For 51 years Jack Mercer was the voice of Popeye and contributed much more to the animated version of the famous Sailor.
Born in 1910, Mercer came into the world a child of a theatrical family. His parents performed in vaudeville traveling the country and Jack himself made his stage debut at a young age adopting the stage name "Baby Winfield". He continued to perform into his early twenties when his parents, seeing that Vaudeville was dying, encouraged their son to find another profession.
Jack loved to draw so he became an inbetweener at the Fleischer Bros. Studio in New York City. Max and Dave Fleischer (Producers of Betty Boop Cartoons) started producing Popeye cartoons in 1933 and was having tremendous success with the series.
Billy Costello was the original voice of Popeye and due to the success of the cartoons, became very popular. The success went to his head and started making demands on the Fleischer Brothers.
After a couple of years, The Fleischer's (having enough of Costello's prima donna attitude) fired him and the search was on for a new voice artist for Popeye.
Now as the story goes, Jack Mercer (having a great gift of mimicry) used to entertain his co-workers with his impersonations of movie stars, radio stars and his fellow employees. He would also imitate sound effects and more importantly, Popeye.
One day when Lou Fleischer was walking through the Art Department, he overheard Mercer doing Popeye. He went to his brothers and told them that he had found Popeye's new voice. They had Mercer audition and he won the role, beginning his long association with the Cartoon Sailor.
Mercer had a better vocal range than Costello, and could reflect all forms of emotion using his voice. He could also sing better as the Sailor which would serve him well in his first cartoon as Popeye, "King of the Mardi Gras".
Jack would also add-lid additional dialogue in the cartoons, making it sound like Popeye was mumbling under his breath some funny comments on what was taking place in the cartoon. Mercer came up with these ad-libs on his own and The Fleischer's, enjoying what they heard, assigned Jack to the Story Department to help out with scripts.
In the early 1940's, Mercer started submitting full scripts to the Story Department and began writing for the Popeye Cartoons as well. Now Jack Mercer was talking for Popeye, writing for him, and as an artist, became the only voice artist in the Golden Age of Hollywood to be able to draw the character he was giving voice to.
Above and below are samples of Jack's drawings of Popeye.
In 1943, The Fleischer's lost control of the studio to Paramount Pictures, the distributors of their cartoons. Paramount renamed the company Famous Studios and continued making Popeye cartoons and others as well.
Mercer, after serving in World War II, returned to Famous to write and speak for Popeye. He also began to do voice work and write for other cartoons for the studio as well. Mercer spoke for Popeye in 192 theatrical cartoons and wrote 34 scripts for the Sailor.
In 1960 King Features Syndicate, the owners of the Popeye copyright, began producing Popeye Cartoons for television. Again Mercer was hired to voice Popeye and write for him. 220 cartoons were made for TV.
Jack Mercer also gave voice to Felix the Cat for his TV series and his cartoon co-stars. Mercer also wrote scripts for Milton the Monster and Deputy Dawg.
In 1978 Hanna-Barbera, creators of Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear and The Flintstones, wanted to bring back the One-eyed Sailor to TV. After getting approval from King Features, Hanna-Barbera began producing new Popeye Cartoons for Saturday Morning Television. Once again Jack Mercer was back giving voice to Popeye and writing his animated adventures.
During this time Mercer suffered a heart attack. He survived the attack and part of his rehabilitation was to continue speaking for Popeye. Hanna-Barbera set-up a special recording studio at the Hospital and Jack recorded his dialogue while he was recuperating.
Jack Mercer is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the Voice Artist to work on a single character the longest. Mercer recorded Popeye's voice for Cartoon Shorts, Radio, Television, Children's Records, Commercials and Public Address Announcements.
Out of all the people to work on Popeye in any medium (film, print, comics, etc.), Jack Mercer has the distinction of being with The Sailor the longest.
Elzie Segar created Popeye. Bud Sagendorf was his Step-Father. Max and Dave Fleischer gave him animated life. Jack Mercer gave Popeye not only his voice, but character, heart, and a soul.
Today, January 13, is the 99th Anniversary of Jack Mercer's birth. Let's celebrate Jack's Birthday as we celebrate Popeye's 80th Birthday.