Did you know that the iconic Popeye is about a century old? Yep. Popeye has been around and still lives on. From a simple comic strip to animated series, live-action blockbuster films, and finally, to being endlessly marketed on tons of merchandise, Popeye has reached countless generations. But the story of how he came to be, is not widely known.
Here, you can find out about your all-time favorite spinach munching sailor and how developed into how we know him today.
The Birth of Popeye
The artist named E.C. Segar who originally conceptualized Popeye the Sailor presented the character for the first time when it first appeared in a comic strip called the “Thimble Theater”. It was in 1919 when readers first laid eyes on the popular tough guy. With his one eye and huge muscles, he became an instant hit.
According to the artist, Popeye was 34 years of age and hailed from Santa Monica, California. Ten years later, due to the popularity, the comic strip, which had a few characters, began to focus on Popeye a lot more, which is why that by 1929, the comic strip became known as “Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye”.
He Wasn't Alone
While Popeye ultimately endured, Segar (pronounced like cigar), had created a set of quirky characters for his comic strip, such as Castor Oyl, J. Wellington Wimpy, and Eugene the Jeep. Popeye only joined the crew later on when Castor needed a sailor to help him get to Dice Island.
Popeye's first line he ever uttered was “Ja think I’m a cowboy?” Making Popeye mispronounce certain words was something Segar intentionally did as he had often heard people mispronounce his own name. To solve this problem, he signed his name with a cigar.
Popeye in Real Life
Popeye was first and foremost a cartoon character. So you can bet how hard it was for fans to imagine him coming to life. They didn't have to wonder for too long though, because when Paramount declared that they were going to turn the beloved comic strip into a movie musical, they had their perfect man.
In 1980, Robin Williams got his first-ever majorly commercial role as Popeye. The film was directed by Robert Altman, a highly acclaimed director. Unfortunately, the film tanked. It still did manage to be appreciated by a core group of Popeye fans.
A New Language
Did you know the word 'wimp' or 'wimpy' actually come from the Popeye comics? Yep! The comic strip had such a huge impact on culture that we even decided to incorporate these words into the English language. So, if ever want to call someone a wimp, just thank Segar and the creation of his incredibly wimpy - J. Wellington Wimpy. His impact didn't end there, the name also inspired a British hamburger chain named Wimpy's - all because the character loved burgers.
That wasn't the only word that made waves. The word 'doofus' - a term that describes a person that lacks intelligence, also originated from the comics. The character, aptly named Dufus could be adequately described as such and was supposedly Popeye's nephew or nephew's friend. It wasn't always clear. Enough said.
One Eye'd Guy?
For generations, fans have argued about Popeye's legendary one-eyed story. The sailor does address the issue in one of the comics, saying that he lost the eye in the “the mos’ ‘arful battle”, suggesting that he lost in a nasty brawl. Still, readers weren't all convinced. Many, in fact, insist that Popeye has both eyes and it's merely a funny facial expression.
Saying that he is just forever squinting, seems like an odd argument, especially if you consider the fact that Bluto refers to him as “one-eyed runt”. And his name is Popeye. Still, the century-old debate seems to live on.
Was Popeye a Boxer?
While Popeye is unquestionably an E.C. Segar creation, he does still have some real- inspiration. The famed boxer, Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, as you can see, was the original inspiration for Popeye. Rocky lived in the same town as Segar - Chester Illinois, so it seems pretty obvious the artist would know about him.
The boxer's freakish strength and rock hard physique even earned him the name"Rocky. Pretty impressive. It also looks as if his muscles played a big part in the depiction of Popeye with those giant forearms. Not to mention the pipe and chin. Strangely enough, the boxer was unaware of the character for many years. Many years after his death, he was honored in International Popeye Fan Club in 1996.
