Although it’s probable that Fiegel was the muse for Segar’s character, Popeye, the photograph often associated with this assertion isn’t a depiction of him.
Instead, it’s a portrayal of an unidentified sailor onboard the HMS Rodney in 1940. The photo can be accessed through the Imperial War Museum, and is accompanied by the caption: “A Leading Stoker nicknamed ‘Popeye’, with 21 years service”.
In his book, Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History, Fred Grandinetti delves into the character’s roots, discovering that the residents of Chester, Ill., where Segar grew up in the early 20th century, were likely the muses for his creations.
The representation of Popeye appears to mirror the appearance and temperament of Fiegel, who possessed a prominent chin, was seldom seen without his pipe, and was known for his inclination towards physical altercations, as noted by Grandinetti.
The image pops up on the internet from time to time with captions like – “Rocky” Fiegel, the real-life person who served as the inspiration for the character “Popeye” or ‘this image is of the guy who was the real life Popeye…’
Elzie Crisler Segar, an American cartoonist hailing from Chester, Illinois, is the creator of the character Popeye. In 1919, Segar introduced a comic strip named Thimble Theatre in New York’s Evening Journal.
It was in 1929 that Popeye was introduced to the strip as a new character.
Due to Popeye’s overwhelming popularity, the comic strip was later renamed as Thimble Theatre Starring Popeye.
This character retained immense popularity for the following decades, being portrayed in various forms by different creators, including in animated cartoons by Fleischer Studios and in Robert Altman’s 1980 musical film Popeye, featuring Robin Williams as the lead.
Fascinatingly, there are widespread claims that Popeye is not purely fictitious but is instead based on a real individual—Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel, a resident of E.C. Segar’s hometown of Chester.
Fiegel, whose parents were Polish immigrants, is believed to be the inspiration behind the iconic sailor.
The 1979 Southern Illinoisan newspaper article titled “Chester Man Accepted as Real-Life Popeye was a Brawler, Loved Kids,” reported that some Chester locals viewed Rocky as ‘a bum.’ It elucidates this perception further, stating:
Fiegel, who worked sporadically as a bartender and general laborer in Chester, rarely had consistent employment and was often spotted lingering around the local saloons. He resided with his mother until her demise and continued to inhabit the house solo thereafter (…)
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However, it was not Fiegel’s unemployment that is believed to have inspired E.C. Segar. Frank Fiegel was notorious locally for his pugilistic prowess, and here the parallels to the character Popeye become quite apparent.
The Real Popeye
In the article, Clyde Feegie, Rocky’s nephew, relates an anecdote about his uncle frequenting a saloon:
They had two big guys inside who said you had to buy drinks for the house or put on the gloves. They had a big bruiser waiting to fight, but he (Fiegel) put on the gloves and knocked their guy out.
In Fred M. Grandinetti’s 2003 book “Popeye: An Illustrated Cultural History,” it’s also mentioned that Rocky’s distinct facial features and his characteristic pipe were mirrored in the creation of the cartoon character.
Because of his hardened physique he was affectionately known as ‘Rocky’. His angular jaw and familiar corn-cob pipe apparently impressed the young Segar.
Certainly, a character like Rocky might have left a profound imprint on Segar, particularly given the substantial age difference between them.
Fiegel was born in 1868—though it’s uncertain whether his birthplace was Poland or America—while E. C. Segar was born in 1894.
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Furthermore, Fiegel, described by the Chicago Tribune as having ‘a heart of gold for children,’ was renowned for his altruistic actions towards the children of Chester, often giving them money or shielding them from bullies.
This benevolent nature is another trait shared with Popeye, who is invariably depicted as the ‘good guy.’
His Name a Joke or a Prank?
Frank’s parents, Anna and Bartłomiej, hailed from Poland. As per the genealogy site, MyHeritage, the family had connections to the town of Czarnków in what is now central Poland, and their last name was originally ‘Figiel’.
It’s likely that it was modified to better align with English pronunciations after the family moved to America. Interestingly, in Polish, ‘Figiel’ translates to ‘joke’ or ‘prank’, a surprisingly apt surname for the forebearer of a comic strip character…
However, whether Rocky was ever aware that he was the muse for Popeye is unclear.
Some suggest that he only found out after Segar’s passing due to leukemia in 1938, through a newspaper article detailing the life and inspirations of the comic strip creator.
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Others, such as Popeye historian Michael Brooks, believe that Fiegel regularly received checks from Segar as a form of gratitude for the successful character inspired by him.
Then, there are those who question if Fiegel ‘ever knew he was Popeye’.
Never Explicitly Identified
Segar left Chester in the early 1920s – long before the character was introduced – and as stated in Moira Reynolds’ 2003 book, Comic Strip Artists in American Newspapers, he never explicitly identified anyone as the real-life model for the renowned sailor.
Nevertheless, the belief that Rocky served as the inspiration is supported by the uncanny resemblance between early 20th-century Chester locals and several other characters in Segar’s Thimble Theatre.
It is believed that Olive Oyl was patterned after Dora Paskel, a store owner described by the New York Times as ‘unusually tall and thin with a bun at the nape of her neck.’
Similarly, the rotund, hamburger-craving J. Wellington Wimpy is said to be inspired by William Schuchert, the hefty manager of Chester Opera House—where Segar had briefly worked—and a known aficionado of burgers.
Interestingly, Ganna Walska, born in Poland, was an opera singer whose vocal failures are nearly legendary. However, after abandoning her fleeting singing career, she established Lotusland, a public garden renowned as one of the most distinctive in the world.
What remains unequivocal is that the tombstone of Frank Fiegel, who died in 1947, resides in Chester’s Saint Mary’s Catholic Cemetery. The epitaph on it reads:
Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel
Inspiration for Popeye the Sailor Man
‘Popeye’ is British
Though Fiegel is widely believed to be the inspiration behind Segar’s Popeye character, a popular photograph often associated with this claim isn’t genuinely him.
The picture depicts an unidentified sailor on the HMS Rodney from 1940. This photo can be found in the Imperial War Museum, captioned: “A Leading Stoker, affectionately dubbed ‘Popeye’, with 21 years of service.”