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William Arnold “Billy” Costello

Entertainer. He was the original voice of Popeye the Sailor in animated films. A comic scat singer and ukulele player, he appeared in vaudeville under the names Red Pepper Sam or Billy Costello. In the early 1930s he also played drums with the Fred Waring Orchestra. Cartoon producer Max Fleischer used Costello’s 1931 novelty recording of “You’re Nobody’s Sweetheart Now” for his film “Betty Boop M.D.” (1932), and chose him to play Popeye when he brought the comic strip character to the screen the following year. Costello voiced the spinach-eating swab in 26 cartoons, from his debut in “Popeye the Sailor” (1933) to “You Gotta Be a Football Hero” (1935), creating his gravelly tones, under-the-breath mutterings and high staccato laugh. In the course of the series he used his real voice only once, in “Sock-a-Bye Baby” (1934), singing a lullaby that evolves into an eccentric yodel. Although he never received onscreen credit, Costello was aware of Popeye’s immense popularity and became difficult to work with. “Success went to his head so fast it was ridiculous”, fellow Fleischer voice artist Mae Questel recalled. He was abruptly fired in 1935 after demanding a raise and a  vacation in the middle of a recording session. Jack Mercer replaced him and would play the role for over 40 years. Costello didn’t relinquish his claim to fame so easily. Billing himself as “The Original Voice of Popeye”, he impersonated the character on a European stage tour and made several recordings for the Columbia, Decca, and Rex labels, including “Popeye the Sailor Man” (1935), “Blow the Man Down” (1935), “Tiger Rag” (1936), and “The Merry Go Round Broke Down” (1937). These were issued in overseas markets only, apparently to avoid copyright infringement issues in the US. The start of World War II brought him back to America, where he briefly did the dinner theatre circuit before fading into obscurity. From 1959 until his death he managed a trailer park in San Jose, California. Costello’s obituaries falsely claimed he had played Popeye in films for 25 years. A now faded image of the sailor is engraved on his tombstone. (bio by: Bobb Edwards)  Family links:  Parents:  William E. Costello (1872 – 1928)  Susan B. Steere Costello (1871 – 1955) Inscription:Original voice of Popeye

Born

  • February, 02, 1898
  • USA

Died

  • October, 10, 1971
  • USA

Cemetery

  • Mariposa District Cemetery
  • California
  • USA

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