Popeye was inspired by a real man who never backed down from a fight
Creator E.C. Segar based his character on the toughest man in his hometown.
Elzie Crisler Segar was born in 1894 in the southern Illinois town of Chester. He grew up in the new century assisting his handyman father paint houses and working as a projectionist at a movie theater.
At the time, Chester had a local hero — or antagonizer, depending on your point of view. A man named Frank Fiegel, better known as Rocky, worked odd jobs around town and had a knack for getting into fistfights. Despite his violent nature, he loved kids and handed out candy whenever he got the chance.
Young Segar couldn't help but be inspired. Fiegel protected kids from any adults trying to harm them, even when it cost him. Fiegel's nephew told the Southern Illinoisan in 1979 about one encounter with a bully: "When Rocky started coming after him, he pulled a knife, but Rocky kept coming." Fiegel didn't let any cuts or bruises stop him from protecting anyone who was in trouble.
Fiegel wasn't exactly like Popeye. He was never a sailor and was "more inclined to guzzle liquor than spinach." But he did look a bit like the cartoon character (you can see a photo of him here in the upper right) and was inclined to fisticuffs. Unsurprisingly, many of his brawls happened in bars. Fiegel's nephew recalled a certain establishment that "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." Not afraid of anything, Fiegel "put on the gloves and knocked the guy out."
While the spinach and the seafaring occupation may have been added fictions, Fiegel did indeed smoke a pipe. Plus, the most important aspect of Popeye's character is his attitude and willingness to stand up to a bully. By all accounts, Segar took those aspects directly from Rocky Fiegel.
Originally laid to rest in an unmarked grave next to his mother's, Fiegel now has a headstone in Chester inscribed with an image of the original 1929 comic strip iteration of Popeye — the one said to bear the most resemblance to the real-life inspiration.