Popeye the Lover Man
If you know the comics well, it's no news that Olive Oyl and Popeye have been in love for years. But Popeye wasn't always her man. Originally, her heart belonged to another "Thimble Theater" character - Harold Hamgravy. Olive was simply infatuated with him, but when Popeye came along, it was goodbye, Harold and hello, sailor!
Olive Oyl, who also happened to be the baby sister of brothers Crude and Castor Oyl, did initially butt heads with Popeye, but eventually fell head over heels for him. Her first line to him was “Take your hooks offa me or I’ll lay ya in the scupper.”
Eugene the Jeep
In 1936, the comic introduced us to Popeye's beloved pet, Eugene the Jeep. The pet, which didn't seem to be any real kind of animal, also had supernatural powers. Eugene could freely teleport around different dimensions. That is one cool pet.
Seeing as how popular Popeye was during World War II, his own pet even inspired the name of the off-road military vehicle that was used during combat at the time. The vehicle was compared to the powers of pet and thus the name just stuck.
He Has Been Publicly Honored
Popeye's love for spinach has resulted in some serious branding. In fact, he has become a symbol for a whole city- Crystal City in Texas. The city which prides itself on their huge spinach farming industry put up a statue of their beloved spinach-muncher in 1937.
The statue is particularly special because it was the first time in history that a fictional cartoon character was built to honor an entire city. Looks like Popeye is not just for kids, but large communities too.
Jumping on the Bandwagon
When Popeye would down a tin of spinach, he would instantly gain superhuman strength. As you can imagine, this did wonders for the vegetable's reputation. Naturally, other products tried to get in on the Popeye magic too. In the 1980s, Quaker Oatmeal ads got the sailor to chow down on a hearty bowl of oats before he pounded down the bad guys.
In the commercial, he would say "I’m Popeye the Quaker Man!" It didn't go down too well. Aside for the obvious in-your-face- marketing gimmick, Quakers, didn't want a character using violence to represent their community. Too bad.
Finding the Best Voice
When Popeye became an animated series, the search for the voice that would best fit was a no easy feat. The first to do it was William “Billy” Costello, AKA Red Pepper Sam. Unfortunately for him, he only voiced the character from 1933 to 1935 because studio execs found him pretty difficult to work with. It was Jack Mercer who then replaced him.
This was especially surprising as Mercer was not originally a voice actor, but rather one of the assistant animators. Some of the heads of the music department overheard his uncanny Popeye impressions and found him to be perfect for the job. The animator turned voice actor voiced Popeye until his death in 1984.
While Mercer voiced Popeye, actress Margie Hines was the voice behind Olive Oyl. Popeye and Olive's romance must have rubbed off on them because it wasn't too long until they fell in love too. In 1939, the two got married.
Hines voiced a series of characters for Fleischer Studios (the original production studio for the show). The studio was based in New York but then moved to Miami when Paramount Pictures took over the company in 1943. They then moved back to New York, under the name, 'Famous Studios'. After the changes, Hines stopped voicing Olive and ultimately divorced Mercer. Seems like their love could only be kept alive through the cartoon.
Good Business For Veggies
Parents have forever struggled to get their kids to eat their greens. But when Popeye was at the peak of popularity, that all changed. Every single kid wanted to eat spinach, just like their hero. It is even said that in the 1930s, spinach sales went up 33% and became the 3rd favorite food of kids behind turkey and ice-cream.
Many companies took advantage of this, such as the Allen Canning Company who put his face on the can and started to sell 'Popeye Spinach'. To this day it's the number one spinach brand in the U.S. which just confirms the Popeye staying power.
While Popeye has always been suitable for the family, over the years, there have been a few slip-ups. One such example involves some offensive Japanese representation. While this did happen at a time where the U.S was at war with the Japanese, some critics described Popeye as propaganda.
In one particular comic, the Japanese were called the “Jap-pansies” and were depicted with protruding teeth, and thick glasses. Popeye, of course, beat them all up.
