Everyone knows Popeye the Sailor, the beloved cartoon character that has entertained audiences for generations. But what many people may not know is that Popeye was based on a real person, a man named Frank “Rocky” Fiegel.
Rocky was born in Poland in 1868 and emigrated to America as a child with his family. In 1887, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy and served honorably before settling in Chester, Illinois. Despite never marrying or having children of his own, Rocky was very friendly and enjoyed sitting with the town’s kids, holding his pipe in the corner of his mouth, and regaling them with tales of his adventures.
Rocky was known for his prominent chin, sinewy physique, and natural skill for fist-fighting. He was also a big fan of spinach, loudly proclaiming it to be the food that made him invincible. It is said that he boasted of his physical strength and claimed that he owed it all to his love of spinach.
The Creator of Popeye
Elzie Crisler Segar, the creator of Popeye, was born in Chester and was one of the children who got to hear Rocky’s stories firsthand. Segar was a cartoonist for several newspapers before landing a job at the New York Journal. In 1929, he introduced Popeye as a character in his comic strip, “Thimble Theatre.”
Segar was inspired by Rocky’s physical appearance and his love of spinach when creating the character of Popeye. He gave Popeye the distinctive pipe, sailor hat, and bulging forearms that have become so iconic over the years.
Segar regularly sent money to Fiegel as a thank you for inspiring the character of Popeye. This gesture speaks to the genuine admiration that Segar had for Rocky and his larger-than-life personality.
It is also worth noting that the reference to spinach as a fortifying food came from the publication of a study that mistakenly attributed to spinach an amount of iron ten times higher than its true nutritional value. This error was eventually corrected, but the idea of spinach as a powerful source of nutrition had already taken hold in popular culture, thanks in no small part to Popeye’s love of the leafy green vegetable.
Popeye the Sailor Man has become an enduring icon in popular culture, beloved by fans of all ages. But the character’s origins in the real-life adventures of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel remind us that sometimes truth can be stranger – and more entertaining – than fiction. Rocky’s larger-than-life personality and love of spinach helped to inspire one of the most beloved cartoon characters of all time, and his legacy continues to inspire new generations of fans today.