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History Of An American Icon: Facts About Popeye The Sailor Man

Nov 17, 2020

Image: Canned spinach -
The fictional cartoon character Popeye celebrated his 90th anniversary in 2019. Popeye the Sailor Man is recognized worldwide, and over the years he has appeared in numerous comic strips, animated cartoons, and films. He is considered one of the greatest cartoon characters of all time according to
There are many things you may not know about Popeye, including whether he’s based on a real person or how his character boosted food sales during the Depression. Popeye also helped two people fall in love in real life. Here are some fascinating facts about the animated sailor who first captured people’s hearts nearly a century ago…
He Made His Comic Strip Debut In 1929
Popeye the Sailor debuted in comic strip form in January 1929. He was created by Elzie Crisler Segar (a.k.a. E.C. Segar) in a comic series called Thimble Theater, which at that point had been around for 10 years. Popeye was 34 years old and was distinguished by his one eye and a pretty bad speech impediment.
Popeye was born in a typhoon in Santa Monica, Calif. Fans quickly embraced the character, and before long the comic strip was renamed Thimble Theater Starring Popeye before it was just named Popeye in the 1970s.
Popeye’s Creator Used A Creative Signature
Segar created Popeye when his character Castor Oyl needed help navigating a ship to Dice Island. That’s when Castor Oyl encountered Popeye, whose first line in the comic strip was: “‘Ja think I’m a cowboy?” Segar’s other memorable characters included J. Wellington Wimpy and Eugene the Jeep.
Segar was known to sign his work with just his last name or as “E. Segar” above a drawing of a cigar. That’s because people sometimes got confused about how to pronounce his surname.
The Popeye Comic Strip Introduced The Words ‘Wimpy’ And ‘Dufus’ Into The English Vernacular
One of Popeye’s friends was the hamburger-loving J. Wellington Wimpy. The character was known to be a little timid and cowardly, thus people like him are often described as “wimpy” or “wimps.” A hamburger fast food chain in England is also called Wimpy’s.
The Popeye comic strip also had a character named Dufus. He was either Popeye’s nephew or a friend’s nephew, depending on which source you read. In the 1960s the term “doofus” came about when describing someone who was stupid or a silly fool.
It’s Not Entirely Clear If He’s Squinting Or Actually Has Just One Eye
In the comic strip, Popeye has just one eye that’s the result of “The mos’ ‘arful battle.” The thought is that he lost one of his eyes during a fight. However, it’s debatable if that’s truly the case. Some believe Popeye is simply squinting and that it appears as though he only has one eye when he actually has two.
However, in at least one cartoon Bluto calls him a “one-eyed runt,” which would indicate that Popeye has, in fact, just one eye.
A Boxer Was The Real-Life Inspiration Behind Popeye
Segar was inspired to create Popeye from a real-life boxer named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, who was from his hometown in Chester, Ill. Just like Fiegel, Popeye had a strong chin, smoked a pipe, and liked to fight. In 1996, the International Popeye Fan Club put a headstone on Fiegel’s unmarked grave.
Fiegel’s 1947 obituary read: “In his younger days he performed amazing feats of strength. Because of his hardened physique he was affectionately known as ‘Rocky.'” Fiegel, however, wasn’t a sailor and didn’t know that he inspired the character Popeye until late in life.
Olive Oyl Initially Didn’t Like Popeye At All
Before Popeye entered the scene, Segar’s Thimble Theatre comic strip centered on the misadventures of Olive Oyl and her boyfriend Harold Hamgravy. Olive was the youngest sibling of Castor Oyl and Crude Oyl.
When Popeye became popular, Olive Oyl started focusing her attention on him instead. Olive Oyl had long black hair that was often held back in a bun. She was very committed to Hamgravy until Popeye came on board. Initially, the pair didn’t get along; her first words to him were, “Take your hooks offa me or I’ll lay ya in a scupper.”
Popeye exerted influence over a popular automaker.
Popeye’s Pet May Have Inspired The ‘Jeep’ Brand Name
If you’ve ever wondered where the name of the vehicle “Jeep” came from back in 1941, you may want to look at the Popeye comic strip. There’s a theory that American soldiers loved off-road vehicles so much that they named them after a character called Eugene the Jeep.
Popeye might have inspired the 'jeep' name
The Jeep was Popeye’s magical pet, and he made his first appearance in the comic strip in 1936. One of his skills was traveling anywhere he wanted to. This characteristic could also apply to the off-road military vehicles that became what we know today as Jeeps.
