The Popeye cartoon character is based around the life of a ‘muscly’, squinty-eyed sailor name Popeye the Sailor Man. The comic was created in the late 1920s by E.C. Segar. and is based on someone Elzie Segar knew in Illinois.
The Beginning of Popeye the Sailor Man
The Popeye the Sailor Man character debuted in The Thimble Theatre comic strip in 1929. He was a minor character hired by character couples ‘Olive Oyl’ and ‘Hamgravy’ (her fickle boyfriend) to be apart of a ship’s crew. While he was only meant to be around for a few strips, the Popeye character quickly became very popular and the focus of the strip. The originally unimpressed and at times fickle, Olive Oyl became Popeye’s girlfriend. Popeye finds a baby in the mail which he adopts and names Swee’Pea.
He and Olive Oyl watch the child at different times. Popeye the Sailor Man’s good friend, J. Wellington Wimpy, was famous for offering to “gladly pay you Tuesday for a hamburger today”. Other characters were Bluto, Popeyes nemesis for Olive Oyl’s attention and Popeye’s pet named Eugene the Jeep. There was also a cobbler, Alice the Goon, Swee’Pea’s babysitter, and a caveman named Toar. Due to the popularity of the strip, it continued to run after Segar’s death, run by his artists, writers, and assistant, Bud Sagendorf.
Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel
So who exactly is Popeye based after? Well, the man who Elzie Segar knew in Illinois was named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel. He was known as a “local” legend. He was strong and demonstrated it in the many fights he was in. Like his the character, “Rocky” smoked a pipe and was toothless, Segar took a few other liberties. Fiegel was more of a drinker than a spinach eater, and he was a bartender, not a sailer.
He was, however, said to be very kind to children-a characteristic Popeye was given as well. Recently statues have been raised of the other local character inspirations. Rumor has it that Fiegel wasn’t really aware of his role in the creation of our favorite character Popeye until his final years of life, passing away in 1947. An engraving of Popeye’s face is on his gravestone. A statue of him (Popeye) was raised in Chester, Illinois in his honor.
From Real Life to Cartoon
Paramount Pictures adopted the strip character into the Popeye the Sailor animated cartoon in an agreement with Max Fleischer of Fleischer Studios and King Features in 1932. Popeye’s popularity continued to rise, making these cartoons some of the most successful in the 1930s. William Costello was the original voice of Popeye. The most well-known voice (laugh and mumbles) for the character was Jack Mercer. Mae Questel, the voice of Betty Boop, was the voice of Olive Oyl, while Gus Wickie voiced Bluto.
This Fleischer Studios production was where the “spinach” trope became heavily emphasized. It was only spoken of from time to time in the comic strip. In an unfortunate turn of events, Paramount Pictures fired Fleischer Studios and began running the cartoon and others under their newly created Famous Studios. These cartoon shorts are currently owned by Turner Entertainment and distributed by its very own sister company, Warner Bros.
Over the years the Popeye franchise has included tv cartoons, games, ads, comic books, and even a live-action movie in the ’80s where Robin Williams played Popeye, Shelley Duvall plays Olive Oyl directed by Robert Altman. It’s been ranked by TVGuide to be one of the “50 Greatest Cartoon Characters of All Time”.
Editors Note: This article was originally published on August 27, 2019.