Was An Anonymous Sailor the Inspiration Behind Popeye?

Joel Eisenberg

Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, with whom this sailor has been frequently confused, has been long-rumored to have inspired the character.

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Anonymous SailorImperial War Museum stock image

Author’s Note

This article is based on investigative media reports. All listed facts within this article are attributed to the following: Wikipedia.org, Popeye.com, Latitude38.com, Snopes.com, Fred Grandinetti’s “Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History,” The Chester Herald Tribune, and The Imperial War Museum.

Introduction

“Popeye” has long been one of my personal favorite fictional characters. If this long-time icon with bulging forearms and a propensity for spinach has somehow eluded you, click here for the character’s website, or here for his Wikipedia page.

As excerpted from Wikipedia: Popeye the Sailor Man is a fictional cartoon character created by Elzie Crisler (E.C.) Segar. The character first appeared in the daily King Features comic strip Thimble Theatre on January 17, 1929, and “Popeye” became the strip's title in later years. The character has also appeared in theatrical and television animated cartoons.

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E.C. Segar and Popeye, date unknownAdobe Stock

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“Popeye the Sailor Man” Promo Poster, 1933 ShortParamount Pictures

In fact, Popeye has long since become a cottage industry, appearing in widespread global merchandising including toys, games, clothing, and even his own brand of spinach.

The Wikipedia page goes on to state some key trivia, which only punctuates the character’s durability: At the start of the Second World War, it has been reported that Popeye served as propaganda material for Allied Forces.

As popular as Popeye has become, however, some mystery remains behind his most enduring creation.

Let us explore further.

Inspiration

In February of 2021, Latitude38.com published Monica Grant’s article, ”Was Popeye the Sailor Man Based on a Real Person?”

At the time of publication of Grant’s piece, the question of whether Popeye was indeed a character based on fact was well-trodden ground. Among the “Popeye” cognoscenti, it had been generally acknowledged for several years that Chester, Illinois native Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was cartoonist E.C. Segar’s true inspiration behind the legendary comic strip and, decades following the first of the many series of animated shorts, the 1980 Robin Williams feature film starrer as directed by Robert Altman.

However, the photo that leads off this article is not of Fiegel, but of an anonymous sailor. The photo of this anonymous sailor was nonetheless turned into a meme and widely shared on social media, which collectively seems to have given credence to the rumor due to the sailor’s obvious resemblance.

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Anonymous SailorTwitter meme

So… who then is this guy, really? And who is (was) the real Fiegel?

The mystery deepens.

According to Fred Grandinetti’s comprehensive 1994 book, “Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History,” the locals of Chester, Ill., where Seger was raised, likely served as the cartoonist’s primary inspiration for his characters. Though the origins of Popeye’s friends and foils such as Olive Oyl, Wimpy and Bluto are not as clear, the consensus is Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was the real life model for Popeye.

Grandinetti’s book states Fiegel was of Polish descent and lived with his mother near Evergreen Cemetery. This excerpt elaborates on the Chester resident: In the March 28, 1947, issue of the Chester Herald Tribune, there is an obituary for Mr. Fiegel, who died at his home in Chester on March 24, 1947. Born January 27, 1868, he was 79 years of age at the time of his death. The editor wrote that Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was a familiar character in Chester and was credited for being the inspiration of Elsie Segar’s “Popeye.” The article reads: “In his younger days he performed amazing feats of strength. Because of his hardened physique he was affectionately known as “Rocky.” His angular jaw and familiar corn-cob pipe apparently impressed the young Segar.

Fiegel was not a sailor, though he was said to be possessed of a strong chin and always smoked a pipe.

He worked part-time at local George Gozney’s saloon.

Fact-checking website Snopes.com includes the referenced Chester Herald Tribune article in full, which ceased publication in 1964 and whose contents are now available for public use as a historical document.

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Chester Herald Tribune Obituary of Frank “Rocky” FiegelShutterstock

The photo of of Fiegel appears on the top right. Here is a close-up, with the original article caption:

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Frank “Rocky” FiegelChester Herald Tribune

As earlier mentioned, though, the sailor pictured in the first photo of this article is not Fiegel.

Who then is he?

According to the Snopes piece linked above: While Fiegel likely inspired Segar’s Popeye character, the viral photograph frequently attached to this claim doesn’t actually show him. The image is one of an anonymous sailor aboard the HMS Rodney in 1940. The image is available via the Imperial War Museum where it is presented with the caption: “A Leading Stoker nicknamed “Popeye”, with 21 years service.”

He certainly had the look, but he was from all indications unknown to Seger.

Conclusion

It has been reported on Snopes that Fiegel never knew he was the inspiration for the character, until Segar’s death in 1938 at the age of 43.

Decades following Fiegel’s 1947 passing, in 1996 the town of Chester rectified an old omission with a new headstone for his previously unmarked grave.

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Frank “Rocky” Fiegel 1996 GravestoneAdobe Stock

The inspiration behind one of our most enduring of all fictional creations has been commonly accepted ever since.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

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