Every Hero Needs a Nemesis
Brutus, originally named Bluto was an important character in the series. He was sort of Popeye's friend but would constantly try to steal Olive away from him. He would usually use his big 'brutish' strength to fight for what he wanted.
Strangely, through all of it, they seem to remain good friends despite their constant fighting. Even when Brutus did horrible things, Popeye still seemed to put up with it. Whatever works!
Popeye’s Lucky Break
In 1933, Popeye transitioned from the comic strips to the movie screen. This all happened thanks to another character, Betty Boop, who appeared next to him in a cartoon segment. This gave him a new huge platform, ultimately making a global sensation.
After the big screen transition, Paramount churned out the Popeye cartoons causing his popularity to rise even further than anyone expected. In fact, it is said that during 1938, Popeye was the single most popular character in the world. Way to go, Betty Boop.
The 1988 cult classic film, Who Framed Roger Rabbit famously combined live-action film noir style with cartoon characters. The wildly popular film that was directed by Robert Zemeckis tried to get the rights to certain characters so that they could be portrayed in the film. Of course, first on their list was Popeye.
The creators fought for the rights of Popeye but Disney refused. That's a shame, we are sure that fans would have loved to see how Popeye would fair in that whacky world.
Famous Studios, formally known as Fleischer Studios were creating Popeye cartoons with Paramount up until the year 1957. During those years, Popeye cartoons were of a high caliber. But once again there was a takeover, and this time, King Features was in charge, and they had no interest in maintaining the quality of cartoons at all.
Fans said that they grew unfunnier as time went by. Producer, Al Brodax, however, succeeded in other endeavors. His cartoon work for The Beatles landed him the role of producer and co-writer for their cult hit film, Yellow Submarine.
The Copyright Expiration
Since Popeye is pretty much 100 years old, the copyright is starting to expire. In fact, in Europe, Popeye joined the free domain already in 2009, which means it's free for anyone to use. If you're in Europe and you want to make your own Popeye cartoon, you can!
In the U.S however, it's a little different. If you try that, you might be sued. The Popeye rights only expire in 2025. Thereafter, all the works become public domain.
All the names in the Popeye series are super catchy and also humorously absurd. Especially the case with the Oyl family as they are made up of Olive, Castor, Nana, Cole, Cylinda, Diesel, Violet, Lubry Kent, and Otto Oyl. Quite an imagination that Segar had!
The name gave way to even more family members to be created, such as Sutra and Standard. Easy there with the 'oyl' jokes. Soon it will be overkill.
She Strikes Again
Betty Boop is once again responsible for another one of Popeye's successes. Yep, not only did she bring hin to the world of cinema, but she was also voiced by Margie Hines, who, if you remember, was also the voice of dear Olive Oyl.
Betty Boop's character was based on the singer, Helen Kane. Miraculously, Hines sounded almost identical to her, making her in a shoo-in for the portrayal of Boop. With her close ties in the Fleischer/Famous Studios, she was also the obvious choice for Olive Oyl.
In 2004, Popeye celebrated his 75th birthday in a big way. The celebrations included a 3D screening of Popeye on Fox, a huge picnic for all in Segar's hometown of Chester, Illinois, and finally, New York City's Empire State Building was brightly lit up with green lights for an entire weekend.
Why green? Because spinach is green! Visitor could also enter the building where they would be greeted by the man himself, well, an actor in a Popeye costume. Close enough.
Not All About Him
The famous fried chicken and biscuit chain, Popeye's, is oddly not named after the famous sailor. Yep, that name is somehow more popular than you think. The restaurant is actually named after a character from the film, The French Connection - Jimmy “Popeye” Doyle. While the film was a real hit, we sure it can't be more popular than the Popeye the Sailor Man - so the confusion is legit.
It does, however, 'pop out' as there is no apostrophe like there is in 'MacDonald's'. Still, why the chain has no ties to the cartoon character, in New Orleans, it didn't stop them from getting the rights to use his face in their ads. So, perhaps now, there is some connection and it's less of a French one!
