The Perry Mason TV Show Book
William Hopper as Paul Drake

The Case of the Reluctant Actor
Bill Hopper, the reluctant actor. Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Science

Where Raymond Burr encountered humiliation and tragedy in fulfilling his lifelong ambition to be an actor, Bill Hopper, television's Paul Drake, had an acting career handed to him on a silver platter. The problem was, he didn't want it.

"I became an actor," he once said, "because it seemed the easiest thing to do and because it was expected of me. But it stunk."

Most fans probably don't realize that Bill Hopper was actually the son of Hedda Hopper, the Hollywood actress turned columnist. It was a connection Bill Hopper consciously tried to downplay during most of his acting career. Born William DeWolf Hopper, Jr., in 1915, Bill was the son of elderly DeWolf Hopper, the musical comedy stage and screen veteran whose most famous role was probably his deadball version of "Casey at the Bat" in the 1916 film. "Wolfie," as the old man was called, had a penchant for young wives--Hedda was his fifth. When the marriage came apart in 1922, Bill, then seven years old, stayed with his mother. Their bonding would grow into one of mutual love but extreme annoyance as the youngster got older.

Hedda "the Hat" (born Elda Furry in 1890), came to Hollywood first as an actress, appearing in more than forty films including everything from Sinners in Silk (1924) to Adam and Evil (1927). She became a syndicated newspaper columnist around 1936 and did radio spots also. It was the beginning of a career that would make her one of the most influential voices in Hollywood--quite possibly the most influential from the late 1930s through the 1950s. (Columnist Louella Parsons ran a close second.) These were the days of the Hollywood studios' "star system," and Hedda had access to a lot of inside information. Therefore, when Hedda spoke, Tinseltown listened. Her columns were filled with gossip, fact, and rumor--one word from Hedda could make or break a career. Many producers, directors, actors, and starlets took notice of her "suggestions" and adjusted their star paths accordingly. As TV Guide put it, her words were akin to "a general's orders to a private."

It's no surprise that a woman as powerful as Hedda liked getting her own way, and most of the time she did. The exception was with her son, Bill. The young Hopper just didn't have the right chemistry to fit into his mother's fast-paced life. More shy than rebellious, he apparently spent most of his adolescence looking for ways not to get involved in the Hollywood kissy-kissy scene. He deliberately made friends outside of movieland's strata and harbored an open dislike for the never-ending celebrity parties that were Hedda's lifeblood.

"I didn't dislike movie people," Bill once told TV Guide. "But they were nothing special to me. I'd been around them all my life. My mother's the kind who could say 'Howdeedo' to the king of England and feel perfectly at home. But I couldn't."

Trouble was, Hedda demanded that her son become a success in her world of moving pictures. When he resisted, Hopper's life became a perpetual game of trying to find oneself in spite of mommy's help.

"What Hedda wants, Hedda gets," is how a friend put it. "She wanted Bill to be part of her way of life. When Bill wouldn't cooperate, it drove her nuts."

Unwilling though he was, Hopper became a very visible, well-publicized momma's boy during the 1930s. (He rarely saw his father, a man of fifty-seven when Bill was born. Wolfie died at age seventy-seven in 1935.) Hedda bought her son everything from his toys to his suits. She sent him to the best schools. But not even motherhood could slow down an ambitious person like Hedda. Her son suffered as a result.

From all reports, however, Hedda was genuinely (some say, surprisingly) touched when discussing her son. She was aware of how hard it was on him being the offspring of Hollywood's most famous buttinsky. "I love my son," she said once in a moment of candor, "but he is so much better when I am not around."

As he grew older, young Hopper became quite capable of making his own decisions. Yet even then he constantly had to fend off his mother's overdeveloped concern, which frequently got out of line. Ironically, in the light of his subsequent TV role, she told him that if he didn't want to be an actor, she'd make him a lawyer. Bill reluctantly opted for the screen, but didn't bust down any doors in doing so.

So Hedda did it for him. In 1936, she arranged for him to play summer stock in Maine. Later on, he apparently impressed someone playing a minor role in Romeo and Juliet, because he was signed to his first movie contract soon afterward.

Hollywood, however, was just barely 'whelmed. Going by the stage name of DeWolf Hopper, Jr., he played his first screen role in 1937. Although he did appear in classics such as Knute Rockne--All American (1940), and The Maltese Falcon (1941), he also showed up in losers like Women Are Like That (1937), Daredevil Drivers (1938), and Nancy Drew and the Hidden Treasure* (1939). His biggest accomplishment during this period appears to have been as an answer to the Hollywood trivia question: What actor played in the B movie Public Wedding with a then unknown actress who went on to divorce a future president of the United States? (Answer: DeWolf Hopper, Jr. The actress? Jane Wyman.)

This appearance notwithstanding, most of his roles continued to be small. Which is how Hopper preferred them. He was still living at home, so he didn't need the money. It was about this time that Hedda moved from screen star to screen columnist. Even more than before, Bill Hopper felt trapped in the large shadow of Hedda's famous hats.

"I was always conscious that no matter what I did, someone was thinking Hedda had arranged it," Hopper once said. "Half the time she had, too. Producers began asking my agent, 'But how much trouble will Hedda give me?'"

For instance, there was the time he was negotiating a contract at Fox on his own. Hedda found out and called the studio. But the producer turned out to be a rare item; he stood up to her. Goodbye contract at Fox.

* Webmaster's Note: A message from Jackie F. points out that the correct title for the Nancy Drew movie is Nancy Drew and the Hidden Staircase.

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The Perry Mason TV Show Book Copyright 1987 by Brian Kelleher and Diana Merrill. All rights reserved. Presented here by permission of the copyright holder. Commercial use prohibited. Web page Copyright 1998 D. M. Brockman. Last edited 30 Mar 2005.