Pleasant Fellow in your Living Room: The (Abbreviated) William Hopper Story, by X. SvanströmHe successfully explained Einstein's theory of relativity to Bette Davis and James Cagney
On 26 January 1915, in New York City, New York, a young actress by the name of Elda Furry gave birth to her first and only child, William Dewolf Hopper Jr. He was named for his father, fifty-six-year-old stage star Dewolf Hopper, who was most famous for frequent recitations of the poem 'Casey at the Bat', womanizing (Elda was his fifth wife), blue-tinted skin, and a complete lack of hair.
Although Dewolf Sr.'s hairlessness was caused by case of typhoid fever at age fifteen, Elda feared her baby might somehow inherit the trait. Whilst pregnant, she made a habit of staring intently at “bushy-haired individuals with lustrous eyebrows and long lashes” in order that she might ward off alopecia. Apparently, her efforts were not in vain.
Young Billy, with his abundant head of hair, spent his first two years at the Algonquin Hotel, the New York hotspot for stage and literary luminaries. At the beginning of 1918, the family rented a house in Great Neck, New York, which was a vast relief to Elda, who had always wanted her son to grow up in a house.
With the New Year came a new name that many people would later and forever associate with hats and gossip: Hedda Hopper. Elda had paid an occultist friend to create a new moniker for her that might bring success in her career. From then on, even her son was calling her Hedda. Dewolf Sr., however, did not like the new name, nor did he appreciate the fact that his wife was making as much money in film as he was on the stage; the marriage began to fail. A divorce was granted in 1923.
William Hopper's early education was earned at various boarding schools, and, shortly after moving to Hollywood with his mother in 1924, an expensive school on Catalina Island. This continued into the depression, whilst his mother just got by, living in a small basement apartment. She was determined that her son should be brought up “correctly” and that he should have all the “right” contacts.
William did not share his mother's ambitions, neither socially, politically (she was right wing in the extreme), nor professionally, and grew distant from her. Hedda's brand of motherhood seemed to be a pendulum that swung continuously between overbearing control and abandonment. He had never been close to his father, either, due to Dewolf's frequent and prolonged absences during theatrical tours as well as his general disinterest in parenting. “Wolfie” may have been adored by his friends, particularly for financial generosity, but was not cut out to be a dad.
None of his parents' exceeding ambitiousness passed to young Hopper. The social and career-centric carnival in which Hedda and Wolfie seemed to reside produced in their son a certain revulsion for hobnobbing, and no interest in acting. When Hedda realized that William was determined not to follow in her footsteps, she decided he was “a born lawyer” (ironic, considering the rôle for which he would later become famous). In a rebellious move, he turned to acting after all, and, in the summer of 1934, went on the stage in Ogunquit, Maine.
Shortly before Dewolf Sr. died, father and son enjoyed a series of visits with each other that provided them the opportunity to become more closely acquainted. Young Hopper got to understand his dad a little better and managed to repair their relationship satisfactorily. Wolfie left the world at age seventy-seven in 1935.
By 1936, William Hopper was signed with Paramount. Despite his good looks and stately physique he was relegated mostly to bit parts. He lacked the confidence and, still, again, ambition to win more substantial rôles. Onscreen he was an amiable presence with skill, although it seemed frequently when he was not the focus of action, that he would melt into the background to virtual invisibility.
1937 brought the only two films in which Hopper played leading man: Public Wedding (with Jane Wyman) and Over the Goal (alongside June Travis). After that came a string of mostly blink-and-you'll-miss-it parts in both A and B pictures.
Actress Jane Gilbert (sister of Margaret Lindsay) caught his eye on the set of Invisible Stripes, a film starring George Raft, Jane Bryan and a practically teenaged (yet already glowing) William Holden. Gilbert and Hopper played a society couple who swept through and raised the ire of Holden's blue-collar character. The pair married in 1940 and Jane gave birth to daughter Joan in 1942.
Though he did everything in his power to thwart his mother's interference in his life Hedda continued to cause problems both personally and professionally. Hedda was now known as queen of Hollywood gossip, penning a regular column on the subject. This caused many in the entertainment business to regard William with suspicion. Also, Jane had never won the complete approval of her mother-in-law and she found Hedda's treatment of William galling. Hedda's relationship with her granddaughter was becoming problematic as well, very similar in nature to the one she had with her son. Drinking heavily to escape his woes became an issue on occasion, and, after a two year stint in the coast guard during WWII, Hopper cut off communication with his mother almost completely and dropped out of acting.
For eight years he supported his family by selling used cars. It was profession on which he lost no love and, by his own admission, was one for which he was terribly unsuited. He returned to acting in 1954.
His rôles in the 1950s were generally more prominent than those he had in the 1930s and early '40s, but at first his confidence was still shaky, perhaps worse than ever before. About his part in The High and the Mighty he said, “I was so lousy, so nervous, I didn't even know where the camera was.” He was experiencing such severe anxiety that just before he was to appear in an episode of Lux Video Theater, a live broadcast television programme, he called and cancelled, vowing to himself that he'd never act again as long as he lived. One small thought, however, saved his career: “I thought, what the heck, they can't shoot me, and walked on the set. Something happened then. It was as if someone had surgically removed the nerves.”
In 1955 auditions were held for a television series that would be based on Erle Stanley Gardner's popular Perry Mason novels. Dozens of actors arrived in hopes of winning the title rôle or that of Perry's right hand man/investigator Paul Drake, William Hopper amoungst them. Hopper happily won Drake, declaring later in life that he lacked the dedication needed to play Perry Mason.
For nine years, the entire run of the show, William Dewolf Hopper Jr. was Paul Drake par excellence. Almost as much as Raymond Burr is remembered for his commanding presence as Mason and Barbara Hale as Della Street with her significant glances from beneath arched brows, is Hopper identified with Drake. He was tall—alarmingly so for those days at six foot four inches—angularly handsome, prematurely grey (mistaken for blonde by those Mason fans unfamiliar with his early work) and so very often wearing an “expression of droll humour” to quote Gardner describing Drake in the novels. The comic element of the show most frequently stemmed from the Paul Drake character and Hopper always delivered with naturalness and vigour.
Hedda was proud of her son's work on Mason but the relationship between the two was still strained. When Hopper divorced (much of he and Jane's marital troubles came from Hedda-induced friction) and then remarried in the mid-1960s, his new wife, Jan, encouraged him to work things out with his mother. Once again, Hedda was disapproving of William's bride, but changed her tune as Jan put her hand to reconciling mother and son. The newfound harmony came just in time, as Hedda succumbed to double pneumonia in February of 1966. Just four years later, her son, after being hospitalized for a stroke, was taken from this world by the same illness.
In the 1930s he and Isabel Jewell went nightclubbing together
His grandfather's family on his father's side helped abolish slavery
He once described himself as a “pleasant fellow whom you like having around the family living room.”
1) Hedda and Louella, by George Eells (1972, Warner Books)
2) The Perry Mason TV Show Book, 1987 - http://www.perrymasontvshowbook.com/index.htm
3) Wikipedia.org - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Hopper
4) Brian's Drive-in - http://www.briansdriveintheater.com/williamhopper.html
1) Source unknown
2) Scan from Hedda and Louella, by George Eells (1972, Warner Books)
3) Antique postcard
4) Photo purchsed on eBay, scanned by X. Svanström
5) Screen capture
6) Photo purchsed on eBay, scanned by X. Svanström
7) Screen capture
8) Screen captures
Text of article © X. Svanström, 2006