There was a time only someone paying really close attention to cartoon credits would have known who Jack Mercer was. And they still, at least in the 1960s, wouldn’t have known he was the voice of Popeye.
The folks at the Fleischer studio saw no need to credit any voice actors on its shorts. Neither did their successors when the Fleischer brothers were unceremoniously tossed out in 1942. So, for years, kids watched Popeye in the theatres and then on TV not having any idea who voiced the sailor man. And for most of his career, it was former assistant animator Mercer, who was moved into the story department and got his screen credit there.
Mercer became more than Popeye. He provided all kinds of incidental voices in various series produced by Fleischer and Famous (later Paramount) cartoon studios and was the entire voice cast for the Trans-Lux “bag of tricks” TV version of Felix the Cat. But his pre-Popeye career is blown off in a few sentences if you go hunting for information. If you believe some places on the internet, he was born Jack Mercer in New York City—neither of which is true. You’ll read of vaudevillian parents but they are not identified. So let’s dig through some official records and newspaper clippings and find out a few things.
Our starting point is Mercer’s marriage license given to him before he tied the knot with Margie Hines. Margie replaced Mae Questel as the voice of Olive Oyl when Mercer and the Fleischer studio packed up for Miami, leaving Questel to continue her acting career in New York. It reveals Mercer’s actual given name, though his WW2 enlistment papers have his name as “Jack.”
Knowing his name was really “Winfield” made it much easier to find him in census records and they show he was not born in New York at all but in Indiana. The 1910 Census has him, age two months, living with grandmother Maggie and a number of adult Mercers, including a Kilburn B. [sic] and Nola Mercer in Worthington. In 1920, he was with another grandmother, Bertha Allen, in Trenton, New Jersey. The only other Mercer in the census is named Bennett and we also find a Nola St. Claire and her younger sister Winifred. It turns out Bennett Kelburn Mercer and Nola St. Claire were Jack’s parents. And the story is true. For a time, they were in vaudeville together. In fact, his parents were married on stage, as the July 30, 1908 edition of the Decatur, Indiana newspaper reveals; they were in a company run by Bennett’s younger brother Charles. Bennett gave up show business by World War One—his enlistment papers reveal he was a mechanic at a Nash dealership—but Nola went to appear on Broadway and on the prestigious Keith circuit. She and Bennett divorced in 1922. He moved back to Indiana, remarried, and worked as a janitor. She and her mother packed up young Winfield and were living in Manhattan in 1930, with Bertha running a boarding house.
We’ll let Mercer himself pick up the story. The revelation of Mercer as the voice of Popeye made print on rare occasion during the theatrical days—mainly when he married “Olive Oyl”—but that changed when Hanna-Barbera decided to make new, toned down Popeye cartoons in 1978. As incredible as it may seem, the studio actually had Mercer audition for the role he began playing in 1934. Word that the long-time voice of Popeye would be returning potentially made good copy, especially since he played a character long used by you-must-think-as-we-do groups to pressure networks to emasculate Saturday morning cartoons.
Here are two of the wire service stories, the first by the National Enterprise Association that appeared in papers around August 13, 1978 and the other from United Press International.
Jack Mercer Resurrects ‘Popeye’ Cartoon Voice
By DICK KLEINER
HOLLYWOOD—After 44 years and more than 700 shorts, the voice of Popeye and Betty Boop and dozens of other cartoon characters is finally working in Hollywood.
His name is Jack Mercer and he is a shy, retiring and very modest man who just happens to have a tremendous range of voices at his beck and sound.
Now he’s working here, at the Hanna-Barbera Studio, where they have resurrected Popeye for a new series of Saturday morning cartoon shows. CBS will begin telecasting the new ones this coming fall.
It has been 18 years since any new “Popeye” shows were made, Mercer says. But he still can talk like the old sailor man that millions of us have heard.
It all began, for Jack Mercer, in New York in the early ‘30s. He has been born in Indiana to a family that had a traveling repertory company, the Winifred St. Clair Company. Miss St. Clair was an aunt.
The whole family was involved with the company. As a small boy, he went on whenever there was a play that called for a small boy.
“Despite that,” he says, “my folks didn’t want me to go into show business. I did, but I had to get in through a back door because of my parents’ disapproval. I was good at art, so that was my entry into show biz.”
He went to New York and got a job in the Max Fleischer Studio as an “opaquer,” a lowly person who does some of the backgrounds on animated cartoons. He worked his way up to “inker,” then “in-betweener,” both somewhat higher up the animation ladder.
At the time he started with Fleischer, the “Betty Boop” cartoons were the studio’s big thing. Then they added “Popeye,” and the first voice of the sailor man belonged to a singer named Red Pepper Sam Costello. He made the first six or so.
Jack Mercer, who always had a gift for mimicry, began imitating Red Pepper Sam’s Popeye voice. When the studio, for reasons Mercer never did know, decided to switch to a new voice, they heard Mercer and had him do it.
‘Popeye’ comeback slated with new cartoons next fall
By VERNON SCOTT
HOLLYWOOD, June 19 (UPI) — Popeye, the runty, one-eyed sailorman, is making a comeback next television season with 48 new cartoons for Saturday morning viewing.
The spinach-gobbling old tar will be less violent than in the old days, but he will look and sound the same as he did in 454 previous cartoons.
Popeye’s voice for the past 44 years has been Jack Mercer, a meek, mild-mannered New Yorker who would seem to have more in common with J. Wellington Wimpy than the scrappy little sailor. Mercer, in fact, also provided Wimpy’s voice in the old TV and movie cartoons.