A beloved comedian got his start in the live-action Popeye movie
A Texas Town Made History By Erecting The First Ever Statute Of A Cartoon Character (Popeye!)
There is a sculpture of the Popeye the Sailor Man in Crystal City, Texas. The South Texas town is surrounded by huge spinach farms. In the late ’30s, Popeye cartoons were really popular, so the Texas town decided to erect a statue to celebrate the renowned character.
What’s particularly interesting about this event is it marked the first time a city ever built a statute specifically to honor a cartoon character. Popeye obviously made such a big impression that an entire town wanted to give him special recognition.
Quakers Opposed Popeye’s Affiliation With Quaker Instant Oatmeal
Initially, Popeye got “luck” by rubbing the head of the Whiffle Hen. That all changed in 1932 when he started gaining strength from eating spinach. In the late ’80s, Popeye was featured in advertisements for Quaker Oatmeal, where he’d fight villains after eating one of the flavors of the company’s instant breakfast.
The Quaker religious group was offended by his catchphrase, “I’m Popeye the Quaker Man!” The Quakers are a peaceful people who didn’t want to be associated with a character known for fighting.
An Apprentice Animator Gave Popeye His Best Voice
In the 1930s, the cartoon Popeye was voiced by William “Billy” Costello, a.k.a. Red Pepper Sam. Paramount allegedly fired Costello due to his erratic behavior and because he was difficult to work with. They replaced him with Jack Mercer, an apprentice animator, after the head of Fleischer Studios’ music department heard Mercer imitating Popeye’s voice in the studio.
Many agree that Mercer was the best voice actor for Popeye due to his amusing adlibbing and remarks that became a signature part of the show’s humor. Over the series' run, Popeye, Bluto, and Olive Oyl were voiced by several actors and actresses.
Behind the scenes, Popeye made a love connection.
The Actors Who Voiced Popeye And Olive Oyl Got Married In Real Life
The real people who provided the voices of Popeye and Olive fell in love and ended up tying the knot. Starting in 1935, Jack Mercer was the voice of Popeye, and Margie Hines voiced Olive Oyl. The pair ended up getting married on March 8, 1939. Hines was the voice for Olive until 1943 when the studio was renamed Famous Studios and returned to New York.
Mercer voiced the one-eyed sailor in the cartoons until 1957. While it seemed like a match made in cartoon heaven, the pair divorced in 1944.
During The Depression, Kids Loved Eating Spinach Because Popeye Did
As we mentioned earlier, spinach was Popeye’s magic serum. It made him strong but also allowed him to do things such as play the piano or dance like a star. During the Depression, spinach sales increased by 33 percent due to Popeye’s popularity. At one point, it was the third most popular food among children, following ice cream and turkey.
Today, Popeye brand spinach is the second largest-selling brand of the vegetable in the United States. Popeye first showed a love for spinach after he was beaten up and thrown into a spinach field.
During WWII, Popeye Cartoons Were Definitely Not Politically Correct
During World War II, Popeye cartoons included some racially offensive content regarding the Japanese. The cartoons were used to boost the morale of U.S. soldiers during the conflict. In the cartoons the Japanese were pictured with buck teeth and thick glasses and referred to as “jap-pansies” instead of Japanese.
In another cartoon, Popeye and Bluto ate spinach and beat up Japanese soldiers. There were also instances in which the Popeye cartoons included racist and offensive portrayals of African-Americans, which is now edited out of the programs when they air on television.
Robin Williams’ First Big-Screen Starring Role Was 1980’s Popeye
In the 1970s, two major film studios competed to get the rights to make a film based on the Broadway musical Annie. Paramount lost the bidding war and instead decided to create a film based on Popeye. The film performed well at the box office but did not do as well as the studio projected.
The film earned just under $50 million at the U.S. box office, which was more than double the film’s budget. The live-action Popeye movie was the first starring film role for comedian/actor Robin Williams.
With ‘Friends’ Like This…
One of Popeye’s foils is Brutus, originally called Bluto, who is mean spirited and depicted with a beard and muscular physique. They both compete for the love of Olive Oyl. Bluto uses brute force to get what he wants. While he is a bully and obviously the arch nemesis of Popeye, the pair occasionally get along.
In several instances Bluto and Popeye start out as pals. But it doesn’t take long for Bluto to double-cross his “friend,” which makes you wonder why Popeye hangs out with the guy at all.
