The Legend of Popeye’s Inspiration

In the small town of Chester, Illinois, local folklore tells a tale of a real-life person who served as the inspiration for the beloved cartoon character, “Popeye the Sailor Man.” This intriguing story has captured the attention of many, sparking curiosity about the origins of this iconic character. While the claim that Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was the inspiration for Popeye is largely accurate, there are some misconceptions surrounding this fascinating tale.


Unveiling the Truth

Fred Grandinetti, in his book Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, delved into the origins of the character and discovered that the locals of Chester likely played a significant role in inspiring cartoonist E.C. Segar. One of these influential figures was Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, whose strong chin, pipe-smoking habit, and penchant for fights closely resembled the characteristics of Popeye.

According to Lee Huffstutler, a Chester local, Fiegel was a tall and strong man of Polish descent who lived with his mother near the Evergreen Cemetery. Huffstutler describes him as always ready for a fight and always emerging as the victor. Fiegel worked part-time at George Gozney’s saloon, where he would often take a break, sit outside with his pipe, and doze off in the sunshine. This amusing sight made him a target for mischievous school children who would startle him and then flee. Fiegel would wake up, arms flailing, ready for a fight, only to find his opponents long gone.

Rocky Fiegel and Popeye’s Connection

The Chester Herald Tribune published an obituary for Frank “Rocky” Fiegel on March 28, 1947, after his passing at the age of 79. The editor acknowledged Fiegel as a familiar character in Chester and credited him as the inspiration behind Elsie Segar’s “Popeye.” The obituary highlighted Fiegel’s impressive feats of strength in his younger days and his distinctive angular jaw and corn-cob pipe, which seemingly left a lasting impression on the young Segar.

Contrary to some claims, Fiegel was not a sailor like Popeye. He was a bartender and general laborer in Chester, often seen idling around the town’s saloons. It wasn’t until 1938, just nine years before his death, that Fiegel learned of his connection to Popeye. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch featured a picture of Fiegel sitting in a rocking chair, smoking his pipe, and identified him as the inspiration for the beloved character.

Separating Fact from Fiction

While Frank “Rocky” Fiegel undeniably served as the inspiration for Popeye, it is important to clarify that the viral photograph often associated with this claim does not depict him. The image in question shows an anonymous sailor aboard the HMS Rodney in 1940, as confirmed by the Imperial War Museum. Fiegel was in his seventies during that time, and the battleship was far from his hometown of Chester.

However, a genuine photograph of the “real-life Popeye” can be found in a 1979 article published in the Southern Illinoisan, a newspaper based in Carbondale, Illinois. This image showcases Fiegel, the man behind the legend, and provides a glimpse into the inspiration for one of the most recognizable characters in pop culture history.

A genuine photograph of the “real life Popeye” can be seen in a 1979 article published in the Carbondale, Ill., newspaper Southern Illinoisan about Chester’s famous resident (see top right image)
larger version of that image:

Frank “Rocky” Fiegel passed away in 1947 and was initially buried in an unmarked grave. However, in 1996, the Official Popeye Fan Club rectified this oversight by placing a headstone bearing a 1929 version of Popeye at Fiegel’s final resting place. This act of recognition solidified Fiegel’s place in Popeye’s legacy, ensuring that his contribution to the character’s creation would never be forgotten.

On September 7, 1996, Fiegel’s formerly unmarked grave was finally marked with a headstone. The marker was inscripted with the 1929 version of E.C. Segar’s Popeye character. This version of Popeye most resembles his legendary ‘real life’ counterpart.

The Enduring Legacy

The story of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel and his connection to Popeye continues to captivate audiences, reminding us of the power of inspiration and the lasting impact of beloved characters. While the viral photograph circulating online may not depict Fiegel, the truth behind his influence on Popeye remains intact. As we celebrate the enduring legacy of Popeye, let us remember the real-life inspiration behind the spinach-loving sailor man and the small town of Chester, Illinois, that played a significant role in shaping this iconic character.

*Note: The information provided in this article is based on available sources and research.

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