The Perry Mason TV Show Book
William Hopper as Paul Drake

A Hero Selling Cars
William Hopper, the car salesman turned actor, in a scene from one of his earlier films. Courtesy of Capital Newspapers

It took a production as big as World War 11 to give Hopper a chance to get away from it all. In 1942, he joined the Coast Guard. He worked in underwater demolition and was good at it--maybe too good. His frogman team was originally chosen to lead the way for the possible invasion of Tokyo, a suicidal mission if there ever was one. However, Hopper was injured in the Philippines and returned home from the war in 1945 a hero. His mother was apparently more concerned than proud of her son's bravery, but for Bill Hopper it had been days of glory--perhaps more glory than he would ever find on the screen.

That question wouldn't be answered for almost a decade. After the service, Hopper dropped out of Hollywood life--to sell cars. He was the first to admit that he wasn't good at it. In addition, his boss wasn't above using Bill and his famous mother as steppingstones to some lucrative Hollywood connections. And when things got tough, Hedda was right there as usual, offering to buy Bill his own business. Yet Hopper stuck with it for eight years, supporting his wife, Jane, whom he had married in 1940, and his young daughter, Joan, who was born in 1947. (This marriage would go awry, at least temporarily, in 1962.)

Hedda was to be proud of her son yet. In 1953, Bill Hopper was coaxed out of the car business and back into show business to pick up where he had left off before the war. William Wellman cast him in The High and the Mighty as the cowboy playing across from Jan Sterling. But he still felt suspicious that momma was pulling strings behind the scenes. At the time, Wellman claimed he didn't know Hopper was Hedda's son. Luckily, Wellman wasn't under oath at the time. Son Hopper knew better: "I was very doubtful. When it appeared Wellman was serious, I asked him if he knew whose son I was. He ignored me. I was so lousy, so nervous, I didn't even know where the camera was. But somehow Billy got me through. Afterward, I thanked him. He said, 'Thank me, my foot. After this, you're going to be in every picture I make.' I didn't believe him."

Shortly afterward, Hopper was cast in his first live TV show, a Lux Video presentation with Claire Trevor called "No Sad Songs for Me."

"I was so scared I canceled," Hopper remembered. "I swore I'd never act again as long as I lived. Then 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."

By 1955, Hopper had become more comfortable on the screen. He showed up--with dozens of other actors--to test for the role of TV's Perry Mason. But when Burr got Mason, Hopper got Paul Drake. Years after their roles were cast, Hopper said: "He [Burr] was everybody's idea of what Perry really was like, while I was some guy with prematurely gray hair.

"I don't think I could have handled Mason. I'm just not that dedicated."

But Hopper was finally working steadily in the industry and undoubtedly Hedda felt she had won. And she let the world know about it. Never one to contain her gift of gab, Hedda always positively blubbered over her son's exploits in her columns. Finally, Hopper put his foot down. About the time he joined the cast of "Perry Mason," he ordered her never to use his name in her column again.

Webmaster's Note: A message from David Nedrow points out that the picture at the top of the page is from "The Bad Seed" (1956). The actress is Nancy Kelly.

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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.