written by Todd DePastino

Happy 95th Birthday to Popeye, one of the few Americans to serve in four branches of service (Merchant Marine, Coast Guard, Navy, and, yes, Army–more on that below). He was also at once the toughest and most tender-hearted of cartoon characters. He overcame a one-eye disability, a serious speech impediment, and an indecipherable New Jersey accent to become an American icon.

First Popeye cartoon from 1929: Ja think I’m a cowboy?

Popeye was funny from his first appearance in Elzie Segar’s “Thimble Theatre” comic strip on January 17, 1929. Segar had been drawing “Thimble Theatre” for the Hearst papers for a decade before he stumbled upon Popeye. This new sailor side character stole the show and made “Thimble Theatre” a mega-hit.

In Popeye’s comic debut, two of Segar’s established characters, Castor Oyl (Olive’s brother) and Ham Gravy (Olive’s boyfriend), scour the docks looking for a sailor to take them fortune-hunting to Dice Island. “Hey there! Are you a sailor?” asks Castor Oil of Popeye. In response, Popeye utters his first wisecrack: “Ja think I’m a cowboy?” History was made.

Headstone for Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, the real-life inspiration for Popeye

Segar’s real-life inspiration for Popeye wasn’t a sailor, but rather a local eccentric named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel (1868-1947). Rocky was a fixture of Segar’s youth in the Mississippi River town of Chester, Illinois. With his damaged eye, jutting chin, ubiquitous pipe, and penchant for fighting, Rocky fit the profile. Like Segal, Rocky was Jewish. Rocky had immigrated from Poland with his mother, with whom he lived while working part-time as handyman at Weibusch’s Tavern. One can imagine the scene, described by a neighbor, of the town’s kids pranking the quick-tempered Rocky as he relaxed after work.

“They would creep near, yell loudly, and run. Rocky would awaken with a start and jump out of his chair, arms flailing, ready for a fight. But alas, there would be no opponent. The children would be a block away by that time.”

After Popeye made him rich, Elzie sent Rocky occasional checks, perhaps as penance.  But Rocky reportedly never knew he was the inspiration for the comic character until after Elzie Segar’s sudden death from leukemia in 1938. Rocky Fiegal would die nine years later at age 79.

Soldier impersonating the cartoon character PopeyeYou might sometimes see a photo of this sailor tagged as Rocky Fiegal. In fact, this photo, taken aboard the HMS Rodney in September 1940, is of a “A Leading Stoker nicknamed ‘Popeye’.”  This sailor is impersonating Popeye, not the inspiration for him.

You can read a full article on Feigal’s relationship to Popeye in this newspaper clipping from the Southern Illinoisan (Carbondale) from April 8, 1979.

Popeye’s military service is convoluted. As a civilian mariner, we can presume Popeye as a member of the US Merchant Marine. That is, he was part of the US maritime force for commercial shipping and national defense before the passage of the Merchant Marine Act of 1936.

That same year, 1936, Popeye joined the Army. We know this from “I’m in the Army Now,” a cartoon short released by Fleischer Studios on Christmas Day 1936. This is the Great Depression/pre-Pearl Harbor Army, when soldiering was often considered the last refuge of the down-and-out.

Popeye’s motivation for joining the Army wasn’t poverty but, you guessed it, the affection of Olive Oyl. After Olive says, “I’m crazy about a man in uniform,” Popeye and his foil, Brutus, rush off to an Army recruiting office.

The officer in charge tells them he only has room for one, and “he’s gotta be good.” Brutus and Popeye fight it out, and Popeye marches off in uniform with Olive on his arm.

We never see Popeye in the Army again. Instead, one year later in “Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves, Popeye pops up at a remote Coast Guard Station on the Arabian peninsula to battle a Middle Eastern terrorist (Brutus). Popeye even shouts, “Stop in the name of the Coast Guard!” Did the United States Coast Guard have stations overseas in 1937?

Popeye’s Navy career was longest-lived, beginning, again, before US entry into World War II. Three weeks before the attacks on Pearl Harbor, Fleischer Studios released “The Mighty Navy,” a pro-military preparedness cartoon that shows the Navy to be mighty, indeed . . . apart from Popeye, that is.

In the lineup of sailors on deck for review, Popeye stands out like a chipped tooth. All the other sailors are broad-shouldered and buttoned up. Chatty Popeye, with his bowlegs, pipe, and oversized forearms, draws the Captain’s attention in all the worst ways. The officer even challenges Popeye about whether he really wants to be a sailor.

“Do I wants to be a sailor? I AM a sailor! I’m Popeye the sailor! I was born a sailor!“ he exclaims.

Despite Popeye’s ineptitude, he saves the day when an unnamed enemy attacks the training ship. For his efforts, Popeye is awarded with his own image, which will be painted as nose art on the Navy’s bombers.

Cartoon characters normally wear the same clothes for years. In “The Mighty Navy,” Popeye trades his denim, black jersey, and sailor’s hat for a white Navy uniform with a Dixie cup cover. And Navy whites would remain his Uniform of the Day not only through World War II, but much of the Cold War also.