Betty Boop (Partially) Helped Catapult Popeye’s Popularity
As you already know, Popeye was originally popular as a comic strip character. But he became even more well known when he entered the film business as a cartoon movie star. He made his first appearance on film in a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon by Paramount called Popeye the Sailor.
Popeye cartoons were a regular part of Paramount’s release schedule for a quarter-century. He became even more famous than he had been in comic strips. By 1938, Popeye was Hollywood’s most popular cartoon character, according to polls.
This popular film “forgot” to include Popeye.
Popeye Was Curiously Absent From ‘Who Framed Roger Rabbit?’
The 1988 live-action film Who Framed Roger Rabbit? was set in a Hollywood in 1947. In the movie, cartoon characters and people co-exist side by side. The film centered on Eddie Valiant, a private detective who had to prove that cartoon character Roger Rabbit was not guilty of murder.
At the end of the film, nearly every famous and popular cartoon character in animated history appeared on the screen except for Popeye. But the glaring omission was not an oversight. The reason why is because Disney was unable to get permission from Paramount studios to use the sailor’s likeness.
Later Popeye Cartoons Lacked The Humor Of The Originals
The best Popeye cartoons were produced until the late ’50s and early ’60s. Then King Features took over and released several cartoons that just didn’t stand up to the originals. They didn’t have the same humor and simply weren’t as funny. Some were so bad they were labeled “unwatchable.”
Interestingly, the producer, Al Brodax, also made some mediocre Beatles TV cartoons before going on to co-write and produce the 1968 film Yellow Submarine, which is now considered a classic. Pixar co-founder and former chief creative officer John Lasseter has even said he was inspired by that film. Too bad Brodax didn’t use the same ingenuity in his Popeye features.
Popeye Is A Public Domain Character Everywhere Except In The United States
In 2009, Popeye became part of the public domain in Europe, meaning that anyone in those countries can use the image of the popular cartoon character without having to pay royalties. However, Popeye is still under copyright in the United States until 2025.
The reason why is because Popeye is included in the “work for hire” rules under U.S. copyright law. His creator, Segar, was employed by King Features Syndicate when he first put Popeye in his Thimble Theatre comic strip. So be careful if you use any Popeye images without permission!
Popeye’s Girlfriend Olive Oyl Was Indeed Named After Cooking Oil
Olive Oyl is named after cooking oil as are several members of her family, including her brother Castor Oyl, mother Nana Oyl, father Cole Oyl, Castor’s estranged wife Cylinda Oyl, nieces Diesel Oyl and Violet Oyl, and two uncles Otto Oyl and Lubry Kent Oyl.
Lubry gave Olive and her brother Castor the lucky Whiffle Hen that led to her introduction to Popeye. Between 1986 and 1992, comic strip artists Bobby London introduced Olive’s cousin Sutra Oyl and a distant relative named Standard Oyl, who was a rich corporate magnate.
The Voice Actress For Olive Oyl Was The First Betty Boop
As previously mentioned, Popeye made his first film appearance in a 1933 Betty Boop cartoon called Popeye the Sailor. There’s another connection between the two cartoons.
Vaudeville, stage, and screen actress Mae Questel was the voice of cartoon characters Betty Boop and Olive
Voice actress Margie Hines was the first voice actress for the Betty Boop character. She was awarded the role because she sounded just like Helen Kane, the woman who Betty Boop was based on. Hines and some other actresses played the part until Mae Questel took over the role in 1931.
The Empire State Building Was Lit Up In Green For Popeye’s Anniversary
Popeye’s 75th anniversary was in 2004. To commemorate the occasion, the Empire State Building was lit up in spinach green for the weekend. Additionally, a costumed Popeye character was on-site to greet fans in the building’s main lobby.
Celebrations in honor of the beloved cartoon sailor man continued throughout the year. Fox broadcast a 3-D animated film in Popeye’s honor, and the town of Chester (E.C. Segar’s hometown) held an annual picnic after Labor Day.
Connection To The Fried Chicken Restaurant
Although the founder of Popeyes Famous Fried Chicken & Biscuits claims that he named the restaurant after a fictional detective named Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle, the store sponsored the Popeye & Pals children’s show in New Orleans and later bought the rights to use Popeye the Sailor in its advertisements.
The restaurants don’t have an apostrophe in the name, which Copeland jokingly claimed was because he was “too poor” to afford one.