Another Strange Vegetable
Popeye has a big and impressive family. And it certainly showed, when his nephews, Pupeye, Pipeye, Poopeye, and Peepeye all learned that from their favorite uncle that one of their ancestors was the great Hercules. They certainly have the muscles to show for it.
A small difference was that Popeye got his strength from spinach, but Hercules (according to the sailor) got his strength from garlic. We will never know if this is really true, or if it was just a way to get kids to eat their veggies.
While the spinach has stuck as the source for all of Popeye's great strength, he had slightly different methods before those greens. Popeye once got his good luck from Bernice, his whiffle hen. The lucky hen was in the original "Thimble Theater" gang in 1928. If he needed a good luck charm, he would simply rub her head.
The hen powers became clear in the first published issue. If he were to ever get hurt, hit or badly wounded, having the hen near him would make him ok. No matter what trouble faced, Bernice kept him safe.
A Lucky Charm For All
We have seen how people have put up statues and monuments for Popeye, but it doesn't end at him. Fans also erected a Bernice statue, as well as one of Castor Oyl. You find them in Segar's hometown of Chester.
The residents of Chester treat Bernice much like Popeye did - she's the good luck charm for the whole city. In fact, Bernice was placed right outside a children's hospital so all patients can come outside and pat their little hen for luck. Very sweet.
One Man, One Outfit
Popeye is not big on fashion. For many years he was wearing light blue jeans, a navy shirt, a red collar, and a standard sailor hat. When World War II rolled around, however, he got promoted to a naval officer, so his wardrobe received a slight tweaking.
He certainly rocked it. Even if he didn't exactly do the best job. Popeye was often getting blamed for mistakes. Still, he was super proud of his position and wore that outfit long after the war ended.
Oyl's Mean Streak
Love is no walk in the park. Popeye learned this pretty quickly while courting Olive. Even though he loved her dearly, she was not always that kind to him. In fact, often she would put him down and make feel bad, both with words and actions.
Sometimes she even got physical, whacking him about quite a bit, just in the way he would do to others. Of course, he would never dream of doing the same back to her.
A Never Before Seen Popeye Cartoon
In the middle of War World II, a Popeye cartoon was released, named, “Seein’ Red, White n’ Blue”. The cartoon was ultimately banned for containing some awful racism against the Japanese nation. While Brutus and Popeye joined forces despite their disagreements, what we saw was a very unkind depiction of Japanese people.
The two divide a tin of leafy greens, and with their crazy strength, defeat the Japanese. Even though fans enjoyed watching the two join forces, it was not great to see why.
Some brilliant artists just need income. This seemed like the case for Al Brodax who was one of the artists making Popeye cartoons. His work there was considered not that great. But perhaps he need a different subject - everyone has their specialty, and his seemed to be the Beatles.
When it came to the British pop band, it was a whole different ballgame. This work got their attention and led him to work on one of the great pieces of pop culture in our time- The Yellow Submarine.
Lost in Translation
Being as popular as it was in America, other countries began to translate the beloved comics. Some words, especially names, however, didn't quite work in certain places. Olive Oyl for example, didn't pass in countries like Spain. Olive oil wasn't exactly madly popular in the states, especially back then, and Olive also worked as a name so readers didn't have an issue with it.
In Spain, however, olive oil is a staple - so, for some reason, it just sounded odd to them. With that in consideration, her name was changed to Rosario. This way, all confusion was avoided and even in some cases, insult. Though we are not sure how it came off insulting. But now at least, all cultures can enjoy the old comics.
He Was Just Hanging Around
Popeye was of course never created to be the star of the show Thimble Theater comics. He was just created to help Castor Oyl get across the water to Dice Island. Popeye just happened to be there, hanging out by the docks. He then, of course, jumped at the opportunity and sailed him across to where Castor needed to go.
