He Wasn't Always a Sailor Man. Here's the Surprisingly Complicated Military Career of Popeye

Robin Williams Shelley Duvall Popeye
Shelley Duvall and Robin Williams in director Robert Altman's movie "Popeye." (Paramount)

Anyone who grew up on the Popeye television series thinks of him as a Navy sailor. But that's not where he started in E.C. Segar's original comic strip back in 1929, and he took a couple of surprising detours before his joining the U.S. Navy.

It's the 40th anniversary of director Robert Altman's musical movie "Popeye," starring Robin Williams in his first major movie role. Paramount has just issued the movie on Blu-ray for the first time with new bonus features detailing the movie's complicated production in Malta.

After Popeye, Williams went on to become one of the USO's most beloved performers, spending time with troops all over the world and making a lasting impact before his death in 2014. His other military-related roles include “Good Morning, Vietnam,” Dwight D. Eisenhower in “Lee Daniels’ The Butler” and Teddy Roosevelt in the “Night at the Museum” movies.

Popeye I'm in the Army Now
Popeye in "I'm in the Army Now" (Paramount)

Back to Segar's original Popeye. His first brush with military service came in the 1936 short "In the Army Now." Popeye and his nemesis Bluto set out to enlist in the Army but get into a fistfight in the recruiter's office. Popeye (as usual) wins the fight and struts out of the office before remembering to sign his papers. He never goes back, and the world was spared "Popeye the Army Man."

Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves
"Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves" (Paramount)

In 1937 when he appeared in the two-reel feature "Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba's Forty Thieves," Popeye was serving in the Coast Guard and deployed to foil the evil plans of terrorist "Abu Hassan" (aka Bluto) in the Middle East.

Segar died in 1938 from leukemia but the King Features Syndicate controlled the rights to the character and has hired a series of artists to continue the strip and movie appearances.

Popeye The Mighty Navy
Popeye in "The Mighty Navy" (Paramount)

In 1941 and in his 100th short, Popeye finally enlisted in the Navy in "The Mighty Navy" and put on the white crackerjack uniform for the first time. He stayed in uniform until 1978 when he went back to his original outfit but kept the Navy's "Dixie Cup" hat instead of the yachting cap that he wore in the early comics.

That means the Army, Coast Guard and Navy can all make some claim on the beloved character. Since the Air Force didn't yet exist during his peak years, that leaves the Marine Corps on the outside looking in. Still, it's not hard to imagine a Space Force Popeye reboot so maybe there's still hope that we'll see him in yet another uniform.

The Robin Williams version of Popeye is strongly based on the original character. He's a commercial seaman who arrives in the mysterious town of Seahaven as he searches for a father who abandoned him at a young age. He meets Olive Oyl (Shelley Duval) and falls in love, stealing Olive away from her fiancé Bluto (Paul L. Williams) and setting up the dynamic that continued throughout the strip's and cartoon's history. The movie also features Navy vet Paul Dooley as Wimpy the hamburger-loving mooch.

Released after the overwhelming success of the first two Christopher Reeve Superman movies, Popeye was a much weirder movie that was never going to match the mainstream success of a superhero movie. Harry Nilsson's songs weren't upbeat Broadway-style tunes and WWII veteran Altman's movies always featured a complicated sound mix with characters talking over each other and sometimes making it hard to follow what's going on.

Popeye Blu-ray

The documentaries included in the new release reveal that "Popeye" found its audience on home video and kids who grew up in the '80s and '90s know the movie well from repeated viewing on VHS.

The movie Popeye may not yet be in uniform but he's still a salty man of the sea. The film may not have made Robin Williams a big movie star, but that acclaim definitely arrived for him just a few years later with "Good Morning, Vietnam." Looking back now, all the skills that would transform him for one-note Mork to a beloved movie actor are on display here and that makes "Popeye" worth another look.

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