Popeye Might Be A Descendant Of Hercules
In one of the cartoons, Popeye tells his nephews, Pipeye, Peepeye, Poopeye and Pupeye, that he is, in fact, a descendant of the demigod, Hercules. The sailor man goes on to explain that his late ancestor got his strength from inhaling garlic. He then gets beat up and thrown into a spinach field and this is why Popeye now gets his superhuman strength from eating spinach.
So with that logic, Popeye is technically speaking part celestial! It definitely explains a lot of his shenanigans, and not to mention his physique!
You won’t believe what Popeye used to do for good luck!
Before The Magic Of Spinach, There Was The Magical Whiffle Hen
Before Popeye found the power of spinach, he used to rub the head of a whiffle hen, Bernice, for good luck. The hen was created by E.C. Segar in late 1928 as a Thimble Theatre character. She was introduced into Popeye’s universe shortly after the introduction of the main character.
Before The Magic Of Spinach, There Was The Magical Whiffle Hen
Rubbing the head of Bernice saved Popeye’s life at the end of his first appearance in Segar’s comic strip — he had been shot multiple times. Obviously, after he survived the wounds, Popeye wasn’t going to let Bernice out of his sight! Sailors are superstitious, after all!
There’s a Whiffle Hen statue!
Castor Oyl And Bernice The Whiffle Hen Are Memorialized
The monument of Castor Oyl, brother of Olive Oyl, and Bernice the Whiffle Hen is one of 16 statues that is being built in the town of Chester, Illinois, the hometown of Popeye creator, Elzie Crisler Segar.
The statue stands in front of Chester Memorial Hospital for a good reason. Popeye used to rub the head of Bernice for good luck, first doing so when he was shot multiple times and lived. Some wish to believe the statue will bring the patients of the hospital good luck and a speedy recovery.
Popeye Had A Wardrobe Change During The War
During the years of World War II, Popeye had a clear wardrobe change. Instead of his typical skipper’s hat, dark blue shirt, red neckerchief, and light blue jeans, Popeye wore an all-white sailor outfit, complete with a cap. The outfit was to be a reflection of a Naval officer fighting in the war.
Popeye kept the outfit, even after the war, becoming more of a Naval seaman in the wartime, and, in typical Popeye fashion, usually getting blamed for any and all mishaps that happened onboard.
Olive Oyl Had A Mean Side
After Olive Oyl’s boyfriend, “Ham Gravy,” was dropped from the comics, she became the main love interest of Popeye, eventually becoming his girlfriend. the thing about Olive is that she wasn’t overly nice to the sailor. She would often insult and berate Popeye, be disloyal to him, and in general, would treat the man like dirt.
In more than one cartoon, Olive hits, beats, and pretty much slaps the unlucky sailor senseless. Despite all of the abuse, Popeye loves Olive unconditionally.
There Is A “Banned” Popeye Comic
The Popeye cartoon titled, “Seein’ Red, White n’ Blue” is a “banned” racist comic that was published during World War II. The cartoon has the fascinating distinction of being the only comic where Popeye teams up with his arch-enemy, Bluto (Brutus), to take down mutual enemies.
The two gulp down a shared can of spinach, so they have the superhuman strength to go beat up on their agreed-upon enemy, namely the Japanese soldiers. Goes to show that if these two are able to set aside their differences then anything is possible!
Later-Day Popeye Producer, Al Brodax, Wasn’t Artistically Challenged
The producer of the less-funny, later-day Popeye comics, Al Brodax, wasn’t artistically challenged or un-funny, surprisingly. He actually goes on to produce the Beatles TV cartoons in the mid-1960s. Although they weren’t great, they were far better than Popeye!
Brodax’s greatest work of art happened while he was a producer and co-screenwriter for the Beatles groundbreaking 1968 film, Yellow Submarine. Too bad he wasn’t able to channel his artistic genius for the Popeye cartoon reboot.
In Spain, Olive Oyl’s Name Has Been Changed
Olive Oyl’s name has been changed to Rosario in Spain. This is because the Spanish people believe the name to be an insult to the olive tree. Spain produced about 1.3 million tons of olive oil each year, more than any other country in the world.
It’s easy to see why the people would get hurt over the character’s name, after all their hard work producing the oil. Not to mention the olive is a symbol of peace, kind of the opposite of Popeye’s girlfriend.
Castor Oyl Brought Popeye To The Comic
Castor Oyl is known as Olive Oyl’s scheming older brother from the Thimble Theatre comics. In January 1929, he needed someone who could navigate a ship to Dice Island, picking up a sailor who hung out at the docks; Popeye!
