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

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.

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 making his debut
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images
ullstein bild/ullstein bild via Getty Images

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

popeye's creator with a costumed sailor
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images
Keystone/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

Robin Williams’ First Big-Screen Starring Role Was 1980’s Popeye

robin williams played live-action popeye
PA Images via Getty Images
PA Images via Getty Images

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.

The Popeye Comic Strip Introduced The Words ‘Wimpy’ And ‘Dufus’ Into The English Vernacular

costumed popeye characters
Jesse Grant/WireImage
Jesse Grant/WireImage

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

popeye's squinting eye
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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

a boxer inspired Popeye
MGM Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images
MGM Studios/Courtesy of Getty Images

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

olive oyl didn't like popeye
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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

popeye might have inspired the 'jeep' name
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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.

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 Texas Town Made History By Erecting The First Ever Statute Of A Cartoon Character (Popeye!)

a statue of popeye smoking a pipe
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images
Carol M. Highsmith/Buyenlarge/Getty Images

Pictured above is a photo of the Popeye the Sailor Man sculpture 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

photograph of someone making a face like popeye
Fox Photos/Getty Images
Fox Photos/Getty Images

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

popeye was voiced by an apprentice
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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 ad libbing and remarks that became a signature part of the show’s humor. Over the series’s 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

two popeye's actors fell in love in real life
Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images
Julien Behal/PA Images via Getty Images

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

popeye encouraged kids to eat spinach
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images
Paramount Pictures/Courtesy of Getty Images

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

ad from WWII
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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.

With ‘Friends’ Like This…

popeye and bluto arguing
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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

the betty boop/popeye connection
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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?’

popeye wasn't in 'who framed roger rabbit'
Buena Vista/Getty Images
Buena Vista/Getty Images

The 1988 live-action film Who Framed Rober 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

popeye flexing his arm
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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

popeye in technicolor
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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

oil
LMPC via Getty Images
LMPC via Getty Images

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.