Bo Hopkins, the wily actor with the wild-eyed gaze who came to fame portraying thieves and scoundrels in such films as The Wild Bunch, American Graffiti, Midnight Express and White Lightning, died Saturday morning. He was 84.
Hopkins died at Valley Presbyterian Hospital in Van Nuys after suffering a heart attack on May 9, his wife of 33 years, Sian, told The Hollywood Reporter.
With his hair-trigger delivery, Hopkins was a favorite of Sam Peckinpah, who cast him in three features — as Clarence “Crazy” Lee in The Wild Bunch (1969), as a double-crossed bank robber in The Getaway (1972) and as a weapons expert in The Killer Elite (1975).
His turn as Joe Young, the leader of The Pharaohs greaser gang in George Lucas’ American Graffiti (1973), solidified him as a top-notch screen villain. The highlight of his role included coaxing Curt (Richard Dreyfuss) to attach a hook and chain to a police car so that when it gives chase, the back axle flies off.
“I go to car shows because American Graffiti is the national anthem of car shows,” Hopkins said in a 2012 interview with Shock Cinema magazine. “Graffiti got people out draggin’ and going up, and down streets cruisin’. It got people into cars doing that kind of stuff again. If I told you how many times people have come up to Candy [Clark], Paul [Le Mat] and me at these shows and told us that we’ve changed their lives, you wouldn’t believe it.”
As his career evolved, the sandy-haired South Carolina native segued to the right side of the law, and executive producer Quentin Tarantino tapped him to portray a good guy in Dusk to Dawn 2: Texas Blood Money (1999).
“Tarantino told me that he loved my work and that he had this part,” he said. “Well, I got the script and said, ‘Sure, I’ll do this. This is great.’ Well, they didn’t tell me they were going to shoot in South Africa.”
In The Wild Bunch, Hopkins’ character, a volatile young member of the gang, terrorizes a group of hostages inside a bank before meeting a horrible end in a hail of bullets. Just before his demise, he utters one of the film’s most quotable lines — “Well, how’d you like to kiss my sister’s black cat’s ass?”
“They took me to special effects and had wires runnin’ up my ass, up my legs. I was squibbed up 26 times,” he recalled of his first big movie role. “I fuckin’ thought I was gonna go to the moon if them things ever went off. I’d never worked with squibs. Sam asked me if I wanted a T-shirt. ‘No, sir,’ I said. ‘I want to feel it.’ … Well, see, I didn’t know. I wanted to feel it, experience it, just like we talked about at the Actors Studio. And like a damn fool, I didn’t wear a T-shirt.”
In a short but impactful performance in The Getaway (1972), Hopkins’ Frank Jackson gets his private parts blown off by his partner Rudy (Al Lettieri) during another bank robbery. Rudy, in turn, is shot by Doc (Steve McQueen), who takes off with the stolen loot.
Peckinpah gave Hopkins a more substantial role in The Killer Elite as a weapons expert recruited by James Caan to stop an assassination.
Hopkins added to his criminal mystique as a moonshiner alongside Burt Reynolds in White Lightning (1973) and as Tex, a mysterious man who seals Billy Hayes’ (Brad Davis) fate, in Midnight Express (1978).
William Mauldin Hopkins was born on Feb. 2, 1938, in Greenville, South Carolina. His father worked at a local mill while his mother stayed home with the children. At age 39, his dad had a heart attack and died on the porch of his home in front of his wife and son.
Hopkins was sent to live with his grandparents when his mom remarried the following year, then learned when he was 12 that he was adopted at nine months old. He eventually met his birth mother and got to know his half-siblings.
Quite the handful growing up, Hopkins said he used to steal money from family members to treat his friends to the movies. He was headed to reform school after a botched robbery when he enlisted in the U.S. Army just before his 17th birthday.
“I don’t know how my mother and grandmother put up with me,” Hopkins remembered. “Later, I went back home and took them to see The Wild Bunch and my second movie, [1969’s] The Bridge at Remagen. And that’s when everybody who said I was gonna end up in prison said they always knew Billy was going to make something of himself.”
After the service, which included nine months in Korea, Hopkins returned to Greenville and landed a role in a production of The Teahouse of the August Moon in a local theater, then received a scholarship to Kentucky’s Pioneer Playhouse. “I think there were 180 people trying out for summer stock,” he said. “I didn’t even know what summer stock was.”
Hopkins’ Pioneer Playhouse experience led to an opportunity to perform in a play in New York, and he was in an off-Broadway production of Bus Stop when the producers asked him to change his name. He took his character’s first name, and Bo Hopkins was born.
After just a few months in the city and another stint back home, Hopkins decided to try his luck in Hollywood and received a scholarship to an acting school at the Desilu-Cahuenga Studios and then a spot as an observer at the L.A. outpost of the Actors Studio.
With Diane Davis as his agent, Hopkins made his onscreen debut in 1966 on an episode of The Phyllis Diller Show. “After the Phyllis Diller thing, I did a Gunsmoke, then The Andy Griffith Show, playing Goober’s helper,” he said. “George Lindsey always said he was the one who started my career.”
Other early TV appearances came on The Virginian, The Wild Wild West, Judd for the Defense and The Rat Patrol.
Hopkins’ time at Desilu also led to his breakthrough role. Wild Bunch actor William Holden heard about his performance in a stage production of Picnic and recommended him to screenwriter Roy N. Sickner, who convinced Peckinpah to give Hopkins a shot as Crazy Lee.
Two of Hopkins’ favorite outlaw gigs came in 1975 when he played Turner, a high-strung, would-be Mafioso who liked to dress like a cowboy, in the independent neo-noir film The Nickel Ride and as gangster Pretty Boy Floyd in the ABC telefilm The Kansas City Massacre.
As a go-to guy for lawmen, he portrayed sheriffs in A Small Town in Texas (1976), Sweet Sixteen (1983), Mutant (1984), Trapper County War (1989), The Bounty Hunter (1989), The Final Alliance (1990), Fertilize the Blaspheming Bombshell (1992), Texas Payback (1995) and A Crack in the Floor (2001).
Hopkins’ other features included The Moonshine War (1970), Monte Walsh (1970), The Man Who Loved Cat Dancing (1973), Posse (1975), Tentacles (1977), The Fifth Floor (1978), Big Bad John (1990), Radioland Murders (1994) and U Turn (1997).
He also had recurring roles as the adulterous Matthew Blaisdel on ABC’s Dynasty, and as renegade disbarred lawyer John Cooper on NBC’s The Rockford Files in 1978-79 and guest-starred on other shows like Barnaby Jones, Charlie’s Angels, Fantasy Island, The A-Team, Scarecrow and Mrs. King and Murder, She Wrote.
In 2020, Hopkins appeared in his final film, Hillbilly Elegy, directed by Ron Howard, marking a reunion with his American Graffiti co-star. “That was quite a thrill for him,” his wife said.
Survivors also include his children, Matthew and Jane.