The Tragic End of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, the Real-Life Popeye

Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was a tough and eccentric man who lived in Chester, Illinois, in the early 20th century. He was also the main inspiration for the famous cartoon character Popeye the Sailor Man, created by E.C. Segar, who grew up in the same town. Fiegel had a distinctive appearance, with a prominent chin, a squinty eye, and a corncob pipe. He was also known for his strength, his fighting skills, and his love for liquor. However, his life was not as glamorous as his fictional counterpart, and he died in poverty and obscurity in 1947. This article will explore the life and death of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel, and how he influenced one of the most iconic characters in pop culture.

The Life of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel: A Local Legend

According to Snopes, Fiegel was born on January 27, 1868, in Poland, and immigrated to the United States with his parents when he was a child. He settled in Chester, Illinois, where he worked as a bartender, a bouncer, a handyman, and a part-time firefighter. He never married or had children, and lived with his mother until her death. He was a familiar figure in the town, often seen walking around with his pipe and his hat, or sitting outside the saloon, where he would challenge anyone to a fight. He was also fond of telling stories about his adventures, such as fighting in the Spanish-American War, or traveling around the world. However, there is little evidence to support his claims, and most of them were probably exaggerated or fabricated.

According to War History Online, Fiegel caught the attention of E.C. Segar, a young cartoonist who also lived in Chester. Segar was impressed by Fiegel’s appearance and personality, and decided to use him as a model for his new character, Popeye the Sailor Man, who debuted in the comic strip Thimble Theatre in 1929. Popeye shared many traits with Fiegel, such as his physical features, his pipe, his strength, his fighting spirit, and his catchphrase “I yam what I yam”. However, Segar also added some elements that were not present in Fiegel’s life, such as his sailor profession, his love for spinach, and his girlfriend Olive Oyl, who was based on another Chester resident, Dora Paskel.

Popeye soon became a popular and successful character, appearing in comic strips, animated cartoons, movies, and merchandise. He also became a cultural icon, representing values such as courage, honesty, and patriotism. However, Fiegel did not benefit from his fame, and remained poor and obscure. He did not receive any royalties or recognition from Segar, who never publicly acknowledged him as the inspiration for Popeye. Fiegel was also unaware of the extent of his influence, and only saw a few Popeye cartoons in his lifetime.

The Death of Frank “Rocky” Fiegel: A Sad and Lonely Fate

According to Doms2cents, Fiegel died on March 24, 1947, at his home in Chester. He was 79 years old. His cause of death is not known, but some sources suggest that he suffered from tuberculosis or lung cancer. He was buried in the Evergreen Cemetery, next to his mother, in an unmarked grave. His obituary in the Chester Herald Tribune mentioned that he was the inspiration for Popeye, and that he was a “familiar character” in the town. However, he did not receive any official honors or tributes, and his death went largely unnoticed by the public.

According to Tuko, Fiegel’s grave remained unmarked until 1996, when a local fan club raised funds to erect a granite headstone with his name and a picture of Popeye. The headstone also reads “Inspiration for Popeye”, and has a quote from Segar: “To the memory of Frank ‘Rocky’ Fiegel who was many things to many people but who to me was the outstanding character I have ever known”. The fan club also organizes an annual celebration of Popeye and Fiegel, called Popeye Picnic, which attracts thousands of visitors to Chester. The town also has a Popeye museum, a Popeye statue, and a Popeye trail, which features several landmarks related to the character and his creator.

Frank “Rocky” Fiegel was a remarkable man who left a lasting impression on the world of comics and animation. He was the real-life Popeye, who embodied the spirit of adventure, humor, and resilience. He was also a tragic figure, who lived a hard and lonely life, and died without fame or fortune. He deserves to be remembered and honored, not only as the inspiration for Popeye, but also as a unique and fascinating individual. He was what he was, and that’s all that he was.