His presence was embraced, and so he stayed. Soon, he became the star of the whole strip, which proves that are many happy accidents in the world, and success can come from where you least expect it.
Gone Far Too Soon
Popeye's success went totally global and reached countless kids over many generations. Unfortunately, Segar did not get to see just how powerful his impact was. The artist died in 1938, just before this sensation exploded. It was ten years later when the world started to see the Popeye mania.
Segar now rests in the Woodlawn Memorial Cemetery in Santa Monica. He will forever be remembered for the iconic characters he created. His works have inspired countless films, games and merchandising and touched so many lives.
Unexpected But Inspiring
Popeye surely inspired countless artworks, but one of them might surprise you. The Nintendo game, Donkey Kong had a particular character that shot to fame. That character was none other than Super Mario. The creators of Mario actually drew inspiration from Popeye. In fact, originally, they wanted the rights to Popeye, but in the end, just create their own character.
The creator, Miyamoto kept Popeye in mind all throughout his creation. Pauline was also originally meant to be Olive Oyl and Bluto became Donkey Kong. How unexpected.
The Popeye Village
The live-action film for Popeye was heavily invested in. The studio even built an entire fake village for the shooting in Malta. While this cost an untold fortune, the village at least still stands. Which is great because movie sets generally get torn out right after filming. The village has since become a great tourist destination with a theme park, resort, and a Popeye themed museum.
The place is a little like Disneyland in a sense with actors parading in the costumes from the comics, so fans get to hang out with the whole cast. There are fun water rides, shows and many, many activities to do.
The Veggie Machine
Vegetables are pretty much the healthiest foods out there. Especially leafy ones. Still, the idea that spinach was made the food of choice for the character, made of a lot of people wonder why. It was not until a German chemist named Erich von Wolf came in the picture In 1870, the chemist discovered that spinach has a high amount of iron. But, still. There was a miscalculation.
Wolf believed was 35 milligrams of iron was instead, 3.5 milligrams. The scientist happened to misplace a decimal point and the food and science community were shocked. This accident caused many to believe that spinach had some super-human strength.
A Popeye Balloon
On Thanksgiving in 1957, Macy's made a huge parade. The Thanksgiving day parade involved a huge Popeye balloon to hover over Harold Square. In the end, instead of bringing it back down, they decided to let it fly off into the distance.
Thousands gathered to watch Popeye 'watch' over them before the big sendoff. Maybe one day that giant balloon will re-appear. It seems unlikely.
A Distinctive Voice
The most recognizable feature of Popeye, beside his squint, is his voice. It is an accent that really hard to pin down as it does sound like your everyday American accent. That seems to make sense since his accent comes from a place that doesn't actually exist in reality -a town named Seawater.
Supposedly this accent develops in a place like this, which just sounds like a mix of everything. It's not quite American or Britsh or European. Also, the large pipe that forever hangs from his lips doesn't make talking any easier.
His Own Song
The show got a wonderful theme that became an instant hit. The song, “I’m Popeye The Sailor Man” was originally composed at Fleischer Studios by Sammy Lerner. Lerner made another song “Don’t Take My Boop-oop-a-doop Away,” which was sung by Betty Boop or, rather, Margie Hines.
The musical number certainly stood the test of time. Which is crazy seeing as it took no longer than 2 hours to put it together. It is a rather simple little jingle, but still, no one knew how catchy it would be. Lerner also added some signature lines from the character and worked it into the song. The magic of music.
A Loveable Name
The name Popeye is somehow both cute and tough-sounding. And that is precisely the feeling people wanted the name to invoke. Naturally, but being an American and English language show, creators knew what the perfect name would be. But once again, that doesn't work for all cultures. In Italy, the character goes by Iron Arm - which, supposedly makes sense but doesn't quite keep the fun spirit alive.
In Denmark, they call him Skipper Skraek which means Terror of the Sea, yikes. Perhaps not as fitting, but still, in some way, works for them. Whatever you call him, you surely can't hate him.