Remembering the Career of Bo Hopkins
They carry many labels: supporting players, character actors, bit players, Familiar Faces… They’re the acting infantry, the men and women who populate the screen around the leads. Some of them occasionally surprise us with their range (think Walter Brennan in Bad Day at Black Rock ), and others, well, their gifts may be limited, but the few things they do they do immaculately well (Dub Taylor in anything). Whatever their gifts, without the Strother Martins, the Thelma Ritters, the Ruth Whites, the Ben Johnsons, the Whit Bissels, the R.G. Armstrongs, the Ned Beattys, the Jesse Royce Landises, the Bill McKinneys, the Geoffrey Lewises et al, the movie universe would be an arid, empty place, and even the biggest stars would seem less stellar if the only voice echoing around the auditorium was their own.
Bo Hopkins was one of them; one of the acting infantry called on to fill that big screen behind the big names over a hundred times in a career that spanned nearly a half-century; a pretty neat accomplishment for a southern boy (Hopkins was born in Greenville, South Carolina) who’d been a bit of a hellion as a kid, dropping out of school, stealing from relatives to treat his buds to the movies, just missing reform school for robbery by enlisting in the Army at seventeen. But the decades between then and now is a long time, and when he passed, Glenn Close, who played Mamaw to his Papaw in Hillbilly Elegy (2020) called him “…a gentleman and a gentle man.”
I can’t find anything that explains why, when he came out of the Army, he got interested in acting; just that his then wife was so put off by the idea they split up. He worked his way up from Kentucky theater to walking the boards in New York City, dropping his given name of “William” for “Bo” after a character he played in an off-Broadway production of Bus Stop. He started getting small parts on TV, everything from The Andy Griffith Show to The Virginian (Westerns and rural parts were a natural for the drawling Hopkins), but he stepped up in the ranks of supporting players with the role of Crazy Lee in Sam Peckinpah’s landmark Western, The Wild Bunch (1969), a role that was not in the original script.
The story is that William Holden, who had the lead in Bunch, had heard about Hopkins’ performance in a stage production of Picnic. Holden passed the word on to Roy N. Sickner, the stunt man who’d come up with the original story for Bunch, and then Sickner persuaded Peckinpah to try the twenty-seven-year-old TV bit player out.
Crazy Lee – “They’re blowin’ this town all to hell!” – opened the door for Hopkins and for a good stretch of the 1970s, he was a go-to villain, like the gun-crazy gunman of The Culpepper Cattle Co. But sometimes, there was a less off-putting, even funny charm to his villainy, like the leader of the Pharaohs (pronounced in Hopkins’ South Carolinese as Phay-rohs) in another classic, American Graffiti (1973).
At the time of Graffiti, he still hadn’t quite shucked that young-and-crazy-maverick part of himself. Story is he, Harrison Ford, and Paul LeMat were bending elbows pretty regularly between takes, and even got into a climbing contest trying to scale the sign of the local Holiday Inn.
Young and crazy or not, like Strother Martin, L.Q. Jones, R.G. Armstrong, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and others, Hopkins became a Peckinpah favorite, another member of that Familiar Face pool he drew on regularly. He played a not-too-slick bank robber in Peckinpah’s biggest hit, The Getaway (1972), and was given a bigger part in the director’s try at an espionage flick, The Killer Elite (1975).
Killer is inferior Peckinpah, but it did give Hopkins a chance to display some other colors besides that of the grinning psycho. He plays a gun-running weapons specialist with a reputation for being a bit of a rogue: “I don’t think your company’d hire me,” he tells old work-buddy James Caan when Caan approaches him for one of those few-against-many operations, “They got me tagged as a psycho.”
“You’re not a psycho, Miller,” Caan replies, “You’re the patron saint of the manic depressives.”
Later, toting a rucksack full of firepower, Bo Hopkins meets up with Caan and the third member of their team (Burt Young). After coming off as a hard-boiled hard ass, Hopkins melts when Young asks him what his first name is. Like an embarrassed schoolkid, you can almost feel Hopkins blush as he mumbles into his collar, “Jerome.” It’s a beautiful turn, and the kind of turn-on-a-dime that kept Hopkins working for decades.
He was the typical journeyman actor, going where the work was. Sometimes he was just helping fill in the ranks (The Bridge at Remagen ), sometimes it was just, well, what can you say about something like Tentacles (1977)? But there were times when Hopkins, even as a supporting player, showed he could hold the screen with the big guys as he did sharing the screen with Burt Reynolds in White Lightning (1973), one of the best of the “Bubba” flicks that rolled out in the 1970s.
By the 1980s, most of his work was in TV and in a way, it was a step up for him because it gave him more of a chance to flex his performance muscles: as Pretty Boy Floyd in the TV movie The Kansas City Massacre (1975), and prosecutor in another TV movie, Judgment: The Court Martial of Lieutenant William Calley (1975), or joining the prime time soap Dynasty for an eighteen-episode run.
My favorite Bo Hopkins story is from filming The Wild Bunch because it is so a young-actor-wants-to-do-good story. It was a warm experience for the newbie: Dub Taylor helping him memorize the words to the hymn “Shall We Gather At the River,” Ernest Borgnine acting “…like a father to me” (Hopkins had been adopted when he was six months old). And the usually fiery director took a liking to the rookie who was willing to take on any chore, like shooting off guns to spook horses for a shot.
But here’s the fun part. Bo Hopkins’ scene ends with him going down in a fusillade in bullets (for you Bunch fans, it’s when Crazy Lee gasps out, “Why don’t you kiss my sister’s black cat’s ass,” before a nasty railroad exec finishes him off). Before Hopkins was rigged with squibs, he was asked if he wanted to wear an undershirt under the squibs. Nope. With the exuberance of a new-to-movies youngblood on the set of a major motion picture for the first time, Hopkins felt, “I want to feel it.”
And after being squibbed twenty-six times and left bruised and blistered, he felt it…and never made that mistake again.
I feel a little bit of a — … Well, I won’t call it kinship. I went to college in South Carolina in the mid-1970s, and it was about then that I discovered Sam Peckinpah and through him, Bo Hopkins. Every once in a while, one of the state newspapers would do a piece on him; kind of a local-boy-makes-good profile piece, and even though I was only visiting for a few years, well, I still felt, “You go, Bo!” After all, for those four years, he was my home team guy.
The thing about these performers – these Familiar Faces – is that what makes them so familiar is we see them a lot. They become part of the movie universe we grow up with. That makes it hard to see them go.
They’re not stars, they don’t get leads, and as I said earlier, the careers for some of them rest almost entirely on their ability to do just one thing. The thing is, what they do – whether a lot or a little – they do exquisitely well, and when they’re gone, we realize it was something only they could do.