Popeye made his comic debut with a great response to Castor, “Ja think I’m a cowboy?” Ever since that comic, Popeye became a permanent addition to the strip. Eventually, the character became so popular that the strip was known as “Popeye.”
Segar Passed Away From Leukemia in 1938
A short nine-years after the introduction of Popeye, Elzie Segar passed away on October 13, 1938 in Santa Monica, California, from leukemia, he was 43. His grave can be visited in Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica.
Even though the world did not get nearly enough time with the genius comic creator, there were many people who took the helm to keep Segar’s imagination on paper and on-screen. The thing about artists is that they might be gone, but they live on through their humor and characters.
A popular video game was close to being based on Popeye!
The Original Donkey Kong Game Was Based Off Popeye
Before Nintendo created the game that we now know as Donkey Kong in 1981, the creators were asked to base the “new game” off Popeye, the sailor’s character and adventures. However, the company lost the license to Popeye, allowing for Shigeru Miyamoto to turn the concepts for the game into Donkey Kong.
Granted, the Donkey Kong characters are still loosely based on Popeye characters. The villainous Bluto became DK, the damsel-in-distress Olive Oyl became Princess Peach, and the heroic Popeye became the oh-so-famous Mario.
Popeye Village In Malta Is A Major Tourist Attraction
Popeye Village in Malta has grown since its days as a film set for the 1980 musical production of Popeye. The Maltese Island attraction is a fun park is open to the public and consists of a collection of rustic wooden buildings.
The open-air museum has a number of family-friendly attractions including shows, rides, as well as a playhouse where kids can climb and explore the village. Guests are even able to meet all of the main characters, including Popeye, Olive Oyl, Bluto, and Wimpy.
Popeye’s Love For Spinach Is Due To A Mathematical Error
In 1870, German chemist Erich von Wolf was researching the amount of iron in spinach and other green vegetables. When calculating his findings, he accidentally misplaced a decimal point, making the iron content ten times more than it actually is. The amount of iron in spinach was found to be 3.5 milligrams, but von Wolf logged it as 35 milligrams.
This mistake brought on the popular misconception that spinach is very high in iron, which in turn would make one’s body very strong. This is the reason why Popeye’s creators had him eat copious amounts of spinach — to increase his strength!
Popeye’s Balloon Is Retired From The Macy’s Parade
Popeye’s first appearance as a balloon during the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade was in 1957, the year his cartoon discontinued. he made on-again-off-again appearances until the balloon retired in 1967. Would you believe there was a retirement party held for the balloon?
The following year, Popeye was inflated and set up in Harold Square giving the illusion that he was watching the parade. He has not been seen in balloon form since. It is rumored that his head and hat still survive but no one knows where, so it remains uncertain.
Popeye’s Accent Isn’t Meant To Sound Like Anything From America
Although America is full of different accents, which translate over to some of our favorite on-screen characters. However, Popeye’s interesting accent always left the viewers stumped about his nationality. Firstly, Popeye’s character is from the fictional town of Seawater, so it’s likely that the viewers wouldn’t be familiar with the accent anyway.
Secondly, we have to keep in mind Popeye’s ever-present cob pipe! This probably plays into effect the type of “accent” his voice takes on because he can’t speak very clearly around the pipe.
“I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” Was Written In Less Than Two Hours
Popeye’s signature song, “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man,” was written by Fleischer Studios composer Sammy Lerner for the character’s animated debut in 1933. Lerner was also responsible for co-writing Betty Boop’s song, “Don’t Take My Boo-oop-a-doop Away.”
Lerner was able to compose Popeye’s theme song in less than two hours for the cartoonist Dave Fleischer. A bit surprising considering Lerner had to incorporate all of Popeye’s weird jargon! “I’m one tough Bazookas, which hates all Palookas. Wot isn't on the up and square. I biffs ’em and buffs ’em and always out roughs ’emand none of ’em gets nowhere.”
Popeye Is Known By Other Names Across The World
Although Americans know him as Popeye the sailor man, the popular cartoon is known by other names in various parts of the world. In Italy, he is known as “Iron Arm.” Which, to be honest, makes sense, because spinach has iron and his arms are massive, but it doesn’t make him sound any less like a Marvel superhero.
In Denmark, Popeye is called “Skipper Skraek” or “Terror of the Sea.” And while we don’t really see the “terror” part, Popeye does get into enough mischief that one could qualify his shenanigans are terror!

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