The inside view on why Popeye eats his spinach and why he never ages
With his two-fisted approach to problem-solving and his vegetarian diet, Popeye may be the perfect hero for the ’80s. The thought has earned some public support. Last spring, when cartoonist Forrest “Bud” Sagendorf published Popeye: The First Fifty Years (Workman Publishing Co., $8.95), he was swamped with so many phone calls from admirers that for the first time in a long career of keeping Popeye in plots and spinach he had to ask for an unlisted telephone number.
Popeye sails into his 51st year this month, with a Saturday morning CBS cartoon series and a movie that starts production this week. Comedian Robin Williams will play the knobby-kneed sailor, Shelley Duvall is Olive Oyl, and Paul Smith (the warden in Midnight Express) is the ferocious Bluto. Director Robert Altman will shoot the Jules Feiffer script, with songs by Harry Nilsson, on the island of Malta.
Sagendorf did not create Popeye, but no one has a better claim to the title of stepfather. When Bud was 3 his father died and the family moved from Wenatchee, Wash. to Santa Monica, where Bud’s mother bought a beauty parlor. Bud grew up reading comics. “I liked them all, from Rube Goldberg to Happy Hooligan,” he says. “By the time I was 7 I was determined to become a cartoonist.
As a teenager he used to paint crude Popeye portraits onto the leather jackets of his classmates for 25 cents. His older sister, Helen (who nicknamed him Bud), worked in an art supply store and introduced him to Elzie Crisler Segar, creator of Popeye and one of her regular customers. Segar hired Bud as an apprentice in 1932 for $50 a week. “I did erasing, inking, lettering and eventually I became an idea man,” Bud recalls. “We would go rowboat fishing off the Santa Monica breakwater to discuss ideas. It was five days of fishing for every two of work, because the mechanical part was easy.
“Segar had no idea of the popularity of the character,” Bud says. “He didn’t know people were quoting Popeye and Wimpy on the street.” When Segar died in 1938, King Features Syndicate, which bought the strip, decided Sagendorf, then 23, was too inexperienced to take over. The job went instead to a succession of illustrators and writers. Bud was transferred to New York, where for the next 20 years he drew 250 original Popeye comic books and developed a succession of Popeye toys and games. In 1958 King Features finally gave him the daily and Sunday strip, which currently runs in 250 newspapers and is translated into 20 languages.
Bud still keeps to the peculiar schedule he learned from Segar. So does his wife, Nadia, his high school sweetheart, who has had 40 years of marriage to accustom herself to it. They start work at 7 p.m. and quit at 4 a.m., sleeping till noon. While Bud draws, Nadia answers the mail. One frequent question is why Popeye eats spinach. “It’s only a handle to give a logical excuse for his strength,” Sagendorf explains. Another query that annoys Bud is why Popeye doesn’t age. “Nobody tries to age Tom Sawyer or Penrod,” he says.
The Sagendorfs live in a modest house in rural Connecticut. A salaried employee of the syndicate for 42 years, he never earned any royalties until last year, when his Popeye book sold 53,000 copies in its first printing and was chosen by the Book-of-the-Month Club. “I’m not rich,” he says, but he isn’t complaining. “All King asks is that you remember who your audience is and use good taste.”
Forty-eight years of bending over a drawing board have given Bud severe sciatica and bursitis attacks, but these are not sufficient reason to retire. “All cartoonists have back problems,” he explains, and adds, “Unlike old soldiers, old cartoonists don’t fade away. If it’s in your blood, you can’t stop. If you do, you’ll just go out like a candle.”