-white horse in a series of low-budget films.

In 1937, a mutual friend in Hollywood told William Boyd, "There's a girl you should meet."

When the actor phoned Bradley and said, "This is William Boyd," she recalled in a 1976 interview with the Costa Mesa-based Daily Pilot, she thought someone who knew about her "mad crush" on Boyd was pulling her leg.

"You mean the William Boyd?" she asked.

He laughed — the same distinctively hearty laugh she had heard in his movies — and she was speechless.

"You couldn't miss that laugh," she recalled. "There was no other like it."

The actor invited her to a small party at his beach house in Malibu. And when he arrived at her Beverly Hills townhouse to pick her up, her mother greeted him at the door.

William Boyd was standing at the foot of the stairs when Grace walked down to meet him. He instinctively held out his arms for her, she recalled, "and I walked right into them."

Three days later, Boyd asked her to marry him. "He said, 'I would have proposed the first night except I was afraid I'd scare you to death,' " she recalled.

They were married three weeks after they met, Grace Bradley becoming the fifth — and last — Mrs. William Boyd.

As Republic Studios director William Witney once put it: "She met a Prince Charming on a big white horse."

Despite the age difference — he was 42; she was 23 — she said, "We were absolutely right for each other."

Grace Boyd soon abandoned her own acting career to devote herself to her husband.

After producer Harry "Pop" Sherman ceased production of the Hopalong Cassidy films in 1944, William Boyd set about purchasing the rights to the old movies and the Hoppy character.

To help raise the $350,000 to purchase the rights, the Boyds sold their ranch home north of Malibu and moved into an apartment in Hollywood.

"We were," Grace Boyd recalled in a 1991 interview with The Times, "down to absolutely nothing."

In 1946, William Boyd formed his own production company to begin turning out new Hoppy movies.

But the Boyds' investment paid off in a big and unexpected way.

In 1948, the old Hoppy films began appearing on KTLA-TV Channel 5 in Los Angeles and on a station in New York City. NBC soon began airing them nationally and Boyd then started making new 30-minute episodes for television.

As America's first real television hero, the wise and tough cowboy with the friendly grin became a show business phenomenon.

More than 2,000 products were manufactured bearing Hoppy's name and likeness, and Boyd, as Hoppy, appeared on the covers of Life, Time and Look magazines. During a 26-city tour, a million fans turned out to see him.

"I made a point of being in the background," she said in the 1976 interview. "As far as the kids were concerned, Hoppy was Hoppy. He didn't have a wife or family. When the young ones would ask, 'Who are you?,' I'd say, 'I'm Hoppy's mommy.' "

William Boyd retired from the screen in 1953 and died in 1972 at 77.

At a loss after his death, Grace Boyd began her more than 35 years of volunteer work at the hospital in Laguna Beach where her husband had spent his final days.

But Hopalong Cassidy always remained part of her life, including winning a two-decade legal battle stemming from a copyright infringement suit, and appearing at Hoppy tributes.

"Everybody I talk to is looking for a hero," she said at the Lone Pine Film Festival in 1995. "They say, 'If only we had Hoppy again,' or somebody like that. The children don't have role models. Who do we have?"

Boyd had no survivors.

A private service was held Thursday at Forest Lawn Memorial-Park, Glendale, where she was interred next to her husband.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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