Billy “Red Pepper Sam” Costello: The First Popeye

Rhode Island born William “Billy” Costello (1898-1971) started out in vaudeville under the moniker “Red Pepper Sam”, playing the uke, singing and scatting. In his early days he worked with Ginger Rogers and had been a drummer in Paul Whiteman’s and Fred Waring’s orchestras.

In 1930 he got a job doing voiceovers at Fleischer Studios. Costello’s biggest claim to fame arrived in 1933, when he was tapped to provide the original voice of Popeye, establishing the raspy template that would remain in all remaining characterizations. He provided the voice in close to 30 Popeye cartoons until he was let go in 1935, ostensibly for being difficult to work with. He was replaced by Jack Mercer, who was the voice of Popeye in cartoons for decades thereafter.

After leaving Fleischer, Costello provided the voice of Officer Pup in one 1936 Krazy Kat short and did a small amount of other voice over work. After this he toured Europe as “The Original Voice of Popeye” performing the character live in theatres. Records were also sold to foreign markets featuring Costello performing his Popeye voice. In the ’40s, with war raging across Europe, he returned to the states to perform in nightclubs. His last decade was spent managing a trailer park in California.

To find out more about the history of vaudeville, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,