William "Billy" Costello

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William Arnold Costello
William Billy Costello 1942.jpg
Inscribed photograph of "Billy" Costello (1942)
William Arnold Costello

(1898-02-02)February 2, 1898
DiedOctober 9, 1971(1971-10-09) (aged 73)
Resting placeMariposa District Cemetery
Mariposa, California
OccupationStage actor, voice actor
Years active1921–1935
Known forPopeye

William Arnold "Billy" Costello (February 2, 1898 – October 9, 1971), commonly known as "Red Pepper Sam", was an American live and voice actor, and the original voice of Popeye the Sailor in animated cartoons.

Costello was born on February 2, 1898, in Rhode Island, to William E. and Susan B. (née Steere) Costello. In addition to voice acting, he worked as a vaudeville performer under the name "Red Pepper Sam". In the early 1930s he also played drums with the Fred Waring Orchestra. Costello had worked with the Fleischer Studios as the voice of Gus the Gorilla on the Betty Boop radio show, and they felt that the raspy voice he had used for that character would work for the new Popeye character they were planning.[1] He was cast to provide the voice for the first Popeye cartoon, 1933's Popeye the Sailor. Costello appeared in the next 24 Popeye shorts until he was fired by the Fleischers, allegedly over "bad behavior."[2] Although he never received onscreen credit, Costello knew of Popeye's international popularity and reputedly became difficult to work with, demanding more money and days off in the middle of a recording session. He was replaced with Jack Mercer who was working in the studio. Costello's final appearance as Popeye was in You Gotta Be a Football Hero (1935).

However, Costello wasn't prepared to give up the fame associated with voicing Popeye and billed as "The Original Voice of Popeye" he voiced 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) which, to avoid copyright problems in the USA, were only marketed overseas. For nearly a decade he was based in London.[3] With the start of World War II Costello returned to America where for a short period he toured the dinner theatre circuit before becoming largely forgotten. From 1959 until his death he managed a trailer park in San Jose, California, and here he died on October 9, 1971. He was buried in the Mariposa District Cemetery in Mariposa, California.[4]


  1. ^ Leslie Cabarga, The Fleischer Story, Da Capo Press 1988, ISBN 0-306-80313-5
  2. ^ Hurwitz, Matt (July 29, 2007), "Hey, Sailor! 'Popeye' Is Back in Port", Washington Post, pp. N02, retrieved 2009-02-06
  3. ^ Fleischer ‘Needle Drop’ Artists: Eddie Peabody and ‘Red Pepper’ Sam - Cartoon Research website
  4. ^ The Union Democrat

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