AS CLOSELY associated with Popeye as he is, Mercer was not the original voice of the sailorman. In the beginning the raspy vocalizations were done by an odd-ball singer named “Red Pepper Sam” Costello.
Actually, Popeye’s voice was a switchover from Costello’s voice for Gus Gorilla on the “Betty Boop” radio show.
Costello passed up the Popeye vocals in 1933 due to a conflict in schedules and Mercer took over.
IN THE EARLY 1930s Mercer was a cartoonist working for the Max Fleisher Studio in New York, which was later bought out by Paramount. He was assigned to coloring and drawing Popeye panels for the movie cartoons.
“I began mimicking Popeye’s voice when I was in the inking department just to amuse my fellow cartoonists and to break up the monotony,” Mercer recalled.
“When Costello quit, the producers grabbed me and I’ve been doing Popeye ever since. But I also did the voice for 240 ‘Felix The Cat’ cartoons. I did the two other major characters in Felix films, too — the Professor and Rock Bottom, the villain.”
THE LAST Popeye cartoon was done 16 years ago, but Mercer kept his voice limber and his pocketbook heavy by doing Popeye’s voice for television commercials and on records.
When Hanna-Barbera, the world’s largest cartoon producers, bought rights to Popeye, auditions were held for the voices of Popeye, Olive Oyl, Wimpy and the others. Mercer came to Hollywood for the first time in his life earlier this year to give it a try.
“I’M THE ONLY returning voice,” he said, grinning. “Marilyn Schreffler will do Olive and Allen Melvin is doing the voice of Bluto, who used to be called Brutus. Daws Butler will provide a new voice and character for Wimpy.
“Alice the Goon, the Jeep, Sweetpea and the other characters will all be back for the new shows.”
In addition to 48 6½ minute shows, Hanna-Barbera will produce 16 11-minute cartoons for CBS-TV Saturday morning programming.
“MY VOICE work for the new cartoons is more or less a sideline right now,” Mercer said. “My main job is writing the scripts and doing the story boards for the shows.
“The difficulty is cutting down on the violence. Popeye never did hurt anyone unless it was absolutely necessary. But the silly part of it is, the old violent shows are still being seen on TV all over the country and nobody objects. It doesn’t make sense to impose different rules on the new ones.
“I’ve re-recorded the opening song for the new shows. And instead of using the old boat whistle to punctuate ‘I’m Popeye The Sailorman Toot-Toot’ I do the whistle myself.
“THE CARTOONS are more difficult to do these days for the people providing the voices. In the old days we were given the drawings first and then recorded our voices for the sound track.
“These days we record the dialogue first. It’s harder to do the ad libs and make the funny little asides and mumblings that are so very much a part of the Popeye character before you saw in the pictures.
“We don’t have as much time to rehearse as we used to. There’s less time to familiarize yourself with the script and to work out something appropriate and funny for the ad libs.”
MERCER IS convinced Popeye is a universal hero, the underdog who finally tires of being pushed around and asserts himself. With the help of a can of spinach, of course.
"Popeye is a basic American character,” said Mercer. “He has high moral standards. He tries to talk the villain out of his evil ways before belting him out. And he is forever defending Olive Oyl’s virtue.
“The popularity of Popeye reruns over the years is responsible for all the new shows. Both the movie cartoons and the cartoons made for television are still being shown on the tube.
“THERE WERE 234 theatrical segments made for theaters and 220 episodes made for television by King Features. As I recall, the first ones done in color were in 1936.
“I’m sure millions of dollars will be made on merchandising deals that will go along with the new cartoons. I’m not a big collector of Popeye memorabilia, but I do have some Popeye greeting cards, posters and dolls back in my New York home. I imagine I’ll be adding to my collection in the next few years.”
Mercer wasn’t the only voice of Popeye after he took over from Costello. He enlisted in the military on July 13, 1943 (stating he had completed two years of high school) and spent two years overseas. Naturally, he couldn’t exactly fly back to New York for voice sessions so Harry Welch performed Popeye’s role (Mae Questel claimed she had as well). But there was someone else. Ferman Wilson’s column in the Miami News of June 11, 1939 quoted Pinto Colvig, then a writer and actor at Fleischer’s:
“By the way,” he added, “did Hamp Howard tell you how they got him to talk for Popeye in the last release, as a sub for Jack Mercer? Did a good job, too, but he hasn’t paid me my 10 per cent commission yet.” It was Hamp’s first effort as a star.
Hampton W. Howard and his wife Edna were both in public relations and had an apartment at 277 Park Avenue in Manhattan in 1940. How long he was in Florida is unknown but he had spent some of his teenaged years in Georgia. The reference to him voicing Popeye is puzzling in that the “last release” was “Wotta Nitemare” (in theatres by May 19, 1939) and it sounds like Mercer in the role. But as Mercer and Hines were married the previous March 3rd, he may have been occupied with something other than studio business for a bit.
Mercer and Hines divorced (they were still married in March 1944 as a newspaper story refers to Mrs. Mercer working on the Grumman assembly line) and Margie disappeared from the animation scene. Thanks mainly to his work at Hanna-Barbera years later, Mercer enjoyed the spotlight until his death at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York on December 4, 1984 at age 74.
Incidentally, our Winfield B. Mercer doesn’t appear to be related to former major league pitcher Winfield B. Mercer who killed himself in a San Francisco hotel in 1903, leaving behind a note warning his friends to “Beware of women and a game of chance.” In fact, his name wasn’t Winfield Mercer at all; he was born George Barclay Mercer but went by “Win.” It seems Jack né Win balanced the scales a bit.