Even if you’ve never seen one of these cartoons, you’ve probably got a good idea what they sound like. The cast, including Jack Mercer as Popeye and Mae Questel as Olive Oyl, have burned their distinctive voices into the background radiation of pop culture.
But Olive is far from the only iconic role Questel played in her long career. As the voice of Betty Boop (a character also based on her appearance), she was already Fleischer’s top star before they got the “Popeye” contract, and she’d continue playing both characters the rest of her life. You may have also seen her in front of the camera in the musical classic “Funny Girl,” or in her final roles as Woody Allen’s mother in “New York Stories” and Chevy Chase’s aunt Bethany in “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation.”
On a 1978 talk show appearance, Questel said she based Olive’s voice on the always-flustered Zasu Pitts. “I saw a storyboard and nearly fainted. Look at that face, and the legs and the whole bit,” she recalled. “Max Fleischer said to me, ‘Mae, what kind of voice should she have?’ At the time, I did dogs, cats, you name it.”
There’s one other iconic role in her resumé you might not expect. In “Of Mice and Magic,” Leonard Maltin writes about how Mercer’s bosses at Famous Studios got around his absence when he was serving in World War II by saving up backlogs of scripts for him to record whenever he got a furlough. But that wasn’t always enough, so they did some creative reshuffling and had Questel play both Popeye and Olive in a couple of shorts.
“We had a Popeye all set up, right at the recording studio. This man had been on the stage; he had the know-how and he had the voice. But he got mic fright,” Questel recalled of those cartoons. “Here we are at the RCA studios, trying to get through, so I stepped in. And of course, the engineer did a little engineering, but I sounded like ‘Woah, blow me down!'”